ON THIS DATE (25TH SEPTEMBER) 102 YEARS AGO : IRISH HUNGER-STRIKER MURDERED BY FORCE-FEEDING.
“You cannot put a rope around the neck of an idea…you cannot confine it in the strongest prison cell that your slaves could ever build..” – the words of Séan O’Casey, in relation to the murder of Thomas Ashe.
The funeral procession in Dublin, 30th September 1917 (pictured), for Thomas Ashe, an IRB leader who died on the 25th September that year – 102 years ago on this date – after being force fed by his British jailers.
He was the first Irish republican to die as a result of a hunger-strike and, between that year and 1981, twenty-one other Irish republicans died on hunger-strike. The jury at the inquest into his death found “..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 and 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..”
Michael Collins organised the funeral and transformed it into a national demonstration against British misrule in Ireland ; armed ‘Irish Republican Brotherhood’ Volunteers in full uniform flanked the coffin, followed by 9,000 other IRB Volunteers, and approximately 30,000 people lined the streets. A volley of shots was fired over Ashe’s grave, following which Michael Collins stated – “Nothing more remains to be said. That volley which we have just heard is the only speech which it is proper to make over the grave of a dead Fenian.”
The London-based ‘Daily Express’ newspaper perhaps summed it up best when it stated, re the funeral of Thomas Ashe, that what had happened had made ‘100,000 Sinn Féiners out of 100,000 constitutional nationalists.’ The level of support shown gave a boost to Irish republicans, and this was noted by the ‘establishment’ in Westminster – ‘The Daily Mail’ newspaper claimed that, a month earlier, Sinn Féin, despite its electoral successes, had been a waning force. That newspaper said – ‘..It had no practical programme, for the programme of going further than anyone else cannot be so described. It was not making headway. But Sinn Féin today is pretty nearly another name for the vast bulk of youth in Ireland…’
Thomas Patrick Ashe’s activities and interests included cultural and physical force nationalism as well as trade unionism and socialism. He also commanded the 5th Battalion of the Dublin Brigade Volunteers who won the Battle of Ashbourne on the 29th of April 1916. Born in Lispole, County Kerry on the 12th of January 1885, he was the seventh of ten siblings. He qualified as a teacher in 1905 at De La Salle College, Waterford and after teaching briefly in Kinnard, County Kerry, in 1906 he became principal of Corduff National School in Lusk, County Dublin. Thomas Ashe was a fluent Irish speaker and a member of the Keating branch of the Gaelic League and was an accomplished sportsman and musician setting up the Roundtowers GAA Club as well as helping to establish the Lusk Pipe Band (pictured). He was also a talented singer and poet who was committed to Conradh na Gaeilge.
Politically, he was a member of the ‘Irish Republican Brotherhood’ (IRB) and established IRB circles in Dublin and Kerry and eventually became President of the IRB Supreme Council in 1917. While he was actively and intellectually nationalist he was also inspired by contemporary socialism. Ashe rejected conservative Home Rule politicians and as part of that rejection he espoused the Labour policies of James Larkin. Writing in a letter to his brother Gregory he said “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”. Ashe supported the unionisation of north Dublin farm labourers and his activities brought him into conflict with landowners such as Thomas Kettle in 1912. During the infamous lockout in 1913 he was a frequent visitor to Liberty Hall and become a friend of James Connolly. Long prior to its publication in 1916, Thomas Ashe was a practitioner of Connolly’s dictum that “the cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour”. In 1914 Ashe travelled to the United States where he raised a substantial sum of money for both the Gaelic League and the newly formed Irish Volunteers of which he was an early member.
Ashe founded the Volunteers in Lusk and established a firm foundation of practical and theoretical military training. He provided charismatic leadership first as Adjutant and then as O/C (Officer Commanding) the 5th Battalion of the Dublin Brigade. He inspired fierce loyalty and encouraged personal initiative in his junior officers and was therefore able to confidently delegate command to Charlie Weston, Joseph Lawless, Edward Rooney and others during the Rising. Most significantly, he took advantage of the arrival of Richard Mulcahy at Finglas Glen on the Tuesday of the Rising and appointed him second in command. The two men knew one another through the IRB and Gaelic League and Ashe recognized Mulcahy’s tactical abilities. As a result Ashe allowed himself to be persuaded by Mulcahy not to withdraw following the unexpected arrival of the motorised force at the Rath crossroads. At Ashbourne on the 28th of April Ashe also demonstrated great personal courage, first exposing himself to fire while calling on the RIC in the fortified barracks to surrender and then actively leading his Volunteers against the RIC during the Battle.
