The handbill seen here states the findings of the jury in the inquest on Thomas Ashe’s death via ill treatment and forced feeding in prison. It was published by Fergus O’Connor of Dublin in late September 1917. This handbill was distributed throughout Dublin after Ashe’s death to raise awareness about the poor treatment of Irish Republican Prisoners.
Thomas Ashe was a school teacher who became involved with the Irish Nationalist movement through his membership in the Gaelic League. Many of the men who would go on to lead the Easter Rising were involved in the Gaelic League or similar organizations. Ashe joined the Irish Volunteers in November 1913, and spent much of 1914 raising money in the United States for both the Irish Volunteers and the Gaelic League.
Ashe commanded the Fifth Battalion of the Dublin Brigade of the Irish Volunteers, also known as the Fingal Battalion, during the 1916 Rising. Ashe’s men were one of the most successful Volunteer battalions that fought during the Rising. They moved throughout north Dublin during the early part of Easter Week demolishing railway lines, cutting telephone and telegraph lines, and capturing post offices in Swords, Donabate, and Garristown. They managed to evade capture, but failed to fully engage with any British forces, or Royal Irish Constabulary officers. [i]
On Friday morning Ashe led his men to Ashbourne and attacked the RIC barracks. They easily fought off the barracks garrison, and were forcing the RIC men into a surrender when a column of cars with roughly 50 other RIC officers appeared on the road. Ashe’s second in command, Richard Mulcahy, managed to quell a panic among the now outnumbered Volunteers; and instead directed them into positions in the surrounding fields. Hidden in the fields, they were able to give the appearance of being a much stronger force and slowly pick off the RIC men.[ii]
The battle of Ashbourne was an important engagement during the Easter Rising because it was the only action taken outside of the city of Dublin. The battle was also important though because it could be seen as a military success that would pave the way for the guerilla warfare tactics that the IRA would later adopt during the War of Independence. Ashe’s men were able to overtake a much larger force by using their surroundings to ambush the force from all sides and give off the appearance of being a much larger opponent. This deception caught the RIC men off guard and made them hesitant to charge into the fields as they were not sure how many men they were actually fighting.
After Ashe received Patrick Pearse’s order to surrender and ordered his men to stand down, they were arrested by the British and Ashe was interned in Frongoch and Lewes for his part in the Rising. Ashe was one of the last prisoners released in June 1917. Upon his release from prison, Ashe returned to a hero’s welcome in Ireland, where he immediately began working to reorganize the Irish Volunteers. His freedom was short lived as he was re-arrested for sedition in August 1917.
Ashe and other prisoners sought prisoner of war status. They believed that they qualified as political prisoners since they were arrested during an active conflict with Britain. The British refused, and Ashe went on hunger strike in September 1917 in protest. The prison wardens felt that this breached prison discipline so they removed the participating prisoner’s beds and boots. Prison doctors attempted to force feed Ashe and botched the attempt, which ultimately resulted in Ashe’s death. The handbill seen here states that the inquest ruled 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.” Medical evidence suggested that Ashe had died as a result of congestion of the lungs, a result of the forced feeding, and heart failure.
Ashe’s funeral was one of the largest in Dublin, and was the first time that a large force of Irish Volunteers appeared in uniform since the Easter Rising. Volunteers took over the streets and directed the funeral procession. Michael Collins also came to prominence at Ashe’s funeral, where he gave the oration. After a volley of shots was fired over Ashe’s grave, Collins stepped forward and stated “nothing additional remains to be said. That volley which we have just heard is the only speech which is proper to make above the grave of a dead Fenian.”
[i] Fearghal McGarry,The Rising, Ireland: Easter 1916 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 234-235
[ii] Fearghal McGarry,The Rising, Ireland: Easter 1916 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 235-237