Thomas Ashe was the son of John Ashe (d. 1684) of Cornerrin, later known as Ashbrook, and Sarah (d. 1668), his second wife. His first two wives having pre-deceased him, John Ashe had a recorded total of 24 children.
Thomas Ashe, better known as ‘Captain Thomas Ash’, one of the heroic defenders of Derry during its siege in 1688-89, wrote two manuscripts, which were later published:
(1) “Circumstantial Journal of the Siege of Londonderry”, published by his granddaughter in 1792, is acclaimed as the most detailed and authoritative account of the siege, according to many historians.
(2) “The Ash MSS.”, which he wrote from 1735-1737, was an account of the Ash(e)families who lived around Derry during the late 1600s and early 1700s. Other information and documents were added to it by Henry Tyler, and it was published in 1890.
Ashbrook, the family’s ancestral home near Tullyally on Londonderry’s east bank, was originally a gift from Queen Elizabeth I to Sir Thomas Ashe in recognition of services rendered to the Crown in helping to quash rebellion in Ireland. Thomas’ father, John, lived there and bequeathed it to his son George Ash(e) (1679-1729), a half-brother of Thomas by John’s third wife, Elizabeth Holland (d. 1735).
Captain Thomas Ashe, later promoted to Lieut. Colonel Thomas Ash(e), married twice, firstly to Elisabeth Becke (d. 1688), by whom he had two daughters, both of whom died young; and secondly, in 1693, to Elisabeth Rainey (1672-1728), by whom he had 17 children.
To defend the Londonderry plantation and their commercial interests, the merchant companies had fortified the city with huge walls designed to keep even the most determined enemy at bay. In 1689 they served their purpose dramatically during an epic siege of the city by the army of the Catholic King James II during the war for the English throne. Ireland was caught up in the wider European power struggle in which Catholic France and Protestant Holland were the superpowers and deadly rivals of the time. Fearing that England was becoming a Catholic satellite of King Louis XIV of France, the Dutch Prince William of Orange invaded England, chased King James from the throne, became King William III and proclaimed the `Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 in which the Protestant faith and succession were assured. In panic, James fled to France and then with his French allies came to Ireland to attack England from the rear and laid siege to Derry.
Thomas Ash(e) rose to the forefront of Derry’s history when he was heavily involved in the Protestant defence of the Walled City by the Williamites against the invading Catholic Jacobite forces in 1688-1689. When the siege was lifted and the Jacobites were retreating, they laid waste to Ashbrook, “burning the house to the ground”, and it had to be later completely rebuilt.
When the Jacobite forces first approached Derry, there was discussion within the walls as to whether they should resist or surrender. This event is best described by Captain Ash’s words in his Diary: “While we were in this confused hesitation, on the 7th December 1688, a few resolute Apprentice Boys determined for us.” There were thirteen Apprentice Boys, who drew their swords, ran to the main guard post and seized the keys. They then ran down to Ferryquay gate to raise the drawbridge and close the gates in the astonished faces of the Jacobites who were by then only 400 yards away.
The city which had a peacetime population of around 2,000 was swollen to an estimated 30,000 as families from the surrounding countryside sought refuge within its walls from the advancing army of King James. Conditions during the siege were horrendous, and Captain Thomas Ash recorded in his Diary on 26 July 1689, almost eight months into the siege:
“God knows, we never stood in such need of supply; for now there is not one week’s provisions in the garrison. Of necessity we must surrender the city, and make the best terms we can for ourselves. Next Wednesday is our last, if relief does not arrive before it. This day the cows and horses, sixteen of the first, and twelve of the last, were slaughtered; the blood of the cows was sold at four pence per quart, and that of the horses at two pence … There is not a dog to be seen, they are all killed and eaten.”
Other contemporary accounts describe unburied corpses being devoured by rats and the rats then being devoured by desperate humans. Everything had its price: a dog’s head was two shillings and sixpence; a cat was four shillings and sixpence; a rat was a shilling; and a mouse, sixpence. Fifteen thousand men, women and children are estimated to have died through starvation, malnutrition and disease.
Captain Ash tells of one poor fellow who had caught a dog and was dressing it for his dinner. At that moment there came in a man to whom he owed some money, and who demanded that then and there he must give him his money or the dog. The borrower is servant to the lender; the poor man was obliged to hand over the dog to his creditor, and to go dinnerless himself.
On 27 June 1689 Captain Thomas Ash, recorded:
“Ten bombs flew into the city. One fell on Joseph Gallagher’s house in Bishop Street, where two barrels of powder were lodged. There were 14 killed by it, viz. six grenadiers belonging to our regiment, four horsemen and four women.”
From his Diary, it has been calculated that as many as 337 bombs were fired between 21 June and 21 July. The highest figure for one day was 30 on 3 July.
Thomas Ash(e) was on active service throughout the Siege, serving firstly as a Lieutenant with Colonel Parke’s Coleraine Regiment and afterwards as a Captain with Colonel Lance’s Regiment. He served well throughout the Siege, as the poet Londeriados records:
“The Irish pressed our trenches on the strand,
Till noble Captain Ash did them withstand”.
In one sally against the besieging forces, a troop led by Captain Ash(e) captured a number of flags from the French forces. These still hang in St. Columb’s Cathedral in Derry and, while the cloth has been changed, the poles are still original. As a result of his bravery, the Apprentice Boys of Derry granted to the first-born of the successors of Captain Thomas Ash(e) the right to be escorted up the aisle with these flags taken by him at the Battle of Windyhill. This right was last exercised in 2001, when the eldest daughter, Melanie, of John Beresford-Ash (1938-2010), married Charles Cunningham.
On 28 July 1689, the Siege was finally lifted when three ships approached Derry via the river, and managed to break the boom, thus bringing long-awaited relief to the survivors. Captain Ash’s diary entry for that day is probably the best remembered:
“A day to be remembered with thanksgiving by the besieged in Derry for as long as they live, for on this day we are delivered from famine and slavery”.
The ships were led by the ‘Mountjoy’, which was captained by Captain Michael Browning, who was said to be related to Thomas Ash through his wife Jane Browning. Captain Thomas Ash recorded the scene in his Diary:
“Captain Browning stood upon the deck with his sword drawn, encouraging his men with great cheerfulness; but a fatal bullet from the enemy struck him in the head, and he died on the spot. King William did his widow the honour of tying a diamond chain round her neck, and settled on her a pension.”
Thomas Ash went on to participate in the decisive Battle of the Boyne on 1 July 1690, following which he was sick with a fever for five weeks. During the next three years, he was called upon to command troops in various places as the fight against those loyal to James II continued. In 1693, he married his second wife, Elisabeth Rainey. In 1694, he was appointed as High Sheriff of the City and County of Londonderry. In 1704, he was chosen as Alderman in the Corporation of Derry.
In 1710, he purchased an estate in the Mannor of Downpatrick. In 1715, he got a commission to be Major in Colonel Joshua Dawson’s Regiment of Militia. In 1716, he was made a Justice of the Peace for the County of Londonderry. Upon the death of Colonel Dawson in 1724, command of the Militia Regiment was given to Colonel George Coyningham, and Thomas was promoted to Lieut-Colonel.
In May 1727, Thomas moved to Ballymaguigen where, on 8 November 1728, his second wife, Elisabeth, died. Thomas died in 1737.