January 12, 1885 saw the birth of Thomas Ashe, a most beloved poet, piper and patriot in Ireland’s cause of independence. He was born in Lispole, Co. Kerry and educated in the nearby town of Dingle where he attended Ardamore National School. After completing his education there, he began a five year term as assistant teacher in Ardamore. His deep interest in the Irish language and culture led him to become an active member of the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Gaelic League, an organization devoted to the revival of all things Gaelic. He entered De La Salle Training College in Waterford in 1905 at the age of twenty to train as a national teacher. After qualification he began his teaching career at Corduff National School near the village of Lusk, just north of Dublin in 1908. He taught himself the bagpipe and founded the award-winning Lusk Black Raven Pipe Band in 1910. He also formed the Round Tower GAA hurling and football club.
Through his links with the Gaelic League, Ashe was recruited for the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). An eager participant, he rose quickly through the ranks and Douglas Hyde, president of the Gaelic League, attempted to expel him and other members for their militant stand. However, he was well respected by the IRB which chose him to visit America on a fund-raising trip. It was during this trip that he contacted such Fenian leaders as John Devoy and Joe McGarrity. Upon his return to Ireland and the National School in Corduff, he began training a group of local men to fight in the event of an insurrection. He was meticulous in preparing and practicing tactics with his troop. In 1913, He became a founding member of the Irish Volunteers and in 1915 he was elected Commandant of its 5th Battalion in Fingal, north of Dublin. To Ashe the opportunity of rising in arms for Ireland was “an honor only few generations of the people of Ireland” received.
Commanding the Fingal battalion, Ashe led the only successful action of the 1916 Easter Rising. His force of 60-70 men engaged British forces north of Dublin and won a major victory in Ashbourne, County Meath. There they engaged a much larger force capturing a significant quantity of arms, 20 Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) vehicles and 90 RIC prisoners, losing only two volunteers during the five-and-a-half-hour battle. Twenty four hours after the rising collapsed, Ashe’s battalion surrendered on the orders of Padraic Pearse. On 8 May 1916, Ashe and Éamon de Valera were court-martialled and both were sentenced to death. The sentences were commuted to penal servitude for life and Ashe was imprisoned in Lewes Prison in England. With the entry of the US into World War I in April 1917, the British government was put under pressure to solve the ‘Irish problem’. De Valera, Ashe and Thomas Hunter led a prisoner hunger strike on 28 May 1917 to add to this pressure. With accounts of prison mistreatment appearing in the Irish and American press and mounting protests in Ireland, Ashe and the remaining prisoners were freed on 18 June 1917 by Lloyd George as part of a general amnesty.
Upon release, Ashe returned to Ireland and began a series of speaking engagements. In August 1917, he was arrested and charged with sedition for a speech that he made in Ballinalee, Co. Longford with Michael Collins. Now President of the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Ashe found himself back behind bars. Sentenced to two years at Mountjoy prison in Dublin, Ashe was denied the basic rights that he expected as a political prisoner and was instead forced to undertake hard labor alongside common criminals. Ashe and other prisoners demanded prisoner of war status and again went on hunger strike on 20 September 1917. The authorities retaliated by taking away the prisoners’ beds, bedding and boots. After six days lying on a cold stone floor, the prisoners were subjected to forcible feeding. On 25th September, Fionan Lynch saw Ashe being carried away to receive this treatment and called out to him: ‘Stick it Tom boy‘. Ashe called back ‘I’ll stick it, Fin‘. That was the last time they spoke to each other. Ashe had his hands and feet bound while a rubber tube was forcibly placed into his mouth and down his throat and food forced into him. He was carried back to his cell, blue in the face and unconscious. He was taken to Mater Hospital where he died within a few hours – the first Republican prisoner to die as a result of a hunger strike in defiance of a system that sought to criminalize the battle for Irish independence.
At the inquest into his death, the jury condemned the staff at the prison for the “inhuman and dangerous operation performed on the prisoner, and other acts of unfeeling and barbaric conduct“. He was 32 years old. Ashe’s death prompted a significant increase in support for the Republican movement. His body lay in state at Dublin City Hall and his funeral was followed by 30,000 people, led by armed Volunteers in uniform, as it made its way to Glasnevin Cemetery. It was the first public funeral after the Easter Rising of 1916 and Michael Collins gave the short, but powerful graveside oration after a volley of shots were fired, “Nothing additional remains to be said. That volley which we have just heard is the only speech which it is proper to make above the grave of a dead Fenian.”
Thomas was survived by a cousin, Catherine Ashe, the paternal grandmother of American actor Gregory Peck, and his name survives today on Ashe Memorial Hall, housing the Kerry County Museum, and Ashe Street in Tralee and he sleeps in Glasnevinn beside Peadar Kearney, author of the Irish National Anthem, and Piaras Béaslaí close comrade of Michael Collins.