1916 lives: Thomas Kent was a brother in arms

Executed in wake of 1916 after he and his brothers fought off police raid on their home. A fatal gun battle ensued, writes Meda Ryan
1916 lives: Thomas Kent was a brother in arms

AFTER Thomas Kent was executed by a firing squad on May 9, 1916, in the Cork Military Detention Barracks (now Cork Prison) yard, he was buried in a shallow grave, which was apparently marked correctly.

This was only confirmed last year, following decades of speculation, including Dáil questioning. Since shortly after his execution, his family had sought that his body be brought “home” for re-interment, beside his brothers at the Castlelyons family grave: the well-kept grave, in the prison yard, was only available to family and friends on a once-a-year basis.

The fourth child of a family of nine children, Thomas Kent was a true patriot. His parents, Mary Rice and David Kent, were tenant farmers, born before the Famine.

Thomas, like all family members, was given the second name of Rice. From an early age, Thomas Rice Kent had knowledge of what his ancestors had endured. He was steeped in the Fenian and IRB tradition, and knew what had occurred.

His father’s cousin, David Kent, took part in Lomasney’s regiment in the Cork 1867 Rising. Later, Thomas became acquainted with the activities of cousin, John Curtin Kent, as he followed closely his involvement with O’Donovan Rossa, Tom Clarke, and others in the London dynamite campaign.

Curtin Kent’s torture, and endurance of twelve years of solitary confinement in English prisons, had a lasting effect on Thomas, and helped him later during his own struggles in gaol.

Thomas was only 10 when his father died, his eldest brother, James, was only 16, Edmond was 14, and his youngest brother, Richard, was barely a year old.

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Life in rural east Cork, in the late 1870s and over the decades ahead, was difficult for his widowed mother, Mary, and her family. But she was a strong, resourceful, extremely nationalistic woman, and was helped by a cooperative family, who believed, as the years progressed, that every effort counted.

Thomas was intelligent, agile, and loved his native language, as did all of the Kents, who were bilingual.

The first of his family to emigrate, Thomas, though only 17, left Ireland in April, 1883, for Boston, and lived initially with a family relative, Thomas Noonan, who ran a successful publishing, book-binding, printing and church-furnishing business. There, young Thomas got employment as a clerk.

Once he joined the Irish Philo-Celtic Society, his social life changed. He got deeply involved in cultural activities. His love of the Irish language aided his interaction with fellow members, whom he helped in the formation of an ‘Irish school’. This became extremely successful and helped promote, for most participants, a love of their native land.

Throughout his years in Boston, he studied Irish history, and learned how the Irish were treated by English- run governments in Ireland. He began to write about these events in the Boston Irish Echo.

Thomas was later joined by his brother, James, then David, and his younger brother, John. Through his studying, listening, reading and writing, he understood what the people of Ireland needed. Throughout his years in Boston, and via family contacts in Ireland, he became more patriotic.

His return home, in autumn, 1889, was sudden, due to the impending trial of his brothers, Edmond, David, William and Richard, along with a local priest and neighbours, charged with orchestrating a boycotting campaign. His predicament, as to whether to return to Boston and to his newly founded business, was not easy, as he became more deeply involved with his brothers and the decision to help his evicted neighbours.

Influences such as ‘the Mitchelstown Massacre’ and the premature death of a friend, the activist, James Mansfield, were factors in his decisions.

The Kent brothers, working as a team, unremittingly sought justice for the rural communities of north and east Cork — tenants who lived in appalling conditions and fought desperately against tyrannical landlordism.

Their campaign was difficult, but Thomas and his community were relentless. For the plight of others, he and his brothers spent many lonely nights in gaols.

Cultural movements, such as the Gaelic League and the Irish Revival, wove into his activities. His involvement in the Irish Volunteers, upon its foundation, came from a deep understanding and love of Ireland.

As commandant of the Galtee Brigade in north and east Cork, he worked tirelessly with his brother, David, Terence MacSwiney, and other organisers.

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The Ulster Volunteers’ threat to defeat Home Rule was the catalyst that got Thomas and his brothers to participate in the manoeuvres leading to the Easter Rising in 1916.

Writing, especially poetry, was one of Thomas’s talents. Sadly, few poems survived, due to the shoot-out in the Kent home before his arrest. His patriotic spirit shines through in the following lines from a poem he wrote during Easter week:

Let him who feels shame for his ancestor’s story

Begone from our pathway – let ours be the glory,

We’ll conquer or die, as our fathers of old

Have died for the land of the Green and the Gold.

Meda Ryan is author of Thomas Kent, published today as one of the final two in the O’Brien Press ‘16 Lives’ series of biographies of the men executed in 1916.

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