The policeman whose death led to the court-martial and execution of Thomas Kent

Head Constable William Neile Rowe, taken around the time he joined the police force in 1887. Pic courtesy of Jim Herlihy.

In a graveyard just 10km from where Thomas Kent will be buried on Friday lie the remains of the policeman whose death led to his court-martial and execution.

William Rowe was Head Constable in nearby Fermoy and led the party of policemen who had attempted to bring in the Kent brothers as part of a roundup of Irish Volunteers in the wake of the quelled Rising in Dublin. His headstone carries the crowned harp insignia of the Royal Irish Constabulary, standing over the churchyard grave in Castlehyde in north Cork.

But it was in relatively far-off Wexford, in Killane near Bunclody, that Rowe was born into a Church of Ireland family in early 1867.

At the age of 20, in 1887, he signed up to the predominantly Catholic RIC on a Monday in mid-September just like today. He had previously worked as a clerk, but joining the police might have been a response to economic need. His father Joseph had died two years earlier, leaving his widow Alicia with at least one older and three children younger than William to bring up.

But whatever portion of his wages he was able to send his mother, William may not have been home too much to see how the family was faring, as he spent his entire policing career in Cork City and county, being first stationed there in March 1888.

The headstone at Castlehyde graveyard of, Co Cok, at the grave of RIC man WIlliam Rowe who was shot dead in a skirmish with the Kent family

He was almost three years a sergeant when, on April 19, 1900, he married Sarah Jane in Clonakilty. The 30-year-old bride also came from a Church of Ireland family, one of 14 children of Robert Splaine and Mary Varian from Castleventry, Co Cork, who had seven daughters and seven sons.

Rowe was then stationed in Ballincollig, and the couple lived in a house on military grounds in the town, which had a large army barracks. The home was surrounded by those of senior policemen, serving military men and local tradesmen and their families.

Rowe’s job was probably typical of a RIC sergeant in his day, and among the cases he prosecuted were proceedings at Cork Petty Sessions in the autumn of 1899 against three people for having unmuzzled dogs.

On October 9 that year, he prosecuted three prostitutes — Mary Sexton, Eliza Scollard, and Margaret Sutton, all of no fixed abode — for being drunk in a public place at Ballincollig. The same sitting saw him bring a case against Cornelius Callaghan, of Maglin, Ballincollig for selling a pint of milk which was deficient in fat.

This was the kind of responsibility the police force at the time had, before there were health or consumer directorates to oversee food safety and standards. Rowe would go on to add the role of inspector of weights and measures, an important role in commercial and other considerations, when he was moved to the city.

By 1907, Rowe had moved to Victoria Terrace on Alexandra Rd, between Wellington Rd and Old Youghal Road on Cork’s northside, another address surrounded by military families. The house stands barely 100m from where Thomas Kent would be detained, court-martialled, and executed in May 1916 in what was then Victoria Barracks. His remains lay buried in the grounds there until June and will lie there in state on Thursday evening, in what is now Collins Barracks, ahead of Friday’s State funeral.


THOMAS KENT STATE FUNERAL Thomas Kent’s State Funeral will take place on Friday 18th September 2015. On the eve of...

Posted by Cork County Council on Friday, September 11, 2015

It was a short downhill walk for William Rowe from Victoria Terrace to work at King St (now MacCurtain St), where he was sergeant of the busy RIC station, headquarters of the constabulary’s north city district.

By the time the 1911 Census was taken, Rowe was still working there, but he and Sarah Jane lived a short distance from Victoria Terrace, at 34 Gardiner’s Hill.

At this stage, the family had grown, the couple having five children between 1903 and 1908: Joseph R (named after Rowe’s father and older brother), Annie, William George Neile (sharing his last given name with that of the police sergeant himself), Edward (after another of Rowe uncle), and Marguerite.

The children were aged between eight and 13 when their father died violently on May 2, 1916, one month shy of a year since he had been promoted to head constable.

