The Inquest on the Death of
FROM A SPEECH GIVEN BY AIDAN ARNOLD ON 26TH AUGUST, 2015
Tonight, I want to talk about an aspect of Thomas Ashe that is largely forgotten. Not about who he was, where he came from or what he did in 1916, but about the Inquest on the death of Thomas Ashe.
About 25 years ago while browsing through an old second hand bookshop I came across a booklet entitled The Death of Thomas Ashe, Full report of the inquest. It was published by J. M. Butler of 41 Amien Street in 1917. This was a word for word record of the eleven days of evidence given at the inquest on the death of Thomas Ashe.
I attended, as did my three beautiful daughters, Corduff National School where Thomas Ashe was headmaster from 1908 until 1916. I wrote a play entitled The Legacy of Ashbourne based on this detailed record of the inquest. Along with a group of parents we put in on to raise money for Corduff school. My speech tonight is based on that factual record.
The Case for Both Sides
The state’s case was that Thomas Ashe was serving a two-year prison service for sedition arising out of speeches he made in 1917. He refused to obey prison rules, with other prisoners he took part in a prison riot breaking glass in the cells and damaging furniture before going on hunger strike. The Prison authorities were forced to act to maintain order. They had to force feed him to protect his life but unfortunately, he died in the process. What happened to him was self-inflicted arising from his own actions.
The case for the Ashe family was Thomas Ashe and the other prisoners had demanded to be treated as political prisoners and not criminals. To break their spirits the prison authorities had illegally removed the prisoners’ bed, bedding and boots from their cells. Their hunger strike had been sparked by this illegal action. There was no riot, the only glass broken in the cells was the spyholes in the doors so prisoners could call out to each other. The force feeding was brutally enforced and Ashe had actually choked to death as a result.
The witnesses included the Lord Mayor of Dublin who had intervened to help the prisoners and to stop the prisoners from being maltreated, the chairman of the prison board Max Green was called but refused to answer any questions, claiming what he calls Privilege after every question. Various doctors were called in evidence. Most gave fair and balanced testimony but Dr William Henry Lowe, who had administered forcible feeding, was a particularly unconvincing witness.
The best way I can in a given an accurate account of the proceedings is to quote the summaries which were delivered at the end of the eleven days’ inquest by both sides. Ashe’s next of kin was represented by Timothy Michael Healy who was an experienced politician and legal expert. He had been a member of Parnell’s Nationalist Party He was first up Healy’s summary for Ashe’s next of kin.
We have been investigating the death of a very unusual man, a death so tragic and a man so remarkable, that as we know his coffin was followed by 100,000 people. No words of mine are needed to stress the importance of this inquest or of your verdict. Throughout, the prison authorities have not uttered one word of regret for the conduct of those who brought Thomas Ashe to his death. In fact, their attitude could be summed up by a phrase Mr Hanna used when he said “If he felt the cold he has himself to blame for it. “
What was the prison authority’s case? They say that the deceased was the architect of his own misfortune, that he was treated with absolute legality in the prison and that everything flowed from his own misconduct, from his own lawlessness and from his breach of the prison rules.
That case, which my learned friend Mr Hanna has presented, is, I say now without apology, as false as hell itself. There is not one word, one shadow or tittle of foundation in it. That case has been deliberately and disgracefully concocted by the prison board to escape guilt of wilful murder which lies at their door.
What really happened? Thomas Ashe started his sentence on September 11th. Immediately he refused to work or obey prison rules. He was punished by being deprived of books and losing remission on his sentence. From then until the day he died, no other punishment according to the Deputy Governor was ever inflicted on him.
Yet the Lord Mayor of Dublin has told us that he found Mr Ashe in a naked cell, having lain there for two days and two nights without bed, bedding or boots and racked from want of sleep. Do you know, gentlemen, what Thomas Ashe said to the Lord Mayor? I’ll tell you. He said simply “I don’t know what I have done to deserve this treatment.”
Ashe had been found guilty of an offence and was being punished for it. But this was in addition to that, this was illegal and unrecorded. The prison authorities had been caught in the act, whoever was responsible had to make up an excuse for it, and then they put the cart before the horse.
They invented the story of the smashing of the glass and the furniture, of the pandemonium. Then of the Deputy Governor driven to interfere, and all after the prisoners had committed illegalities and commenced a hunger strike, as it was stated, without provocation.
At that stage, there was no thought of a hunger strike. True, the prisoners planned a hunger strike on October 1st if their demands for a different status were not met. But this was September 20th, eleven days earlier, when the cells were stripped. It was this order from the Prison Board which sparked off the hunger strike there and then. That order from Mr Max Green, the Chairman of the Prison board, is what brought Thomas Ashe to his grave. If it were not for the intervention of the Lord Mayor, we could have forty corpses in Mount Joy Prison instead of one.
Green’s strategy was simple: not to concede the demands of the prisoners but instead to gamble his cruelties against their courage. Mr Max Green thought he would break Ashe’s spirit, but he only succeeded in breaking his heart.
