Wednesday 28 September 2016

'There's an imprint of Thomas Ashe in the energy from the walls'

Thomas Ashe, one of the forgotten leaders of the Easter Rising, is commemorated as a true hero

Celine Naughton

Published 31/03/2016 | 02:30

Legacy: Anne Kirwan, who lives in Ashe House in Lusk, holds a drawing of former resident Thomas Ashe. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Legacy: Anne Kirwan, who lives in Ashe House in Lusk, holds a drawing of former resident Thomas Ashe. Photo: Fergal Phillips

For most of the past century, Thomas Ashe remained a largely unsung hero of the Easter Rising, despite leading the most resounding rebel military success of 1916. But this week and in the coming months, the schoolteacher from Kinard, Co Kerry, is being celebrated at a series of commemorations, which began with last Monday's re-enactment of the Battle of Ashbourne, in which Ashe led the 5th (Fingal) Battalion of the Irish Volunteers to victory.

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At a time when so many rebel garrisons were defeated attempting to hold static positions against overwhelming odds, Ashe and his men employed successful guerilla tactics in a fiercely fought action that in many ways foreshadowed the 'flying columns' of the subsequent War of Independence.

Although he was not among the leaders executed in the immediate aftermath of the Rising, Ashe died in equally controversial, if less well-remembered circumstances. This story began two months after his release from Lewes Prison in June 1917, when Ashe was re-imprisoned having been arrested on the grounds of sedition, and held in Mountjoy.

Denied prisoner-of-war status, he and other men, including Austin Stack, refused to do any prison work. The authorities stripped their cells and removed their footwear. Forced to lie on cold, damp floors, the prisoners went on hunger strike, in response to which they were force-fed.

At 11am on September 25 1917, a weakened Ashe was strapped to a chair and an inexperienced medic, Dr Henry Lowe, pumped a mixture of milk mixed with raw eggs through a tube down his throat. Ashe collapsed immediately afterwards, as some of the food had entered his lungs, and he died that night in the Mater Hospital.

A subsequent inquest reported he died of heart failure and congestion of the lungs and that the taking away of his bed, bedding and boots was "an unfeeling and barbarous act."

Before the Rising, Ashe had been principal of Corduff National School in Lusk, Co Dublin, and lived in the nearby schoolhouse. Today it's the home of Anne Kirwan, who says his energy lives on there to this day.

Named after the man who suffered such a gruesome death, Ashe House is now known as a centre where mindfulness and self-compassion courses are run, and specialist training in the treatment of trauma is offered to psychotherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, GPs and other healthcare professionals.

"Thomas Ashe is a powerful presence here," says Anne. "It's a place of true refuge, and I hope that's what it was for him when he lived here too. At that time, Maud Gonne, Sean O'Casey, De Valera, Michael Collins and others were regular visitors. It's said that after a particularly lengthy meeting, one of them wrote 'Liberty Hall' on the glass panel of the front door.

"The moment we stepped through the gates, it was like stepping into another world. We immediately put in an offer and bought it. It's always been occupied by teachers.

"Today the house is still involved in education as a training venue, and my work is informed and influenced by Thomas Ashe's passion for growth and development. There's an imprint of the man in the energy from the walls. It's our family home, but it's also a space and place where people from all walks of life and traditions can open to their own growth and learning.

"I see myself as a custodian for those who have gone before. My vision has been to continue the sense of peace and calm that runs through the house and the gardens outside. We retained the original part of the house exactly as it was when Thomas lived here. It's a living history.

"As a man, teacher and revolutionary, Thomas Ashe had many gifts, including a love of people, Irish music, song, language, literature and culture. A great military tactician, he was against corporal punishment, an advocate for children with special needs, and set up the award-winning Black Raven Pipe Band in Lusk.

"I feel very protective of his memory and it saddens me to see him so overlooked in history to date."

But now he is being honoured with a series of events this week and more to come in the months ahead. On Saturday April 30, the people of Kerry will unveil a plaque in his birthplace of Kinard, and another on a monument that stands to him in the centre of Lispole.

In Dublin, Aidan Arnold of the Lusk Heritage Centre has written a play, The Legacy of Ashbourne, based on the transcript of the inquest into Ashe's death. Its performance by a local drama group will be filmed in Swords Courthouse and screened in Corduff National School on Friday May 6.

Mairead Ashe Moriarty is thrilled her grand-uncle is being immortalised in such creative and dignified ways.

"The family couldn't be more proud of Thomas," she says. "He was an inspirational leader, a gifted educator, and an extremely talented, kind and caring man. He was passionate about the Irish language, culture and traditions, and he had a vision for this country.

"We still have some of his memorabilia, like the seal skin on which his famous poem, Let Me Carry Your Cross for Ireland, Lord was inscribed in Lewes prison, and his bagpipes, both of which we donated to Dingle library for the commemorations.

"He had a major influence on events that shaped our nation and it's wonderful that the country is honouring him and all the heroes of 1916."

See ashehouse.ie for more details

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