Thomas Ashe; Kerryman;Lost Leader Of Ireland; Irish Martyr And A Man Of Many Talents
A famous Irish song commemorates an eighteen year youth who laid down his life for Ireland in 1920. The youth was Kevin Barry and the song is as popular in 2017 as it was when first launched in 1921. The author of the song was never certified.
This popularity is not surprising considering the national and international outcry and fall-out against the English Government who ordered his execution by hanging at Mountjoy Prison.
Another Irish martyr who laid down his life for his country in that same era and although he is not forgotten, his memory is not as prominent as that of Kevin Barry.
The circumstances surrounding the death of Kerry Fenian and Irish martyr, Thomas Stack in 1917, were as tragic as the death of Kevin Barry, yet the lifestory of Thomas Ashe requires greater preservation for current and future Irish generations.
The incorporation and induction of Thomas Ashe into our historic collection of Famous Sons & Daughters Of Ireland will preserve and promote his memory around the globe amongst Irish people, Irish exiles and people of Irish ancestry.
Kinard East near Dingle in West Kerry, was the birthplace of Thomas Ashe on 12th January 1885. Reared in a household embroidered in the passion for Irish history, literature and music and in a family prospering the Irish language, it was inevitable that all of the Stack family were Irish nationalists.
In Kerry the G.A.A. was a brand new sporting association when Thomas Stack was born just one year after the founding of the new association in 1884. Like many more Kerry children of the 19th century, playing the national game of gaelic football was an everyday way of life and Thomas Ashe grew into the native sport very quickly.
Another important Irish asset of the 19th century was The Gaelic League which sought to preserve and promote the Irish language and again Thomas excelled in his mastering of the native tongue.
He became a popular and successful primary school pupil and advanced his education to become a school teacher, like his father before him.
In the Ireland of the early 20th century, a great desire was fostering for a free and united 32 county Island Of Ireland after 800 years of English rule and youths like Thomas Ashe believed they could play their part in the fight for freedom.
Appointed to a teaching post in Dublin after graduation, Thomas did not favour a foreign invader flying their national flag in Ireland. That flag was the Union Jack.
It was reported that Thomas, the schoolmaster, laid the Union Jack flag on the soil of the school playground and invited his pupils to tarnish the flag by walking upon it. This act symbolised the burning nationalist pride in Thomas Ashe that would finally cost him his young life in 1917.
The Gaelic League, though its doctrines were not intended to be political, was an association with many men and women who exchanged their love of the Irish language for their political advances. Foremost in that category was Thomas Ashe.
He rose to the top tier in the Gaelic League and despite pleas from Douglas Hyde and others to keep politics out of the movement, Thomas and his comrades in the Irish Republican Brotherhood overwhelmed their colleagues and succeeded in using the Gaelic League as a recruitment base for the I.R.B.
When the Irish Volunteers were founded on 25th November 1913 Thomas Ashe was soon in their ranks as an important figure and greatly respected. Appointed Commander of the 5th Battalion of the Dublin Volunteers in Dublin north, the profile of Thomas was now on a steady upwards climb and he was envisaged as a potential national leader by his colleagues.
The 1916 Dublin Easter Rising, under the command of Pádraig Pearse, was the instrument that would cost Thomas Ashe his young life. On Easter Monday he marshaled a garrison of sixty volunteers and under the instruction of Pearse, he was commanded to immobilise the communication systems of the enemy troops heading for Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) Dublin, and alongside Thomas was the legendary Richard Mulcahy.
Both men plotted attacks on R.I.C. Barracks leading into the city centre causing confusion amongst British Army officers and within the higher ranks of the Royal Irish Constabulary. However, moving away from Dublin city, Thomas and Richard advanced on Ashbourne, Co. Meath, and approaching the Meath town, their target was the R.I.C. Barracks.
The Ashbourne date was Friday 28th April 1916 and in the midst of the Irish Volunteers raid, a motorised brigade of British officers numbering over fifty, appeared on the horizon. Ashe and Mulcahy quickly decided to split their men into three separate groups.
Outflanked and outwitted by the Irish Volunteers, the British troops came under rapid fire and when a headcount was completed, the fatal casualties resulted in the death of eight British officers and fifteen more seriously wounded.
The Irish brigade lost two men and recorded a victory hailed as a gallant morale booster for the Irish cause. The Ashbourne success was a template for many more similar attacks by the Irish Volunteers in the following years.
Tuesday 29th April 1916 would become a landmark date in Irish political history. This was the day that Pádraig Pearse surrendered his control of Dublin’s G.P.O. against the unstoppable might of the British Empire.
News of Pearse’s surrender was conveyed to Thomas Ashe and Richard Mulcahy. On the following day, 30th April 2016, Thomas Ashe and his garrison of gallant Irishmen were forced to lay down their arms.