I strongly object to the attitude which the prison authorities have adopted to this whole inquest. The jury are entitled to the fullest information in this case, not partial information, not partisan information, nor political information. At the beginning of this inquest the only people who knew all the facts surrounding the death of Thomas Ashe were the prison authorities and officials. We would have expected honesty or some sign of regret from them for this tragic affair. So, what did we get? As soon as they thought we were getting uncomfortably near the truth, they threw their shield of privilege around them. What is this Privilege? The privilege to conceal responsibility. The privilege to hide the guilty. I would submit that the invention of the doctrine of privilege in matters of life and death such as these, cannot and should not exist. At this stage, despite all the authority’s efforts, nobody can be in any doubt as to the degrading treatment Mr Ashe was subjected to before and during his hunger strike. I see no point in going into the terrible details again.
What have they achieved in Dublin Castle? Nothing, absolutely nothing. The prisoners’ original demands are now conceded in full, Thomas Ashe is dead. Other nations will read about it, in times to come. They will be heartened by the story of this humble, uncomplaining schoolmaster, who stood up against tyranny. But it is for you the jury here and now to appraise the blame as to how this man met his untimely end. It is for you to so frame your verdict that people may know that this man was no suicide. Thomas Ashe loved life, and that life was brutally taken away from him. If you find in accordance with those facts then his death will not have been a complete waste. Others have tried to avoid their responsibilities, I trust you will not avoid yours. I leave that in your hands gentlemen!
The state was represented by Henry Hanna KC. He was a lawyer of distinction who would later become a High Court judge.
Hanna’s Summary for the State
At the outset, I must object to Mr Healy’s conduct throughout this inquest. All during this case he has used extremely violent and unnecessarily abusive language. He has shown complete recklessness in the statements he has made and has disregarded every canon of decency on his examination and cross-examination of witnesses. His conduct has been unparalled in the history of the Irish Bar.
The result of his attack on Dr Lowe and Mr Max Green was that Dr Lowe is practically ruined in his profession, and both he and Mr Green are under constant police protection.
I would ask the jury to leave out of their minds all the frenzied wild statements which have been made and deal only with the facts of the case. I put it to you – do you believe if Thomas Ashe had taken the food offered to him from the time he went into prison, that he would be dead today? He would not.
The law states that when a prisoner refuses food, the jailor is obliged to preserve his life. It is, I submit, irrelevant to the inquiry whether artificial feeding is morally right or wrong. The law is that artificial feeding was necessary and you, the jury, should start off with that proposition in mind.
There is absolutely no doubt that there was a concerted effort among all the prisoners to defy the rules in Mountjoy Prison. They were faced with what could only be called a mutiny. Mr Healy tells us what Thomas Ashe is supposed to have said to the Lord Mayor. Do you know what his last words were to his priest? He said “Father, we made a great fight.” A great fight! Mr Boland was up against very resolute and determined men. What would have been said if he had given in to that, if he had not been able to govern his own prison. He had to act!
Thomas Ashe did not catch cold and he did not complain of having caught cold. Much has been made of this matter of his bed and bedding while referring to the causes of death. At no time did Ashe complain of being deprived of his bed and bedding.
All the doctors gave their evidence voluntarily and openly and all have agreed that the cause of death was heart failure following congestion of the lungs. There is not a shred of evidence despite Mr Healy’s insinuations, that Dr Lowe or anyone else was negligent in anything they did.
Mr Ashe seems almost to have contemplated death. I would not go so far as to say that he committed suicide, that is a word which Mr Healy has bandied about, but he certainly was well aware of his situation. Think back to what he said to the Lord Mayor about that. He said “If I die, I die in a good cause.”
Mr Ashe was a very determined man. He made his fight, and in doing so, he sacrificed his life. It is for you the jury to say how far his own actions contributed to that. The fact is if Thomas Ashe had taken his food he would be alive.
We find that the deceased Thomas Ashe, according to the medical evidence of Professor McWeeney, Sir Arthur Chase and Sir Thomas Myles, died of heart failure and congestion of the lungs on September 25th and that his death was caused by the punishment of taking away his bed, bedding and boots, and being left to lie on the cold floor for fifty hours, and then being subjected to forcible feeding in his weak condition after a hunger strike of five or six days.
We censure the castle authorities for not having acted promptly, especially when the grave condition of the deceased and other prisoners was brought to their notice on the previous Saturday by the Lord Mayor and Sir John Irwin; and find that the hunger strike was adopted against their being treated as criminals after they demanded to be treated as political prisoners. We condemn forcible or mechanical feeding as an inhuman and dangerous operation and say it should be discontinued.
We find that the assistant doctor who was called in, Dr Henry Lowe, having had no previous practise in such operations, administered forcible feeding unskilfully; and that the taking away of the deceased bed, bedding and boots was an unfeeling and barbarous act.
And we censure the Deputy Governor for violating the prison rules and inflicting punishment which he had no power to do. We infer that he was acting under instructions from the Prison Board at the Castle, which refused to give evidence and documents asked for.
We tender our sympathy to the relatives of the deceased in this sad and tragic occurrence
AIDAN ARNOLD, 26TH AUGUST, 2015