Date Released: 03 May 2016
Friends and comrades, I would like to warmly welcome you to this important and historic occasion when we mark the centenary of the Battle of Ashbourne when rebel forces led by Thomas Ashe won a most significant military victory during the 1916 Rising.
As commander of the 5th Battalion of the Irish Volunteers, Thomas Ashe led dozens of courageous men and women from across the Fingal area of north county Dublin including St Margaret's, Swords, Lusk and Skerries as well as from here in Ashbourne and other parts of county Meath.
Members of the Irish Citizen Army and Cumann na mBan were also active in the general area and a number from their ranks joined in the battle of Ashbourne 100 years ago this week and which we commemorate today.
Eleven RIC members, including its County Inspector Alexander Gray, and two volunteers, John Crenigan and Thomas Raftery, were killed during the five-and-a-half-hour battle on 28th April, 1916.
The Battle of Ashbourne was the largest and most successful encounter between rebels and crown forces outside Dublin during the Rising. In the fighting, the men and women of the 5th (Fingal) Battalion led by Thomas Ashe and Richard Mulcahy succeeded in convincingly defeating a larger force of RIC, taking more than 80 prisoners. They also captured a significant quantity of arms and RIC vehicles.
A few days later and twenty-four hours after the surrender on Moore Street in Dublin, Ashe's battalion received the order from Patrick Pearse and accepted that the strike against the world’s most powerful empire had failed.
On 8th May 1916, Ashe and Éamon de Valera were court-martialed and both were sentenced to death. The sentences were commuted to penal servitude for life. Ashe was imprisoned in Lewes Prison and other jails in England.
Following his release from jail in June 1917, Ashe was once more arrested on a charge of inciting disaffection among the civil population having spoken at the first anniversary of the execution of Roger Casement in August 1917, among other places, and sentenced to two years hard labour.
Thomas Ashe died just weeks later, on 25th September, while on a hunger strike with other republican prisoners seeking recognition of their political status. The brutal and inhumane force feeding to which he was subjected by his captors in Mountjoy jail led to his untimely death.
His funeral procession from the City Hall in Dublin where he lay in state to Glasnevin cemetery brought the city of Dublin to a standstill and was testament to the esteem in which he was held.
Michael Collins gave the short and powerful oration at his graveside.
Thomas Ashe was 32 when he died.
Born and reared in Kinard, near Lispole in south west Kerry in January 1885, Thomas Patrick Ashe was an intelligent young man and a talented musician.
After he completed his studies at De La Salle Training College in Waterford he arrived in Lusk, county Dublin, when he was appointed principal of Corduff National School in 1908. The young Ashe immersed himself in the Gaelic League and the Lusk Round Towers GAA club while educating the children of the area and founding the Lusk Black Raven Pipe Band.
During his youth in west Kerry, Ashe would have witnessed the legacy of the great famine and subsequent mass emigration on one of Ireland’s most impoverished rural communities and the outbreak of the land war led by Michael Davitt.
As a young teacher in Lusk, he would have identified with the struggles of rural labourers in north Dublin, Meath and Kildare against their exploitation by rich farmers and landlords and, as the rebellion approached, he found common cause with the dispossessed in the ranks of the Volunteers and Citizen Army.
The 1916 Proclamation which was drafted over months of debate between James Connolly, Padraig Pearse and others in the months leading to the Rising and printed in Liberty Hall on the night of Easter Sunday 1916 by members of the ITGWU, was influenced by the Constitution of the ICA.
It is a truly radical and forward looking document for its time and reflects the unique quality of those who led and participated in the Rising, a golden generation including writers, poets, actors, progressive republicans and socialists, men and women, trade unionists, skilled and unskilled workers.
The Irish Citizen Army, which played such a central role in the defence of workers during and after the 1913 Dublin Lockout first under the leadership of James Larkin and then James Connolly, included in its ranks men and women who played equal roles in the fighting. It is now generally accepted that without the ICA there would not have been a Rising.
For Connolly, of course, “The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour” and this ambition was at the heart of the revolutionary endeavour.
Unfortunately, in the wake of the War of Independence and the Civil War the interests of both women and labour were sacrificed on the twin altars of capital and the church. The states that emerged in both jurisdictions were conservative in economic and social thinking.
Indeed, during the civil war the pro-Treaty leaders, including Eoin O’Duffy, specifically identified the threat to the new state posed by so called ‘Bolsheviks’ in the trade unions as a justification for the execution of their opponents. The executions were, in effect, a warning to those seeking more radical economic and social change in the emerging State.
I am certain Thomas Ashe would have found it truly saddening that within six years of their epic struggle against British colonialism and against the unjust conscription of so many young Irish men to a war that was not theirs in the trenches of France and Belgium that his former comrades in the 5th and other battalions were fighting each other in a tragic civil war and counter-revolution.
Today, workers and their families and those who depend on public services still have to fight for every advance in income and living standards.
I have no doubt that many those who laid down their lives for freedom one hundred years ago would be unimpressed with the Ireland of today, notwithstanding the social and economic progress that has been attained. We have just emerged from the third major economic recession in 60 years, including the most recent property, financial and banking collapse which for people in this country has been the deepest inflicted on any developed society since the Wall Street crash of 1929
As we pick up the pieces it is not surprising that those who have suffered the most, who have been forced to bear the brunt of the recent one sided austerity, are seeking a restoration of their pay and conditions and an equal share of the promised recovery and greatly improved public services. This is what the Proclamation envisaged when it guaranteed “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens.”
On a wider European scale we are witnessing the appalling treatment of those escaping war and extreme poverty in their home countries and the disturbing rise of xenophobic parties and movements determined to fence them out. This is not the continent envisaged by James Connolly when he declared that “We serve neither King nor Kaiser” across the front of Liberty Hall in 1915.
These are not the principles on which the wording of the Proclamation of Connolly and Pearse are based. If we are to realise the ambitions of Ashe and the courageous men and women who fought with him on these roads and in these fields one hundred years ago we need to revisit the integrity of their vision and of the aims and aspirations of the Proclamation and the subsequent Democratic Programme of 1919.
That may help those of us who are committed to a fairer, more equal society, where the current homeless, housing and health scandals, where income inequality, emigration, low pay and precarious work are a thing of the past, to achieve a better future for this and future generations.