After the 1916 Rising he was court-martialled (on the 8th of May 1916) and was sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life ; he was incarcerated in a variety of English prisons before being released in the June 1917 general amnesty. He immediately returned to Ireland and toured the country reorganising the IRB and inciting civil opposition to British rule. In August 1917, after a speech in Ballinalee, County Longford, he was arrested by the RIC and charged with “speeches calculated to cause disaffection”. He was detained in the Curragh camp and later sentenced to a year’s hard labour in Mountjoy Jail. There he became O/C of the Volunteer prisoners, and demanded prisoner-of-war status. As a result he was punished by the Governor. He went on hunger strike on the 20th September 1917 and five days later died as a result of force-feeding by the prison authorities. He was just 32 years old. The death of Thomas Ashe resulted in POW status being conceded to the Volunteer prisoners two days later. Thomas Ashe’s funeral was the first public funeral after the Rising and provided a focal point for public disaffection with British rule. His body lay in state in Dublin City Hall before being escorted by armed Volunteers to Glasnevin Cemetery ; 30,000 people attended the burial where three volleys were fired over the grave (pictured) and the Last Post was sounded.
While imprisoned in Lewes Jail in 1916, Thomas Ashe had written his poem ‘Let Me Carry Your Cross for Ireland, Lord’ which later provided the inspiration for the Battle of Ashbourne memorial unveiled by Sean T. O’Kelly on Easter Sunday, 26th April 1959 at the Rath Cross in Ashbourne :
Let me carry your Cross for Ireland, Lord
The hour of her trial draws near,
And the pangs and the pains of the sacrifice
May be borne by comrades dear.
But, Lord, take me from the offering throng,
There are many far less prepared,
Through anxious and all as they are to die
That Ireland may be spared.
Let me carry your Cross for Ireland, Lord
My cares in this world are few,
and few are the tears will for me fall
When I go on my way to You.
Spare Oh! Spare to their loved ones dear
The brother and son and sire,
That the cause we love may never die
In the land of our Heart’s desire!
Let me carry your Cross for Ireland, Lord!
Let me suffer the pain and shame
I bow my head to their rage and hate,
And I take on myself the blame.
Let them do with my body whate’er they will,
My spirit I offer to You,
That the faithful few who heard her call
May be spared to Roisin Dubh.
Let me carry your Cross for Ireland, Lord!
For Ireland weak with tears,
For the aged man of the clouded brow,
And the child of tender years;
For the empty homes of her golden plains,
For the hopes of her future, Too!
Let me carry your Cross for Ireland, Lord!
For the cause of Roisin Dubh.
ISSUED BY THE ARMY COUNCIL, ÓGLAIGH NA hÉIREANN, NOVEMBER 1954…’
From ‘The United Irishman’ newspaper, December 1954.
“In the long years since the British first invaded our country, each generation has been faced with the problem of attaining freedom and in every age young men (‘1169’ comment – ..and women) have been found who were prepared to work and suffer, to fight and, if necessary, to die to achieve the ideal of a free Ireland.
Conflict has inevitably arisen between those imbued with this ideal and the old conservative politicians who had nothing to offer except vain hopes and specious promises. The men and women of the last generation will remember how the conflict arose between the ‘Irish Volunteers’ and the so-called ‘parliamentarians’ of that day who held that while England was embarrassed by war , Irishmen should not press their demands for freedom. They will remember that they had to chose between ‘the elected representatives of the Irish people’ in Westminster, who were prepared to stand hat-in-hand before their masters and beg for a measure of freedom, and the ‘Irish Volunteers’ and the ‘Citizen Army’ whose proclamation of the Irish Republic in 1916 began what was probably the most glorious period of resurgence in the history of our country.
