On September 25th, 1917, Thomas Ashe died in the Mater Hospitals from complications arising out of a force feeding regime in Mountjoy Prison.
Ashe was one of a number of republican prisoners who went on hunger strike the previous week in a bid to secure political status. Their protest would have exchoes of the hunger strikes of 1981.
Ashe's death created outrage across nationalist Ireland even among the considerable number of the population who were still hostile in 1917 to Sinn Féin.
His death occured late on the evening of September 25th so the first report in The Irish Times would not be published in the following morning’s newspaper.
The funeral on September 30th was a massive show of strength by republicans and prompted significant coverage in following morning’s Irish Times.
The newspaper then was very much the mouthpiece of the British establishment in Ireland, but, judging by this editorial, even it conceded that the Government of the day should have granted political status to the prisoners before they commenced the hunger strike and not afterwards.
The Irish Times, Thursday, September 27, 1917
An inquest will be held at 12 o'clock noon today at the Mater Hospital Dublin by Dr Louis Byrne, city coroner, on the body of Thomas Ashe, one of the Sinn Féin prisoners who died some five hours after his admission to the institution from Mountjoy Prison.
It is understood that by the direction of the coroner, Professor EJ McSweeney will hold a post-mortem examination at 10am and will be assisted by Dr McKenna, house physician, and that Dr Dowdall, the medical officer of Mountjoy Prison, has applied for, and obtained permission to be present during the post-mortem examination.
Yesterday morning the body of the deceased man was attired in the uniform of the Irish Volunteers similar to that which he wore during the rebellion of Easter week 1916 when leading the rebels in Ashbourne and was laid out in a private war of the hospital.
Two Irish Volunteers in uniform stood as a guard of honour on either side of his remains. By the early afternoon, so great was the throng outside the hospital, that it had to be regulated by a large number of other Irish Volunteers and a long queue was formed the conduct of the crowd being quiet and orderly.
The public were admitted to view the body and it is estimated that about 15,000 persons passed through the private ward during the day.
At the time of the rebellion the late Mr Ashe, who was 35 years of age, was a national school teacher at Corduff near Swords, Co Dublin. He was a member of the Gaelic League, in support of which he made a tour for funds in the United States in 1914.
He led the rebels in north county Dublin in the affair at Ashbourne. For his part in this, Ashe was sentenced to death by courtmartial on May 11th, 1916, the sentence being afterwards commuted to penal servitude for life. He was, however, released in the general amnesty of Sinn Féin prisoners in June last.
On the 18th, he was arrested in Dublin on a charge of attempting to cause disaffection among the civil population by a speech he delivered in Longford on July 25th.
He was tried by courtmartial in Dublin on the 3rd and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and hard labour.
With the other Sinn Féin prisoners in Mountjoy Prison, he demanded that he should be treated as a prisoner of war and upon this demand being refused, took part in a hunger strike. He was removed from the prison to the hospital in a weak state of health on Tuesday evening, and died five hours after admission.
The Irish Times, October 1, 1917
The funeral of Mr Thomas Ashe, which took place in Dublin yesterday was the occasion of a great Sinn Féin demonstration. In addition to orthodox Sinn Féiners, a large number of constitutional nationalists took part in the display apparently as a protest against the prison methods adopted towards Ashe and his colleagues.
The funeral was the largest which has been seen in Dublin since that of Mr Parnell.
The restrictions on the running of special trains accounted for the absence of so many provincial visitors, but there was nevertheless a large country representation. From midday, the streets were crowded and spectators took up favourable positions along the route some hours before the funeral was timed to start. Sinn Féin favours were generally worn, a favourite emblem being the a button bearing a miniature photograph of Ashe while Republican rosettes were also to be seen on every side. Vendors of memorial cards piled a profitable trade. The behaviour of the crowds which lined the streets was orderly and of the funeral procession it should be said that it was marked by decorum and discipline.
The procession which moved from the City Hall shortly before 2pm in the presence of a tense crowd was headed by a large number of Roman Catholic clergymen immediately preceding the hearse containing the coffin which was draped in a Republican flag and covered with numerous wreaths. Accompanying the hearse was a guard of honour funished by Irish Volunteers in uniform and a firing party also in uniform and carrying rifles reversed.
Immediately following were the chief mourners, including Mr Ashe, the father of the deceased man and a number of mourning coaches and private carriages among which was that of the Lord Mayor who was present accompanied by his chaplain.
The Fingal battalion of the Irish Volunteers, with which Ashe was intimately associated, and the Lusk pipers' band headed the various sections which followed including Sinn Féin organisations, national teachers, Citizens' Army, Irish and National Volunteers, Cumann na mBan. Irishwomen's Franchise League, National Boy and Girl Scouts, Gaelic League, GAA and trade bodies.
