Thomas Patrick Ashe was born in the village of Lipsole, near Dingle, Co.Kerry, in 1885, the seventh of ten children. He attended the local National School at Ardamore, and went on to work there as a monitor.
When he was 20, he trained as a teacher at De La Salle College, Waterford, and became principal at Corduff National School, Lusk, Co. Dublin, where he taught Gaelic.
His sister, Nora, relates how at breaktime he would get pupils to march into the playground, trampling over a Union Jack. The National Board of Education gave him the sack.
His family’s deep interest in the Irish language, poetry and culture, drew Thomas to the Gaelic League. He set up branches in several villages, and travelled to USA, wearing his kilt and carrying his cherished bagpipes, to collect money for the League.
When the Irish Volunteers were formed in 1913, six-foot tall Ashe was one of the first to join. Two years later he was elected leader of the Fingal Volunteers. The opportunity of taking part in an armed rising was “an honour” few people received, he said.
During the 1916 Easter Rising, he led the Fifth (Fingal) batallion of 48 men to victory against the Royal Irish Constabulary in Ashbourne, Co. Meath, speeding about on his motorbike — a 2½ horsepower New Hudson — to direct operations. They captured four police barracks and large quantities of arms and ammunition. His battalion killed 11 RIC men and wounded over 20.
Under his charismatic leadership, they also demolished Rogerstown Bridge on the Great Northern Railway, disrupting access into Dublin.
When he was told by Patrick Pearse to surrender, he was stunned, says Nora: he “thought that the rest of the volunteers had been as successful as they themselves had been”, and wanted to fight on. He was the last leader to surrender. Afterwards, he admitted the police “were not a bad lot at all”.
On 8th May, Ashe was sentenced to death for his part in the Rising. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and he was incarcerated in Dartmoor, Portland, and Lewes Prisons in England, where he wrote his famous poem Let Me Carry Your Cross for Ireland, Lord.
In a general amnesty he was returned to Ireland, where he once more became involved in the independence movement and began a series of lectures around the country.
He joined Sinn Féin and was elected President of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, After giving a “seditious” speech in Ballinalee, Co Longford, in June 1917, he found himself a wanted man, and hid in a friend’s house for six weeks.
Venturing out through boredom one August night, Ashe was arrested in Dublin city centre. He was charged with making a speech “calculated to cause disaffection” and sentenced to one year’s hard labour in Mountjoy Gaol, Dublin.
With six other republican prisoners, he demanded to be treated as a prisoner-of-war, not as a criminal, with the right to wear his own clothes, associate with other inmates and take regular exercise; otherwise he threatened to “break every rule of the prison”.
When the warders refused to comply, the men rang their bells continuously and kicked on their cell doors.
On 20th September, warders seized his bed, bedding, stove and table from his cell, confiscated his Bible and prayer book, and forcibly removed his boots. He was left to sleep on bare boards.
When Ashe responded by going on hunger strike, some believe that he was put in a straitjacket.
His hands and feet bound, he was force-fed raw egg, beaten in milk, through a rubber tube placed down his throat.
“Stick it, Tom boy”, called out fellow Republican, Fionan Lynch, as he saw Ashe being taken away. “I’ll stick it, Fin” he replied. “If I die”, he said, “I die in a good cause”.
On the afternoon of Tuesday, September 25th, Ashe collapsed and was taken across the road to Mater Hospital. His lips were blue but he was still conscious and was expected to pull through. But at 10.30pm he died of heart failure and congestion of the lungs.
At the inquest into his death, the jury condemned staff at the prison for the “inhuman and dangerous operation” performed on the prisoner. The feeding tube, put in place by a trainee doctor, was “administered unskilfully”.
The liquid poured not into his stomach but into his lungs.
Ashe’s body was taken to lie in state in City Hall, Dublin.
Some 30,000 people processed through Dublin on the day of his funeral, 30 September.
At Glasnevin Cemetery, Volunteers fired three barrages of bullets by his graveside. “That volley we have just heard is the only speech which it is proper to make above the grave of a dead Fenian”, said Michael Collins.
The Cork Examiner reported a “general revulsion of feeling” at the manner of Ashe’s death. Committees sprang up all over Ireland to pay tribute to him, helping fuel the fire of independence.