They will remember that the ‘elected representatives of the Irish people’ condemned the 1916 Rising as ‘foolish and criminal’ and applauded the execution of the sixteen leaders whose names will live when the doubtful fame of the politicians is lost in merciful oblivion. The history of Ireland has been made up of short periods of national resurgence followed by long years of disillusion, bitterness and political intrigue. But in the long bitter years between the periods of resurgence that voice crying in the wilderness has never been wanting – the one or two unrepentant idealists who, in the face of all the pomp and circumstances of parliamentary and political futility, have proclaimed the truth and have undergone imprisonment and death rather than accept the shame and the lie…” (MORE LATER.)
ON THIS DATE (25TH SEPTEMBER) 36 YEARS AGO – IRA H-BLOCK PRISON ESCAPE.
THE LONG KESH ESCAPE – SUNDAY 25th SEPTEMBER 1983. From ‘IRIS’ magazine, November 1983.
“We perceived the escape as a military operation from beginning to end. It could not have been achieved in any other way, and the ASU – as Volunteers in the Irish Republican Army – were under strict orders throughout from an Operations Officer whose judgement was crucial and whose every order had to be obeyed. Every Volunteer was under a tight brief..” – IRA statement.
It was this precision of planning, exclusively revealed in a detailed interview by key ASU personnel involved, that lay behind the almost incredible escape of 38 Republicans on Sunday 25th September 1983 from what is generally believed to be the most secure prison in Western Europe – the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. At 2.15pm that day, three IRA Volunteers carrying concealed pistols fitted with silencers, which had been smuggled into the prison, moved into the ‘Central Administration’ area (the ‘Circle’) of H7-Block on the pretext of cleaning out a store. Fifteen minutes later they were joined by a fourth armed Volunteer ; control of the ‘Circle’, with its numerous alarm bells, was vital for the escape’s success and had to be carried out simultaneously with the overpowering of prison Screws in the four wings of H7-Block.
Minutes later three other Volunteers – armed with pistols, hammers or chisels – took up key positions near Screws positioned by alarm buttons, on the pretext of carrying out orderly duties, while Brendan ‘Bic’ McFarlane (the H-Block Officer Commanding during the hunger-strike) was allowed through two locked grilles into the hall of the Block on cleaning duties – his job was to arrest the Screw there and, on a given signal – once everyone was in position – IRA Volunteers overpowered and arrested all the prison Screws in the Block, many of the Volunteers subsequently changing into their uniforms. During the seizure of control one Screw – on duty in a locked control room – was shot twice in the head when he ignored orders to lie on the floor and instead made a lunge for the alarm. Control of the Block was completed when ‘Bic’ McFarlane, accompanied by two IRA Volunteers dressed as Screws, arrested the Screw on duty in the front gate enclosure. It was now about 2.45pm.
Some time later the food lorry bringing evening meals to H7 (pictured) arrived ; 37 IRA Volunteers climbed into the back while another lay on the floor of the cab holding a gun on the Screw driving the lorry. The lorry then drove through a series of ‘security gates’ in the Long Kesh complex manned by unsuspecting Screws and in full view of armed British sentry posts. It eventually arrived at a ‘tally hut’ close to a back gate of the prison camp ; the plan was to arrest the Screws in the ‘tally hut’ and, leaving five Volunteers in control, drive the food lorry a further quarter mile to the front gate ‘tally hut’ which the escapees would then take control of, leaving two Volunteers there, before driving out in the food lorry to freedom.
Meanwhile, the five Volunteers in the first ‘tally hut’ would obtain a Screw’s car from the adjoining car park, drive to the front gate where the two Volunteers in control there would clamber into the boot, and also make their escape. That was the plan of escape ; unfortunately, it was not to be – the plan of escape began to go wrong at the first ‘tally-hut’ due to there being larger numbers of Screws coming on duty than anticipated. While the escapees kept arresting more and more Screws, the situation got out of control and the alarm was raised. At this point the escapees were forced to make a run for it on foot across fields, many of them successfully commandeering local cars. In the final melee several Screws were stabbed and one escapee, Harry Murray (pictured), was shot and wounded.
