The First Hunger Striker
Updated: Sep 28, 2020
21 gun salute at the funeral of Thomas Ashe
“That volley which we have just heard is the only speech which it is proper to make above the grave of a dead Fenian.” Michael Collins speaking at the graveside of Thomas Ashe who died as a result of force feeding on 25th September 1917.
Thomas Ashe was a member of the Irish Volunteers and Conradh na Gaeilge and was recruited into the Irish Republican Brotherhood to plan for the Rising. He travelled to the US on behalf of the IRB to meet with John Devoy, Joe McGarrity and other Clann na Gael members.
During the Rising Ashe was the Commanding Officer of the Dublin 5th Battalion of the Volunteers. Ashe and his battalion of just 48 men led many successful attacks and ambushes on military barracks around the north Dublin area. This group successfully demolished the Great Northern Railway Bridge, thus disrupting access to the capital. In addition, they captured the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) barracks at Ashbourne, County Meath. The fight to gain control lasted six hours, during which time 11 RIC men were killed and over 20 were wounded. By comparison, the Fingal Battalion lost only two men and five were wounded. Ashe and his men captured three other police barracks with large quantities of arms and ammunition which kept their highly successful guerrilla war going.
When news of the surrender reached Thomas Ashe, he laid down his arms and was arrested, court-martialed and sentenced to death. The sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.
He was released as part of the general amnesty in June 1917. On his release, Ashe immediately became involved once more in the independence movement elected President of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, taking the place of the executed Pádraig Mac Piarais. He travelled the country campaigning for Sinn Féin.
Thomas Ashe was rearrested and sent to Mountjoy Jail. He demanded that he be given Prisoner of War status, including the right to wear his own clothes and associate with his fellow inmates. When the authorities refused his demand, Ashe and six of his fellow prisoners went on hunger strike. Ashe was put in a straitjacket and force-fed by the authorities.
Ashe collapsed shortly after force feeding. It was later discovered that the tube had pierced his lung, among other complications. Two days later, he died of heart and lung failure. At the graveside, Volunteers fired a volley and then Michael Collins stepped forward and made a short and revealing speech in English and Irish. His English words were: “Nothing additional remains to be said. That volley which we have just heard is the only speech which it is proper to make above the grave of a dead Fenian,” leaving the Irish population in no doubt what was needed to gain independence.