1917 - continued
The Catholic Church had been to the forefront in opposition to the Rising but a cracking of this unanimity was another ominous development for the Nationalists. Apart from republican sympathies among rank and file clergy the Bishop of Limerick Edward Thomas O’Dwyer was going against the tide with a strong denunciation of the executions followed by a rousing republican speech when being conferred with the Freedom of Limerick in late 1916. By the time of his untimely death the following year he had become something of a darling of the republican cause with strong demand for his pastoral letters and the Cork Board of Guardians had quoted approvingly from him when interjecting in that Longford by-election.
In May 1917 Redmond hastened his party’s downfall by becoming involved in Prime Minister Lloyd George’s Irish Convention which SF boycotted. Made up of political, clerical and business interests from the whole island, it was meant to find a political settlement acceptable to all shades of opinion but failed dismally in this regard. The question of partition proved particularly divisive and the report that appeared the following year was not signed by all the members and overshadowed by the emerging “Conscription Crisis”.
The rapid progress that the SF movement was making throughout 1917 went into overdrive on September 25th when Thomas Ashe died at Mountjoy Jail after being force fed while on hunger strike by a doctor unfamiliar with the procedure. The schoolmaster from the Dingle Gaeltacht became the first republican martyr over a year on from the execution of Roger Casement and Ashe was custom built for that role. A staunch trade unionist, an accomplished piper and a Gaelic league activist, he was associated with what was regarded as one of the few successes of Easter Week, the shooting dead of 11 policemen in an engagement at Ashbourne, County Meath. Additionally, the circumstances of his death provided propaganda possibilities that were not lost and to this day his name is synonymous with force feeding. Much was made of the fact that he died in his thirty third year and a song that he wrote “Let me Carry your Cross for Ireland Lord” soon became standard fare at singing sessions in private and public houses. His funeral to Glasnevin Cemetery on September 30th was a carefully choreographed affair not unlike that of O’Donovan Rossa in 1915. A crowd of about 40,000 followed the cortege to the Fenian plot where Ashe was laid to rest beside the founder James Stephens and other luminaries from the movement including Rossa. In a brief bilingual oration Michael Collins said that the volley which had just been heard was the only speech which it was proper to make above the grave of a dead Fenian. The Home Rule party establishment did not attend but in an ominous development one of their Dublin MPs Alfie Byrne turned up on the day. Byrne’s senior colleague Tim Healy observed that not since the execution of the Manchester Martyrs had there been such public sympathy for the deceased and reaction further hardened when the inquest blamed the prison authorities for Ashe’s death. Meanwhile Laurence O’Neill, the Lord Mayor of Dublin who had visited Ashe just before his hunger strike, spoke of the deplorable conditions that he had observed.