The Volunteers had made elaborate arrangements to regulate admission to the cemetery. The general public were excluded by a cordon of young men who carried out the duty in an effective manner.
After a short service in the mortuary chapel, the remains were borne to the grave which is adjacent to those of John O'Leary, James Stephens and O'Donovan Rossa. About 130 priests, led by the cemetery acting-chaplain, the Rev J Fitzgibbon chanted the burial service. The wide space around the grave was kept by a body of uniformed Volunteers so that only the clergy, the immediate relatives of the deceased, his father, two brothers and a sister and certain of the managers were of the funeral were permitted to come near. When the grave was closed a dozen uniformed and selected men were ordered to the front and they fired three rounds after which a portion of the Last Post was played by a band.
Mr Michael Collins, after the firing, stepped forward and that there would be no oration. Nothing remained to be said for the volley which had been fired was the only speech which it was proper to make above the grave of a dead Fenian.
A great number of wreaths from friends and sympathisers were laid on the grave. Comparatively few had an opportunity of witnessing the actual internment and many persons lingered at the grave for a considerable time. It was 6.30pm before the last contingent past out. Many of those at the head of the procession had returned to the city before the end of it reached the cemetery.
The Irish Times, October 1, 1917, Editorial
The news of the death of Thomas Ashe, the Sinn Féin leader, was published on the same day which gave to the world a very encouraging report of the progress of the Irish Convention.
Such conflicts of fate have not been uncommon in the consistently melodramatic course of Irish affairs.
The circumstances of Ashe’s death were peculiarly unfortunate. Nobody who saw his funeral in Dublin yesterday can doubt that they have given a new stimulus to the Sinn Féin movement.
That movement was beginning to suffer from the country’s gradual discovery that it is without a rational policy. Today it is reinforced by the wave of political feeling that will flow from the gates of Mountjoy Prison throughout Ireland and into the United States. This, however, is not all.
The Mountjoy affair has injured the prestige of the Executive Government at a moment when the full and resolute exercise of its powers is requited alike by the prevailing conditions in Ireland and by the larger needs of the Empire.
The coroner’s inquest into the facts of Ashe’s death is not finished and we may not comment on the evidence which was taken during the last week. It is not disputed, however, that Ashe died after a hunger strike in which all the Sinn Féin prisoners in the jail joined him with the object of securing the treatment of prisoners of war or at least of political offenders.
The Government has refused consistently to treat as political offenders Sinn Féiners sentenced to courtmartial to terms of imprisonment under the Defence of the Realm Act. At the inquest the evidence of more than one medical doctor suggested that “forcible feeding” was a dangerous process.
The hunger strike continued after Ashe's death and the Lord Mayor of Dublin and others made urgent representations to the Government. On Saturday, at a hastily convened meeting of the Privy Council, an order in Council was made empowering the introduction by the General Prisons Board for Ireland of rules for the treatment of prisoners in Irish prisons convicted under the Defence of the Realm Act and Regulations.
If the Lord Mayor of Dublin is rightly informed, the new rules will allow all the Sinn Féin prisoners to be treated as political offenders. On Saturday evening two of the prisoners were released - apparently under the terms of the Act which, in the case of the women suffragists, was known as the “Cat and Mouse Act”.
We shall not discuss now the propriety of these concessions; up to the present the vailable evidence on the whole matter is partial in both senses of the word.
One thing, however, is clear. If the concessions are necessary today on ordinary grounds of humanity and justice, they were necessary before Thomas Ashe’s death. If they were, in fact, necessary, they are belated. Instead of having been granted at the right time and in the right way, they have every appearance of having been extorted from an unwilling Government by the clamour of the Sinn Féin party.
The Government will get no credit for them either in Ireland or in the United States. The forces of disaffection will claim the new prison rules as a triumph for the strength and menace of an organisation which is openly hosptil to British authority in Ireland.
The Government has been human, indeed, but, if its humanity is attributed throughout the whole country by Unionist, Nationalist and Sinn Féin - to motives of timidity the fault will be entirely its own.
This impression of weakness in the Executive authority will be deepened, alike in loyal and disloyal minds, by other incidents of the past few days. In recent weeks men have been brought to trial under the Defence of the Realm Act for a variety of offences and have been sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.
During the last few days some of these offences have been committed openly in many places, but the Irish Executive seems wholly to have ignored them.
At the beginning of the war a press censorship was established in Ireland. It has done its work wisely and well and has prevented many violent incitements from reaching the ears of excitable and ignorant people throughout the country.
During the last 48 hours, however, many people have wondered whether the censorship is still strictly governed by the principles which made it an effective agent of law and order in Ireland. We seem to be living just now in an atmosphere which is sapping the sanctions of all authority - the authority of the Church as well as the authority of the State.