Thomas Ashe’s death removed charismatic leader

The tactics used by the Fingal battalion foreshadowed those used in the War of Independence, writes Paul Maguire


Thomas Ashe. Picture: National Library of Ireland

THOMAS Ashe was born in Lispole, Co Kerry on January 12, 1885, the seventh child in an Irish-speaking farming family.

A fluent and enthusiastic gaeilgeoir, he was an excellent traditional singer and piper involved in virtually every aspect of the Gaelic revival. He was also a committed republican dedicated to the cause of Irish independence and these passions shaped his life.

After completing his teacher training in Co Waterford, Ashe took up a position in Lusk, Co Dublin. His devotion to the Irish language and Irish independence found willing recipients in north Co Dublin.

He founded the Black Raven Pipe band, and several branches of the Gaelic League around Fingal. Ashe was a high-ranking member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Dublin and had advance knowledge of the Easter Rising. He figured prominently in the setting up of an Irish Volunteers battalion in Fingal, initially being second in command to Dr Richard Hayes, and assumed command in the weeks prior to 1916.

Under Ashe’s stewardship, the Fingal battalion operated in classic guerrilla fashion by striking at enemy targets and withdrawing, all the while raiding the enemy for arms. The battalion’s way of fighting, not to mention its success, was in stark contrast to the fight being waged by the four city battalions and the other ineffective outbreaks around the country.

They rounded off a successful week by destroying a much larger force of RIC at Ashbourne. In doing so, Ashe’s Fingal Battalion pointed the way to the tactics adopted by the IRA in 1920 and 1921.

As a leading figure during Easter Week, Ashe was sentenced to death by court-martial. His sentence was commuted and he was sent to Lewes Jail in England via Kilmainham and Dartmoor.

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He penned his famous and prophetic poem while under sentence of death, ‘Let Me Carry your Cross for Ireland, Lord’. His reputation, enhanced by Fingal’s success in Easter Week, saw to it that he was soon elevated to leadership among the prisoners and more importantly the leadership of the decimated post-rising IRB.

Released in a general amnesty in 1917, he enthusiastically embraced Sinn Féin’s post-1916 rise and was rearrested for making a seditious speech at a Sinn Féin election rally in Co Longford. Incarcerated in Mountjoy, Ashe embarked on a hunger strike along with other republican prisoners. He died by force-feeding on September 25, 1917.

Ashe’s popularity and the barbaric nature of his death saw to it that his funeral was the occasion for a massive show of nationalist strength and marked the first large-scale public appearance of volunteer uniforms since the rising. Michael Collins’s famous funeral oration marked his ascent as successor to Ashe in the IRB and the nationalist movement. It was a defining moment in the struggle for Independence.

It is surprising that Ashe’s contribution to Irish history has been unfairly underestimated. His untimely death robbed the republican movement of a striking and charismatic leader who inspired those who fought alongside him.

One volunteer recalled his men would follow him anywhere. The historian Charles Townshend said Ashe was “a lost leader” of Irish republicanism.

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