A courtmartial awaited Thomas Ashe and like Pearse and the other Easter Rising leaders, Thomas Ashe was sentenced to death by firing squad.
The British generals had ordered Eamon de Valera and Thomas Ashe to be executed on the same day. However by now the British barbarism of executions had received worldwide attention and Westminster ordered the two executions to be commuted to life sentences.
Thomas Ashe stated whilst awaiting his execution, that in his silent hours contemplating his death, he found it to be “ A Beautiful Experience” reflecting on his life and what lay in front of him.
Literature and poetry were huge subjects he embraced and during his incarceration he penned “Let Me Carry Your Cross For Ireland, Lord”.
Following the death amnesty, Thomas Ashe was transported to England and incarcerated at Lewis jail in Sussex and joined many more encaged at the jail.
As an acknowledged negotiator, his Irish comrades at the jail made him their President. He found great company in the person of famous Corkman, Michael Collins, and the two struck up a profitable association within the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Both men were noted for their exceptional abilities in organising.
In June 1917, another landmark decision was made by their captors. The imprisoned Irishmen in custody in England after the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin were to be released.
Meantime back in Ireland Arthur Griffith had founded a new political movement “Sinn Féin” and the new party was making rapid inroads on the Irish Parliamentary Party under John Redmond.
On release Ashe and de Valera returned to Dublin and they were now widely regarded by their peers as potential leaders of a free and united Ireland.
The Easter Rising had many critics amongst their own Irish kindred but the slaughter of the leaders gave rise to great British condemnation, not only in Ireland, but also in far off lands.
Sinn Féin, the new party, now had the wind at their backs and opportunity knocked to take on the establishments. Thomas Ashe was courted to stand for Sinn Féin in an upcoming Clare by-election. However he declined the invitation and stated de Valera was the man to lead the troops.
The Dingle native was one of the finest orators when speaking on republican issues and his major Sinn Féin contribution lay in his ability to convince Irish people, that Sinn Féin meant business.
Journeying around Ireland in 1917 on a mission to convey Sinn Féin as an upcoming powerful voice in Irish politics, the British Government feared Thomas Ashe would become a thorn too many and ordered his capture for public incitement.
A Longford public oration was cited against him, and Thomas Ashe as a consequence was sentenced to two years hard labour at Mountjoy Prison, Dublin. Joining forty more republican prisoners at the infamous Mountjoy, prison life was cruel and though fighting for Irish freedom and human rights, these men were denied political prisoner status.
Thomas Ashe and his noble colleagues decided on a hunger strike and commenced their unwanted strike on Thursday 20th September 1917. The hunger strike received global publicity and despite a visit from Dublin’s Lord Mayor, to come off his fast, Thomas Ashe had set his own goal. He refused to call off his protest and humanely declared “No; they have branded me a criminal. Even though I do die, I die in a good cause”.
On that same fateful day the Mountjoy prison officers were ordered to force feed Thomas and his colleagues on strike alongside him. The Irishmen were strapped to chairs with their hands bound in rope as the officers rammed down their throats a milk and raw eggs mixture.
Another landmark date was Tuesday 25th September 1917 and this proved to be a day when prison officers again force-fed Thomas and his colleagues. Struggling against impossible odds, the Kerryman collapsed as the food made its way into his lungs causing immense breathing problems.
He was transferred to The Mater Hospital, Dublin, but alas the damage inflicted, resulted in his untimely death at 10.30pm that same Tuesday night.
As the morning dawn emerged over Dublin, news of the death of one of Sinn Féin’s greatest leaders, Thomas Ashe, broke, as people all over Ireland could scarcely believe, another great and famous Irishman had passed away.
An inquest was ordered and the verdict was “inhuman punishment”.
Three Irish volunteer parties united in grief for his funeral, Sinn Féin, Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish Volunteers, all parties graced by Thomas Ashe during his political life.
Stunned into mortal grief but not silenced, Michael Collins and his peers set up a funeral service and procession, regarded as one of the largest funerals ever witnessed in Dublin.
Interred at “The Republican Plot” at Glasnevin Cemetry, Dublin, the Kerry and Irish Fenian leader left a rich legacy enshrined in Irish history. Thomas Ashe, had he lived longer, would now be remembered in the same volley of everlasting Irish history as Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera.
Thomas Ashe became a lost revolutionary leader who may have shaped a better and united Ireland devoid of Irish politicians, north and south of the border, who are obsessed with golden handshakes, immense and unworthy huge salaries, expenses and ego trips, way outside the terms and conditions set down in vastly larger countries for politicians.
Thomas Ashe, his family and his comrades never enjoyed the huge financial perks associated with Irish politicians in modern Ireland and patriots and martyrs such as Thomas Ashe deserve far more regard in their own native land.
Note! Thomas Ashe was also a noted Irish piper and poet and music was a subject in which he excelled.
Derry JF Doody - Editor