Thomas Ashe was a teacher, a piper, an Irish language enthusiast, a soldier, a devout man of faith and one of the pioneers of the modern Republican Hunger Strike. His life began on this day in 1885.
Thomas was obsessed with all things Irish – language, arts, music and lore – and he joined the Gaelic League to promote them. He was a member of the secretive fraternal organization known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood and when the Irish Volunteers were formed in 1913, he quickly joined them as well. He rose through the ranks and became the leader of the Fingal Volunteers in north Dublin a few years later. Despite being a devout man, he believed that armed struggle was both honorable and necessary and he led his men into battle during the Easter Rising of 1916. They won a major victory in Ashbourne despite being outnumbered and outgunned, but when the order came to stand down and surrender, Ashe and his men obeyed, as did another leader and commander in a different location. Both men were court-marshaled on May 8th, 1916, and both Thomas Ashe and Eamon De Valera were sentenced to death for their participation in the rebellion. Coincidentally, both were also spared when their sentences were changed to life in prison.
A little over a year later Ashe resurrected the ancient tradition of a Toscad—otherwise known as a hunger strike—along with Thomas Hunter and Eamon De Valera. They were trying to gain political status for prisoners and to put pressure on the authorities to improve prison conditions. The strike grew as their men followed their lead and the word spread. When it reached their female counterparts in other prisons, they joined in solidarity as well. Reports of abuse and news of the strike led to growing protests all over Ireland. Only a month later, almost all prisoners including Thomas Ashe were released in a general amnesty granted by the British government. He quickly returned to his beloved Ireland.
He just couldn’t stay silent. Thomas spent the next two months giving speeches and speaking out against the British. He and Michael Collins both spoke at a rally in Ballinalee where he was arrested again and charged with sedition. He was sentenced to two years hard labor and sent to Mountjoy prison. He quickly demanded prisoner of war status and began his second hunger strike of the year. It only lasted for five days.
Prison authorities would not tolerate another hunger strike. They employed brutal techniques to force feed their prisoners and Thomas Ashe died shortly after they were inflicted on him. Many claimed that he was murdered. At the inquest into his questionable demise, the jury reprimanded the prison for the “inhuman and dangerous operation performed on the prisoner, and other acts of unfeeling and barbaric conduct”. His death made him a martyr and boosted recruitment in the ranks of the volunteers. Thousands of people lined the streets and attended his funeral. His body laid in state at Dublin City Hall and was carried by armed volunteers to Glasnevin Cemetery. In honor of his powerful devotion to God, the procession included nearly 200 priests and the Archbishop of Dublin, marking the first time an Archbishop was associated with a Fenian funeral. His friend Michael Collins spoke at his graveside and after shots were fired over Ashe’s coffin, he famously remarked, “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”. The symbolic gunshots, along with the use of the hunger strike, continue among Republicans to this day.