“You cannot put a rope around the neck of an idea… you cannot confine it in the strongest prison cell that your slaves could ever build.” –Sean O’Casey
Ashe was born in Lispole, a Gaeltacht village in Co Kerry in 1885 and at an early age became involved in nationalist politics. He joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913 and participated in the 1916 Rising fighting in Ashbourne where the Irish rebels did have some success.
Ashe was released from British custody in June 1917 as were most 1916 volunteers. He quickly was arrested and charged with sedition for a speech that he made in Ballinalee, Co Longford where Michael Collins had also been speaking. He was convicted and sentenced to two years hard labour. Ashe and other prisoners, including Austin Stack, demanded political status. When he was refused political status, he went on hunger strike. Aggressive force feeding by his jailers went negligently wrong and he died on this day in 1917.
For an Ireland that deeply despised British actions in executing the 1916 leaders, the death of Thomas Ashe generated another monumental surge of nationalist emotion and anti-British feeling.
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”.
His body lay in state at Dublin City Hall, and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.
He was also a relative of Catherine Ashe, the paternal grandmother of American actor Gregory Peck, who emigrated to the United States in the 19th century. The Ashe Memorial Hall built in 1928, housing the Kerry County Museum, in Tralee is named after him while Nelson Street, also in Tralee, was renamed Ashe Street.
While in prison in England, Ashe wrote Let me Carry your Cross for Ireland, Lord:
Let me carry your Cross for Ireland, Lord
The hour of her trial draws near,
And the pangs and the pains of the sacrifice
May be borne by comrades dear.
But, Lord, take me from the offering throng,
There are many far less prepared,
Through anxious and all as they are to die
That Ireland may be spared.
Images colourised by 1916 Easter Revolution in Colour