Radio Free Éireann
WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
New York City
Martin Galvin speaks to Irish Republican activist and campaigner, Cáit Trainor, via telephone from Armagh about a recent commemoration for Thomas Ashe and about the Duleek Hungerstrike Monument. (begins time stamp ~ 39:54)
Martin: And with us on the line we have Cáit Trainor. Cáit, welcome back to Radio Free Éireann.
Cáit: Thanks very much, Martin.
Martin: Okay. Today you’re in Duleek, Co. Meath, and you’re talking about Thomas Ashe, a great Irish patriot who died almost a hundred years ago today after a hunger strike, after being force-fed and it was one of the key moments – his life was one of the key inspirations which helped turn Irish public opinion around to the point where, in 1916, it may have been unpopular in many areas to the country to the point where, by the following year, 1918, people would overwhelmingly vote a mandate to endorse what they stood for. Could you tell us a little about Thomas Ashe and why he’s being commemorated today?
Absolutely. Well yes, you’re right, Thomas Ashe’s death was a seminal moment in Irish history. It did certainly did change Irish opinion along with the fifteen executions that happened after the 1916 Rising. So Thomas Ashe was a great Irish patriot. He was a teacher, he was president of the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood), he was a great man in the GAA and the language Irish language and culture. He was immersed in Irish culture growing up and took part in the 1916 Rising.
He was arrested as part of that 1916 Rising, being a Commander in the Fingal Battalion, and they took part in the Battle of Ashbourne and it was a great military victory for them at the time – one of the military victories of 1916. However, along with the rest of the leaders Thomas Ashe was arrested. He was sentenced to death. But because fifteen people had been executed there was a public outcry and Thomas Ashe, luckily enough, had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment.
Now the following year – public opinion had swayed that much – that the British forces actually had a general amnesty and the rest of the Republican prisoners were released. Thomas Ashe got straight back on the bandwagon and the business of Irish independence and he made a number of public addresses and he was actually arrested then for seditious speaking. When he was arrested they treated him as a criminal, this was in June 1917. So like prisoners since Thomas Ashe, and I’m sure your listeners will be very aware of this, Republican prisoners are political prisoners of war and they refuse to be criminalised. And Thomas Ashe refused to wear a convict’s uniform, a prisoner’s uniform, and he, along with six comrades, embarked on a hunger strike. As part of that hunger strike the authorities at that time had a policy of force-feeding people on hunger strike and two days into his hunger strike they, after cruelly force-feeding him – and actually they did the force-feeding while they had Thomas Ashe in a strait jacket – they pierced his lung which was a fatal injury to Thomas Ashe and, unfortunately on day three of his hunger strike, he unfortunately died. So the importance of Thomas Ashe, is that firstly, he is the first Republican hunger striker and in Irish history, we’ve had twenty-two of them in total to date. And he was a great Irish patriot and an all round great – just a fantastic man who Irish people still very much hold Thomas Ashe’s memory dear to our hearts.
Martin: And his funeral was also a tremendous turnout, something that showed just changing feelings in Ireland in support of a free, independent republic and what Thomas Ashe stood for and died for…
Martin: It’s important – you were referring – Dolours Price, Marian Price, for example, Gerry Kelly and Hugh Feeney were on hunger strike in the ’70’s and they were force-fed – brutally treated that way. The hunger strikes of Bobby Sands and the others in 1981 were over the same issue of political status – refusing to be treated as a criminal. You’re in a place, Duleek Hungerstrike Memorial Garden, it’s run by Thomas Lynch. I see very frequently, there are very many commemorations – it’s an independent Republican commemoration. How is that organised – that independent Republican commemoration – and some of the events that they have?
Cáit: So the Duleek Hungerstrike Monument Committee are a local group of people here in Duleek that I’d say maybe ten, maybe a bit longer ago, decided that they wanted to create a hunger strike garden memorial to all of the hunger strikers. And along with a prominent Republican such as Thomas Lynch here in Duleek and with the support of the local people they gathered up the money and they’ve created – and you really have to see this garden to believe it.
