A social idealist – An Irishwoman’s Diary on Thomas Ashe

 Thomas Ashe: centenary of his death. Photograph: National Library of Ireland

Thomas Ashe: centenary of his death. Photograph: National Library of Ireland


On September 25th, 1917, Thomas Ashe, my grand-uncle, died. He is honoured as a leading figure in the 1916 Rising, having led the Fifth Battalion of the Irish Volunteers, the Fingal Brigade, at the Battle of Ashbourne during Easter Week 1916.

Of perhaps even greater significance in the struggle for Irish independence were his death as a result of hunger strike and his subsequent funeral. Ashe’s funeral became an occasion for the Volunteers to regroup and show their strength. And show it they did.

Emotions ran high throughout the country and tens of thousands attended the funeral. The body lay in state in City Hall in Dublin and on its journey to Glasnevin Cemetery the cortege was flanked by Volunteers with rifles reversed. Dorothy McArdle described it as “a pageant of the nation”. Young and old, they came from the slums of Dublin and from rural Ireland in their thousands. The British authorities were alarmed at this show of republican strength, which was reinforced by the grief and anger felt throughout Ireland at the cruel manner of Ashe’s death.

It is fitting that Ashe’s political relevance be remembered in the centenary year of his death. However, his contribution as a social idealist is of equal importance and should not be overlooked.

He was born in Kinard, a townland on the eastern side of the Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry. His parents, Gregory Ashe and Ellen Hanafin, were farmers. His awareness of social injustice and his love of Irish history and culture were initially fostered by his father Gregory, and also by the older people in the neighbourhood.

The Ashe household was one where a firm tradition of bothántaíocht reigned. This was the evening or night-time visiting of neighbours to chat and tell stories, sing the Irish songs, and speak the native tongue. Some of those who visited regularly had witnessed the Famine, and its disastrous effects, in their youth. The young Tom Ashe was deeply influenced by these narratives of hunger, eviction, and injustice. This experience would become the cornerstone of his proto-socialism and would mould his keen awareness in adulthood of large-scale injustices in Irish society.

Throughout 2016 a commemorative banner enveloped the facade of Dublin’s Liberty Hall, portraying the images of leading socialists in 1916. The inclusion of Thomas Ashe’s portrait on the banner was not accidental. His social conscience, which had been ignited originally by the widespread social injustices then extant in his native Kerry, later broadened to include the exploitation of lowly paid Dublin workers. He further detested a regime where “might was right”, where the rights of the powerful were enshrined in the law. Legal recourse was not an option for the poverty-stricken multitude.

It was through this deep concern for the basic rights of the Irish people that he became friends with Seán O’Casey, Jim Larkin and James Connolly. He stood foursquare behind Larkin during the Lockout of 1913, writing to his brother in America: “We are all here on Larkin’s side. He’ll beat hell out of the snobbish, mean, seoinín employers yet, and more power to him”.

Improving the lives of the ordinary Irish people always was among Ashe’s chief concerns. This became evident in so many ways in his short life. While a teacher in Corduff in north Co Dublin he contributed zealously to the life of the community. As an educator he treated each student with the respect due to a fellow human being, an interpretation of the teacher’s role which was, unfortunately, not widespread in the Ireland of his time. His deep love of Irish culture, in particular the Irish language and traditional music, provided him with an entrée to many different spheres of Irish life.

Ashe founded the Black Raven Pipers Band in Fingal in 1910 and through his involvement in the Irish Pipers Club became friendly with Seán O’Casey. O’Casey’s friendship with Ashe developed through their common cultural and political interests. In the words of Ashe’s sister Nora, “They often met and walked along the Quays. They were united in feeling for the wrongs of the Dublin tenement dwellers.”

Be it agrarian land reform in rural Ireland, or the freeing of Dublin workers and tenement dwellers from the shackles that bound them, the social idealist Ashe was a firm supporter of such changes. His ultimate aim was always a republic in which all Irish citizens would be treated equally and have their rights established in constitutional law.

The republican movement’s orchestration of Ashe’s funeral highlights an abiding contradiction within the movement itself in 1917. Its external show of strength and unity was devoid of a coherent ideology that would maintain that unity.

Many of its leaders held widely diverging beliefs and interpreted the idea of nationhood in many different ways. In a letter which he sent to the Dublin Saturday Post after the demise of Thomas Ashe, O’Casey hints at his own view that many in the movement were disinterested in the plight of the poor and fell far short of representing the hopes of social idealists such as Ashe: “Labour has reason to mourn the loss of Thomas Ashe: he was ever the workers’ friend and would always have been their champion ... it would be well if every Sinn Féiner followed in his steps.”

Again, in his pamphlet “The Sacrifice of Thomas Ashe”, O’Casey strongly emphasised Ashe’s empathy with the poor and oppressed and prophesied that his sacrifice would kindle an unquenchable thirst among them to rise up and cast off the chains that bound them: “Thomas Ashe’s body today is covered with Irish mould, but his principles are surging into stronger life within the minds of the Irish proletariat, the Irish scholar and the Irish worker. Death has won a poor victory! Labour has lost a champion . . . Ashe died that Human Liberty might be vindicated and that Ireland might live”.