J. Anthony Gaughan
In his introduction to this new edition of Seán Ó Lúing’ a biography of the patriot Thomas Ashe, Prof. Joe Lee speculates on the kind of influence Thomas Ashe would have exerted on the independence movement had he not died so prematurely.
Austin Stack, Ashe’s close friend, claimed that he would have rejected the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. But Lee suggests that Ashe would have become a pragmatist as did Michael Collins. He points to the fact that Ashe alone of the leading Sinn Féin prisoners in Lewes Jail proposed that Joe McGuinness contest the by-election in South Longford in April 1917.
However, Ashe’s interventions on the Coiste Gnótha (Executive Committee) of the Gaelic League and in organising strikes in prison would indicate that he would never be other than “a diehard republican”.
Thomas Ashe was born on January 12, 1885 at Kinard, Lispole, near Dingle. He was educated locally and qualified as a teacher at the De La Salle Training College in Waterford.
His first appointment was to the national school at Minard Castle, near his home, thereafter he was principal in a two-teacher school at Corduff, near Lusk, in north Co. Dublin from 1908 to 1916. Gregarious and talented he was soon popular with the native Fingalians.
He had a love for all things Irish – the language, gaelic games, music, dance and traditional lore. Soon after arriving in North Dublin he was providing classes in Irish, playing football and hurling for the local club, organising céilidhes and in 1909 he co-founded the Black Raven Pipe Band.
He was a member of the INTO, was sympathetic to the labour movement, was a friend of James Connolly and wrote an incomplete novel about the life and plight of agricultural labourers in Co. Dublin.
Ashe joined the Irish Volunteers at the inaugural meeting in November 1913. After the Volunteers split in September 1914 he was to the fore in bringing military exercises and manoeuvres to those who remained loyal to Eoin MacNeill.
Between October 1915 and the Rising he became commandant of the 5th (Fingal) battalion of the Dublin Brigade of the Irish Volunteers which was comprised of the various companies in North County Dublin. It mobilised on the Monday of Easter Week.
Ashe and his battalion set about disrupting the communications between Dublin and Belfast. They attacked the RIC barracks at Ashbourne. Just after its defenders had surrendered a large party of the RIC arrived on the scene. With an astute re-positioning of his battalion Ashe was, after a five-hour engagement, able to force the RIC to surrender.
The encounter claimed the lives of 11 members of the RIC and two of Ashe’s battalion. As the number of his comrades was less than half that of his adversaries the incident enhanced his military reputation. When information on the general surrender reached him on the Sunday after Easter week Ashe stood down the battalion.
For his part in the Rising, Ashe was given a life-sentence. He was incarcerated in Dartmoor and later in Lewes prison, near Brighton. With the rest of the Sinn Féin prisoners, he was released in June 1917.
An exceptional orator, he was in brisk demand for addressing political rallies. For seditious language at one such rally at Ballinalee, Co. Longford, on 25 July he once more found himself in prison. With other Sinn Féin prisoners in Mountjoy Jail he went on hunger-strike. While being forcibly fed he became gravely ill and was transferred to the Mater Hospital, where he died on September 25, 1917.
A life-long member of the IRB, at the time of his death he was president of its Supreme Council and the organisation carefully choregraphed his funeral. It was the largest ever seen in Ireland and was even more impressive than that of Parnell. At that time Ian MacPherson, chief secretary for Ireland, stated that Ashe’s death did “more to stimulate Sinn Féinism and disorder than anything I know!”.
This re-print of Seán Ó Lúing’s important biography of Thomas Ashe is to be welcomed. It reminds us of the significant contribution which Seán made with this and other studies to Irish historiography.