100 YEARS AGO: Thomas Ashe dies after force-feeding, 25 September 1917

Published in Issue 5 (September/October 2017), Volume 25

By Joseph E.A. Connell Jr

During the Easter Rising, the 5th Battalion of the Irish Volunteers, under the command of Cmdt Thomas Ashe, carried out a series of raids and reconnaissance movements throughout north County Dublin from Easter Monday to Friday. (After the Rising, the unit became known as the ‘Fingal Brigade’ but was not known as such at the time.) Ashe was a fine physical specimen of manhood, courageous and high-principled, something of a poet, painter and dreamer, and had been appointed O/C only a few weeks before the Rising. In military matters he was, however, somewhat impractical.

Following the Rising, he was imprisoned in several English jails and was released in the amnesty of June 1917. Ashe—by then president of the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood—found himself back behind bars just months later, being charged with sedition for making an incendiary speech in Ballinalee, Co. Longford. He had been arrested on 20 August, just before he was to travel to Skibbereen with Michael Collins. Upon hearing of his arrest, Collins wrote to his sister, Hannie: ‘Tom Ashe has been arrested so that fixes him’. Ashe was first held at the Curragh and then sentenced to two years in Mountjoy Prison. When their request to be treated as political prisoners was refused, Ashe and other prisoners went on hunger strike.

Irish Volunteers fire a volley over the grave of Thomas Ashe at his funeral in Glasnevin Cemetery in 1917.

The three leaders of the hunger strike were Austin Stack, Fionan Lynch and Ashe. Along with the other hunger strikers, Ashe was force-fed. As Ashe was carried away to be force-fed, Fionan Lynch cried out, ‘Stick it, Tom’. Ashe replied, ‘I’ll stick it, Fin’. During that force-feeding, a lung was pierced by the inexperienced Dr Lowe; Ashe was taken to the Mater Hospital, where he died two days later on 25 September 1917 of ‘heart failure and congestion of the lungs’.

Above: A Thomas Ashe memorial card. (Kilmainham Gaol Museum)

Some 30,000 turned out for his funeral, at which Collins (in Volunteer uniform) delivered his famous funeral eulogy in Irish and English: ‘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.’ But it was the inquest into Ashe’s death and the subsequent damning verdict, condemning the brutality of force-feeding and indicting the British authorities for inhuman punishment, which served as a rallying call throughout Ireland:

‘We find that the deceased, Thomas Ashe … died from heart failure and congestion of the lungs on the 25th September, 1917; that his death was caused by the punishment of taking away from the cell bed, bedding and boots, and allowing him to be on the cold floor for 50 hours, and then subjecting him to forcible feeding in his weak condition after hunger striking for five or six days. We censure the Castle Authorities for not acting more promptly, especially when the grave condition of the deceased and other prisoners was brought to their notice … That the hunger strike was adopted against the inhuman punishment inflicted and a refusal to their demand to be treated as political prisoners.’

Ashe’s death had a significant impact on the country, increasing republican recruitment. His death was the first of the period of a prisoner on hunger strike, but it was not to be the last.

Joseph E.A. Connell Jr is the author of Michael Collins: Dublin 1916–22 (Wordwell Books).

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