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Thomas Ashe dies on hunger strike in Mountjoy Jail
Colour lithographic print, featuring the original 1917 painting by Leo Whelan of Thomas Ashe, wearing a kilt, made of green material and playing the uileann pipes. Photo: National Library of Ireland, PD ASHE-TH (1) III

Thomas Ashe dies on hunger strike in Mountjoy Jail

Dublin, 26 September 1917 - Thomas Ashe has died.

The 1916 rebel leader, who was serving a one year prison sentence in Mountjoy Jail, died at 10.30pm yesterday in the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, where he had been admitted five hours earlier in a very weak condition. Diminished by hunger strike, the damage to his system was exacerbated by forcible feeding by the prison authorities. 

The deceased had been taken by cab to the hospital at 3pm yesterday and was attended to by the hospital staff, alongside the Sisters of Mercy and the hospital chaplain, Rev. T.J. Murray, who administered the last rites to Ashe before his death.

A police report outlining incendiary sentiments being expressed at Sinn Féin meetings in the days following Thomas Ashe's death. At Kells on 26 September, Frank Thornton said: 'Commandant Thomas Ashe was murdered in Mountjoy Prison. We intend to see this matter out. We want an Irish Republic in Ireland - we mean it and we will have it. Let England beweare. There are thousands of men in Ireland ready, not alone to go to gaol, but to take the rifle and do as they did in Easter Week.' Click image to enlarge. (Image: National Archives, UK)

Ashe’s death is certain to further inflame an already volatile political atmosphere. An Irish Independent editorial is adamant that should ‘more ill-feeling’ arise as a result of the shock death, ‘the authorities... will, to a great extent, be responsible’.

The ‘forcible method’ by which Mr Ashe had been fed was ‘revolting’, the editorial claimed:

‘It is obvious that long before his removal to hospital he was in a critical condition. So much is clear from the fact that he survived only five hours after his admission to the hospital.By their negligence in not removing him sooner to a place where he would have been humanely treated the authorities have incurred a grave responsibility.’

Life and work
The 35 year-old Ashe was the son of a farmer from Lispole in Dingle, Co. Kerry, but has been teaching in Lusk, Co. Dublin, for several years.

A member of the Coiste Gnótha of the Gaelic League, he was an accomplished piper and singer who possessed a deep knowledge of folk songs and airs.

He was also central to the development of Irish separatist politics in recent years. Most notably, he commanded the Volunteer forces at Ashbourne during the 1916 rebellion, for which he was tried by court-martial and condemned to death – a sentence that was subsequently commuted to penal servitude for life.

Dr John Gibney gives an account of the action at Ashbourne during the Easter Rising in 1916

After spending time as a prisoner in Dartmoor, Lewes and Portland, Thomas Ashe was released in the general amnesty on 17 June. He was re-arrested in August for delivering a seditious speech at Ballinalee, Co. Longford on 25 July and at his subsequent court-martial on 4 September, he declined to recognise the authority of the court. The police gave evidence to the effect that he encouraged his friends at a Sinn Féin meeting to ‘train, arm, and equip themselves’.

Despite contesting the evidence, Mr Ashe was taken to Mountjoy Prison, where he began a hunger strike.

[Editor's note: This is an article from Century Ireland, a fortnightly online newspaper, written from the perspective of a journalist 100 years ago, based on news reports of the time.]

RTÉ

Century Ireland

The Century Ireland project is an online historical newspaper that tells the story of the events of Irish life a century ago.