Thomas Kent was the only 1916 revolutionary to be executed outside Dublin. Historian Meda Ryan tells how one family in the South made a stand for land and freedom
THIS month marks the first anniversary of the State funeral of Thomas Kent — the 13th man executed in the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising.
It took this funeral to get Ireland’s forgotten patriot into the public domain. His body lay buried in a shallow, well-maintained grave in a corner of Cork Prison yard for over 99 years and could only be visited once annually by family and friends.
Over the years, his family sought to have his body brought “home” for re-internment in the Castlelyons family grave. Following ground testing, exhumation and DNA confirmation, their hard-won wish was granted with a dignified, emotional funeral attended by dignitaries from Ireland and abroad.
This true Irish patriot was at last being recognised and honoured. His coffin was fittingly draped in the tricolour as the cortège wound past his Bawnard home, travelling over areas so familiar to him during his many fights for the rights of his fellow Irish people.
As the only leader who had fought in the Land War as well as 1916, Thomas Kent’s life was very different from the other executed men. Furthermore, all the Kent family were involved, including Thomas’s mother, and all were arrested.
They were the only family who gave their home for Ireland: Their home was a wreck after the shootout, whereas in Dublin it was public buildings that were destroyed. Also, Thomas was the only man from Munster executed in Cork.
Thomas Kent was the fourth eldest of nine children born to tenant farmers, David Kent and Mary Rice. He was only 10 when his father (aged 44) died in 1875. Due to rent difficulties his widowed mother took a “lesser lease” on Bawnard House and farm, and moved there with her seven sons and daughter. Her eldest daughter had died in 1873.
Steeped in the IRB and Fenian tradition, Thomas was intelligent. In his early teens he joined his older brother Edmond in the Land League. At 17, he emigrated to Boston and worked as a clerk in a publishing and furnishing business.
Once he joined the Irish Philo-Celtic Society his life changed radically. He became involved in the formation of an “Irish School”. His brother, James, joined him, and later David, then John.
By June 1889, Thomas had founded his own publishing company. He was leading an active social life and had a girlfriend. Suddenly he returned home for the impending trial of his four brothers charged with orchestrating a boycotting campaign. The court case, spread over nine days, resulted in Edmond, William and David receiving harsh hard labour sentences.
So Thomas stayed to help Richard (14) and his mother on the farm and got caught up in Land League issues. On several occasions the Kent brothers spent many lonely nights in gaols. They were national heroes. Their sacrifices, along with those of other tenant farmers, ultimately defeated an unjust system.
Thomas’s Fenian cousin, John Curtin Kent, was involved with Tom Clarke. Through this connection Tom Clarke inducted Thomas into the IRB. He joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913 and soon became Commandant of the Galtee Battalion. With his brothers he threw his energies into training and founding new companies.
In January 1916, Thomas and Terence MacSwiney were charged with making “seditious speeches” and possessing ammunition. During the trial, a letter Thomas had written stated: “As a Volunteer, I am prepared to defend my country to the last drop of my blood against all comers…” Both men spent time in jail.
Thomas wrote to his Fenian cousin Curtin Kent in New York: “You’ll be glad to know that our cause is impregnable. We were never so strong [nor] had such an honest and determined leadership… determined to be free.”
Dedicated to stage a major rising in the south, Thomas and his brothers David, William, and Richard, equipped with arms, ammunition, and a marching kit, left home for a safe house and awaited orders from Dublin headquarters. He expected to link with the Limerick Brigade, then extend north-wards towards the river Shannon.
By May 1, when the Kent brothers got no word, they returned home under cover of darkness. They believed nobody had seen them. After a happy reunion with their mother and a meal, the family felt secure and settled for the night. Tired after their days of alertness and hiding, the Kents rested easily. But not for long.
Under Head Constable Rowe a number of men armed with rifles, bayonets, and ammunition left Fermoy barracks in two trucks around 2.30am on May 2 and headed towards Bawnard House.
The stillness in the house was disturbed by a thunderous knocking. William jumped out of bed, pulled on some clothes, stuck his head out the window and called, “Who’s there?” The reply was quick, “Police! Come down!” He ran to Tom’s room, shook him. “The place is surrounded”.
Alerted, the brothers grabbed their guns. Again the police banged loudly on the door and roared, “Open the door for the police!” Defiantly, Tom and his family shouted, “We are soldiers of the Irish Republic — there is no surrender!” The police opened fire.
Acting on Eoin MacNeill’s initial order to defend and prevent themselves from being disarmed, the Kents replied.
As the fighting from outside grew in fury, Thomas and his brothers continued to respond. They moved from window to window. Their mother, Mary, assisted in loading the weapons and with encouragement. William had a single-barrel shot gun; at one stage a cartridge jammed in the breach when he tried to fire.
His mother whipped the gun from him, went to the stairs, took out a stair-rod, pushed it up the barrel, released the cartridge, and handed the gun back to William. The fighting and fury continued, lasting over four hours, with military bombardment, including a machine-gun.
Here was one family in the south standing against an empire’s might. There was not a pain of glass left in any window; there were bullet marks everywhere — the house was a wreck. David had two fingers shot off and when he received a gaping wound in his side and as his mother tried to bandage him, Thomas shouted, “Get a priest and a doctor! We’ve a man dying”. When the ammunition ran out they had no alternative but to surrender. During the arrest of the family, Richard, a famous athlete, made a run to clear the hedge, but he was shot and mortally wounded. A policeman, Constable Rowe had also been shot.
All were arrested. Under heavy military escort William and barefooted Thomas were forced to walk the rough stone-road behind the cart on the five-mile journey to Military Barracks at Fermoy
At the trial on May 4, 1916, in Cork Detention Barracks, William was reprieved and Thomas was found guilty under the Defence of the Realm Act.
Two days later, the ultimate punishment was endorsed. General Maxwell signed an order sentencing him to death.
On the eve of his execution, Thomas refused a lavish meal. He prayed with Fr Sexton.
At dawn on 9 May the handcuffed and bare-footed Thomas ‘walked proudly’. He refused to be blind-folded as he faced a firing squad drawn from the Scottish Borderers; he went to his doom, a Rosary Beads in his hands.
David, when slightly cured, was tried by general court martial on June 14, convicted and sentenced to death. Maxwell, conscious of public opinion, commuted the sentence to five years penal servitude.
On January 5, 1917, just over seven months after the Bawnard shooting, Mary Kent’s body was brought back for the first time since the incident to the still wrecked Bawnard house. William, the only son left there, had begun to make it somewhat habitable. David, in Dartmoor, was not allowed out for the funeral.
Meda Ryan is historian and author of 16 Lives: Thomas Kent, published by O’Brien Press
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