It was inevitable, given the eventual breakdown of the plan, that there would be some re-arrests, some within minutes and some within two days of the break-out. Nonetheless, the massive total of 19 Republican prisoners of war did successfully escape and eventually reach freedom – to the massive embarrassment of the British and the jubilation of Nationalists throughout the 32 Counties !
The 19 H-Block escapees that were then at liberty are – Kevin Barry Artt, (24) North Belfast ; Paul Brennan (30) Ballymurphy ; Seamus Campbell (26) Coalisland, County Tyrone ; James Clarke (27) Letterkenny, County Donegal ; Seamus Clarke (27) Ardoyne ; Gerard Fryer (24) Turf Lodge ; Dermot Finucane (22) Lenadoon ; Kieran Fleming (23) Derry ; Anthony Kelly (22) Derry ; Gerry Kelly (30) Belfast ; Anthony McAllister (25) Belfast ; Gerard McDonnell (32) Belfast ; Seamus McElwair (22) Scotstown, County Monaghan ; Brendan McFarane (31) Ardoyne ; Padraic McKearney (29) Moy, County Tyrone ; Dermot McNally (26) Lurgantarry, North Armagh ; Robert Russell (25) Ballymurphy ; Terence Kirby (27) Andersonstown and James Smith (38) Ardoyne.
ONE IN FOUR ON LOW PAY…
Colm Keena reports on a new survey on low pay and talks to workers caught in the trap.
By Colm Keena.
From ‘Magill’ Magazine, May 1987.
Since 1982, the ICTU has had the introduction of a statutory national minimum wage as an item of policy. They propose the introduction of a minimum wage equal to the average gross pay for adult industrial workers, with a fall-back position of 80% of the same – £188 and £150 respectively, at mid-1985 rates. So far, little has been achieved in relation to this objective.
The ICTU has, for some years, been recommending to affiliated unions that they seek flat rate increases, or set floors in the case of percentage increases – “The issue of low pay in the public and private sector is high on the agenda in the current discussions between the government and the ICTU,” according to one union official attending those talks. It may also be agreed “..to look at the issue of a statutory minimum wage at a later date but the notion of giving increases to low paid workers and skipping the rest is not on,” according to the official. Low pay has had high priority for some time. But never too high.
(END of ‘One In Four On Low Pay’ ; Next – ‘Street Talk’, from USI News, February 1989.)
From ‘The United Irishman’ newspaper, January 1955.
1848 : ‘Green Street this morning was unusually astir with crowds of persons seeking admission to the Court. Double patrols of mounted police rode through the city, and strong bodies of the same force and the foot police were stationed about the Court.
At an early hour the police, in still greater numbers than on the preceding days, were drawn up in the vicinity of Green Street, forming barriers at the entrance of every street leading directly to the Courthouse, which few persons were allowed to pass without receiving some insult to remind them that the police and not the people were masters in the streets of Dublin – the military were in readiness, the Court was packed with constables…’ – the ‘trial’ of John Mitchell, as reported in ‘The Nation’ newspaper.
1954 : ‘Each side of the doorway stands an armed policeman, tunics closed tight to the neck, long close-fitting coat belted by the conspicuous holster and belt. From the holster protrudes the menacing revolver, a challenge in itself which encourages no smart cracks.
All around the public gallery, and interspersed through the crowd there and at all exits, in passages and at the entrances to seats, policemen are stationed, the inevitable revolver prominently in front in all cases. Security measures are at perfection point, no chink shows in the curtain, and any attempt at rescue has been made not only impossible but unthinkable. The queen’s men stand firm.’ – the ‘trial’ of the Omagh men, as reported in ‘The Mayo News’ newspaper.
106 years between those two ‘trials’ – one conducted by the British ‘authorities’ in Dublin Castle and the other conducted by a British proxy administration in Leinster House – against the same enemy, Irish republicanism.
(END of ‘Pattern Unchanged’. Next – ‘Magnificent Support For Prisoners’ Families’, from the same source.)
Thanks for reading, Sharon.