Thomas Patrick Ashe was born in Lispole, County Kerry in January 1885. He trained as a teacher in De La Salle College, Waterford and worked as a school principal in Lusk, County Dublin. Ashe also enjoyed writing poetry and was a talented singer.
Ashe was a member of the Gaelic League, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and was a founding member of the Irish Volunteers. Having been brought up in a Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) region of Ireland, Ashe was an enthusiastic supporter of the Irish language, and his work brought him to the governing body of the Gaelic League. He collected considerable sums of money during a trip to the USA in 1914 for both the Volunteers and the League.
When the Rising broke out in Dublin at Easter 1916, Ashe was in command of a detachment of Volunteers who moved along in stages to Ashbourne, County Meath. Although largely outnumbered, they managed to defeat armed Royal Irish Constabulary troops and capture four police barracks and large quantities of arms and ammunition. When the Rising ended, Ashe and his men surrendered on the orders of Padraig Pearse.
On the 8th May 1916, Ashe and Eamon de Valera were court-martialed and sentenced to death. Both sentences were commuted to life, and Ashe was sent to a variety of English prisons. While in prison he wrote the poem “Let Me Carry Your Cross for Ireland, Lord”.
Thomas Ashe was released from jail in June 1917 under the general amnesty which was given to republican prisoners. One his release he returned to Ireland and began a series of speaking engagements. In August 1917, after a speech in Ballinalee, Longford, where Michael Collins had also been speaking, he was arrested and charged with “speeches calculated to cause disaffection”. He was sentenced to one year’s hard labour in Mountjoy Jail.
Ashe, along with Austin Stack, who was also in Mountjoy demanded to be treated as prisoners-of-war. Having been deprived of a bed, bedding and boots Ashe went on hunger strike on 20th September 1917. On 25th September 1917 he died from pneumonia, which was caused by force-feeding by the prison authorities. He was 32 years old. The jury at the inquest that followed found:
“We find that the deceased Thomas Ashe, according to the medical evidence of Professor McWeeney, Sir Arthur Chance, and Sir Thomas Myles, 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”
Ashe’s death marked a significant increase in support for the Republican movement. His body lay in state at Dublin City Hall and his funeral was followed by 30,000 people, led by armed Volunteers in uniform as it made its way to Glasnevin Cemetery. It was the first public funeral after the Easter Rising of 1916. Michaell Collins gave the graveside oration.
Thomas Ashe’s relatives still live in County Kerry and he was also related to American actor, Gregory Peck. His papers were donated to the library in Dingle, County Kerry.