The new job brought him to Fermoy, yet another garrison town, home to one of the largest military barracks in the south of Ireland. Here, one of the first cases he brought before the courts was heard in early July 1915, when Gerald Flahavan of Johnstown, Glanworth, faced charges under the Defence of the Realm Act, not unlike those that would be laid before Thomas Kent for an anti-recruitment speech the following January.

“I would rather have a bullet through my brain than fight for England. If the Germans came over here I would fight with them,” Flahavan told the new head constable on the night of the alleged offence, after claiming he had earlier been robbed in the mess of the Connaught Rangers earlier.

Rowe would suffer that very fate within 10 months, the west Cork-based Skibbereen Eagle reporting the ‘Fermoy Tragedy’ of May 1916 under the rather unsubtle sub-headline: ‘Head Constable’s Brains Blown Out’.

Within yards of his grave in Castlehyde, the headstone directly facing Rowe’s, lie the remains of Patrick McGrath, a late member of the same Connaught Rangers regiment whose behaviour at the nearby military barracks Flahavan had complained of in June 1915.

McGrath had joined the army as a 19-year-old in 1905 and left in 1913 owing to ill health, but re-enlisted in 1915 for the Royal Horse & Royal Field Artillery. After transferring to the 1st Battalion Connaught Rangers in 1919, he was with it when members mutinied at Solon in India in late June 1920, in protest over the behaviour of Crown forces at home in Ireland.

Along with many fellow mutineers, he was sentenced to five years’ penal servitude, most of it spent on the Isle of Wight, before his release and return to Ireland in 1923 as part of a deal between the British and fledgling Irish government. Their actions in solidarity with the independence movement at home while serving in the Punjab region thousands of miles away earned them a unique pension scheme. Passed into law in 1936, the pensions were similar to those offered to men and women who could prove military service during the 1916 Rising and War of Independence. McGrath was paid 10 shillings and six pence a week until he died after falling from a lorry in August 1947, aged 61, having also worked as a messenger for the Land Commission.

After her husband met his violent and unexpected end, Sarah Jane Rowe made an unsuccessful claim in the courts for £2,500 compensation for malicious injury, a case which at this time would be brought against the relevant local authority. Despite their sympathy for her situation, the Recorder of Cork and an appeal court judge were unable to grant her claim after hearing legal argument by Cork County Council and Fermoy Rural Council.

A plaque in Castlehyde cemetery for Patrick McGrath, ex-Connacht Rangers, near the grave of William Rowe.

In his RIC service record, under the heading for cause of death, it simply states: ‘Sinn Fein Rising’. William Neile Rowe was one of 17 RIC and Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) members to die in connection with the Easter Rising. If he had been of an equivalent rank in the army, first-class warrant officer, his widow would have received £48 a year, with £32 and 10 shillings for each of their five children. Instead, she received an enhanced pension of £50 per annum, but just £6 and five shillings for each child under 16, albeit this was more than her ordinary entitlement under the Constabulary Acts.

While newspaper reports in the days after Rowe’s death described local feelings of deep sympathy with the family of a man who was “most popular with all sections in the town since his arrival”, Sarah Jane did not stay on in Fermoy. She and the family moved back to Cork City and later Belfast, where she died, although she too is buried in Castlehyde cemetery. The last of their children died in 1998.

A suitable memorial to all the 549 members of the RIC and 13 members of the DMP killed on duty between 1916 and 1922, around 100 of them who lost their lives in Cork, is the primary objective of the RIC & DMP Commemoration Committee. Also known as the Harp Society, it was founded in 2013 by a group of retired members of An Garda Siochana, including RIC historian and geneaologist Jim Herlihy, who supplied some of the details in this article. The committee held its third annual interdenominational ceremony in Dublin on August 29, attended by Communications Minister Alex White.

The names of 14 RIC men and three DMP men killed on duty during the Easter Rising are to be included in the national memorial to be erected in Glasnevin Cemetery next year. For more see:

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