It’s absolutely beautiful! It’s so well-maintained. The love that goes into cultivating and creating this garden is unbelievable. The passion these people have in Duleek for the hunger strikers is second to none. And as part of that – they’re just a local independent committee, I mean there’s no big organisation backing these people – they are, they constantly are looking at commemorations, commemorating Irish patriots, the hunger strikers – they have a very successful independent Easter commemoration here every year also, but it would be well known the length and breadth of Ireland, they’re a very highly respected group of people and certainly all independents and also organisations would throw their weight in behind the Duleek people who are keeping the flag flying for Irish Republicanism and they will not allow the memories of Irish patriots, and in particular the hunger strikers, to die. And they do a fantastic job of it. I mean, even outside of Duleek they’ve organised convoys for current Irish political prisoners, such as Tony Taylor, the Craigavon Two, where they would actually have convoy of cars coming from Duleek to Dublin and then maybe having an address at the GPO. They’re a very forward-thinking and innovative bunch of people who are constantly trying to move the national agenda forward. So the garden, I have to say, is fantastic and for anybody who would like to look that up they are on Facebook, Duleek Hungerstrike Committee, and even if you want to google them you will see this beautiful garden that they’ve created.
Martin: Alright. One of the things being done today – Paul McGlinchey, who was on this programme just a few weeks back, has a new book out, Truth Will Out, about being a blanketman, about during the time of the hunger strikes in 1980 and 1981. What was done to break prisoners and to force them to wear a criminal costume and allow themselves and their struggle to be criminalised. I know that that book is going to be promoted in conjunction with the event today. Is that correct?
Cáit: That’s correct. We’re actually going to the book launch here now just when I’ve gone off this interview. I was speaking to Paul just before I came on here and he said you know, he told me that he was on a number of weeks ago, the book is going to be sold and launched and I think Paul is going to say a few words about it.
Yes absolutely, Paul McGlinchey, ex-blanketman, very much in the tradition of Thomas Ashe, so that’s quite fitting that he’s going to launch that book here today. I haven’t actually got a chance to read the book myself, I’m going to purchase it after this, and I’ll be able to report back if it’s a good read after that but, by all accounts, it’s a very informative book and it’s very important for Paul to do this – Paul was diagnosed with cancer last year and he just felt now was the right time to actually, as the book says, the truth will out – he wants to put the truth on the record of his experiences in jail.
Martin: Okay. Now you were the main speaker at the commemoration, we’ve just got a couple of minutes left, but was there a central theme or message that you wanted to express to the people who were at that commemoration today for Thomas Ashe?
Cáit: Absolutely. The central theme of my speech was that we need to keep going in the face of adversity.
We are facing very dark times in Ireland at the moment. We have a supergrass trial, we have an increase in IRA membership charges. Indeed today the Special Branch of An Garda Síochána, you know, completely immersed our commemoration – they were taking local peoples’ names, they were intimidating the crowd – and my message to the people really was that in the face of all this adversity and in the memory of Thomas Ashe and the rest of the Irish patriots we need to keep going because these men and women gave their lives and we need to pursue their ultimate goal which is Irish independence. They, just to hit on it again, the Gards really were acting very – their behaviour was terrible today in trying to intimidate local people – but, true to form, the Irish Republican people here in Duleek stood up and faced them down and we had a fantastic commemoration which had a great turnout and all credit must go to the Duleek Hungerstrike Committee for organising it.
Martin: You know, it’s sad to think that a hundred years ago during Thomas Ashe’s funeral there would have been members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) writing down names and trying to intimidate people by their presence. And it’s sad to think that a hundred years later, after we have an independent Irish parliament in Dublin, for the Twenty-Six Counties at least, after we have, supposedly, an Irish force that is independent of the British that they would be concerned and trying to intimidate people simply for commemorating an Irish patriot like Thomas Ashe, like all the others of 1916. And I just want to commend everybody – the Duleek Hungerstrike Committee. I’ve seen a number of their events. I always read people who’ve spoken at them – Anthony McIntyre puts some speeches up on The Pensive Quill – I just want to commend you and everybody at that commemoration today for paying a fitting tribute to Thomas Ashe and for everything that he stood for, which Irish patriots have stood for. Alright. Thank you very much.
Cáit: Thank you. Thanks again. Slán. (ends time stamp ~50:18)