The human remains found in Cork prison this week have brought to the public’s attention, a man who has largely lingered in the shadows of history. They are thought to be those of Thomas Kent, an Irish Volunteer who was executed by British forces in Cork following the Easter Rising in 1916.
Kent is often overlooked for some of the more prestigious names, such as Pearse, Connolly, Plunkett and McDonogh, in discussions of those executed after the Rising. But Kent’s execution shows the scale of the Rising as a national event that was not just confined to Dublin.
It is also indicative of the Rising’s story in Cork, where Volunteer plans to join the fight failed drastically. Despite the lack of action, Easter week in Cork had a lasting effect in the minds of republicans there and Cork’s story must not be overlooked during next year’s centenary celebrations.
Integral to that story is Thomas Kent, who was born in 1867 in Castlelyons, Co. Cork. His family were well known for the role they played in the Land War in the late 19th century and were well respected in the area. In 1889, Thomas’s brothers were arrested for organising boycotts against rogue landlords and conspiring to avoid paying rent.
Thomas was in America at this time and after spending some years in Boston, returned to Ireland and became involved in the Irish cause. He was very active both in the Gaelic League and with the Irish Volunteers, where he worked closely with Terence MacSwiney in recruiting and organising members.
In the months before the Easter Rising it is believed that Kent had close connections with Volunteer leaders in Dublin. Few people knew of the planned insurrection, given the secretive nature of its organisers in the IRB military council, but it is possible that Kent and other officers suspected that something was afoot without knowing exactly what.
Ultimately, the plans to mobilise Cork Volunteers fell apart. Initially, Roger Casement’s plan to bring in German rifles was foiled when he was arrested in Kerry and the arms ship, The Aud, was captured by the British Navy.
Even more detrimental was Chief-of-Staff Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order to the Volunteers nationally that all activities for Easter Sunday were cancelled. MacNeill was left out of the IRB’s military council and had been unaware of the planned insurrection. Upon learning of the plans, and also of Casements arrest and the failure to land arms, MacNeil sent out dispatches to stop all mobilisations, believing the plan was doomed.
In Dublin, the leaders of the Rising were able to press ahead with their plans in spite of MacNeill’s decision. Outside the capital, however, only pockets of fighting broke out.
In Cork, Kent and the rest of the Volunteers obeyed MacNeill’s orders not to mobilise.
The inaction of the Volunteers during Easter Week in Cork is thought to have had a profound effect on many of the members. They felt a sense of guilt and regret that they stayed at home while comrades took up arms and died in Dublin.
This is often cited as something which motivated Terence MacSwiney’s hunger strike protest in 1920 against British rule in Ireland. The idea being that by offering up his life for the Irish cause, he was somehow redeeming himself for not rising during Easter week.
In Bawnard House, the Kent’s also sat out Easter week. Weapons had been readied and loaded in anticipation of an order to march to Dublin, but the order never came.
When the British had quelled the insurrection in Dublin, the RIC set about arresting known republican sympathisers. In Cork, on May 1st, Thomas Kent and his Family were surrounded by the police in their home. In what was essentially the only Easter Rising conflict in the county, they resisted arrest and a gun fight began.
Thomas and three of his four brothers, William, Richard and David, fought off the police until they ran out of ammunition and were forced to surrender. During the fighting, they were even helped by their mother who, according to William, “assisted by loading weapons and with words of encouragement”.
The battle raged for three hours. An RIC Head Constable, William Rowe, was shot, though it is unclear which brother fired the fatal shot. Rowe died at the scene as was the only member of the RIC killed in Cork during the Easter Rising.
David Kent suffered serious injuries also, losing two fingers and receiving a gaping wound to his side. Additionally, after surrendering, Richard Kent was not immediately handcuffed and saw an opportunity to escape. As he attempted to flee he was shot and seriously wounded.
On May 4th, Thomas was court martialled and found guilty of armed rebellion.
He was sentenced to death by firing squad and spent his final days alone and isolated from other prisoners in what was then the British military’s detention centre.
Five days later on May 9th, Kent was executed and buried within the grounds of Cork Prison. Of his brothers, David was also sentenced to death but had this overturned, William was acquitted of all charges and released, while Richard died days later from his gunshot wound.
The exact location of Thomas’s burial spot has been long debated. Now, DNA tests may once and for all allow the Kent descendants to have Thomas’s body reinterned at the family plot in Castlelyons.
Almost a hundred years after his death, Thomas Kent is making us look into our past in new ways as the nation prepares to commemorate the event which sparked the flame for the creation of an Irish Republic.
Essential to understanding the legacy of the Rising will be remembering events like those at Bawnard House and the deaths that occurred there on both sides of the conflict.
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