Thomas Kent state funeral: Overdue accolade for life of defiance

Lord Mayor Mary Shields lays a wreath during the ceremony.

The remains of Thomas Kent will be taken on Friday from Cork Prison, where they were unearthed in June and confirmed by DNA analysis last month as those of the north Cork Irish Volunteers organiser. The public will have a chance to pay their respects on Thursday evening at the adjoining Collins Barracks in Cork City. Ahead of the State funeral, the Irish Examiner discovers what brought Thomas Kent to become one of the 16 men executed after the 1916 Rising

There are over 1100 search results found for Thomas Kent in the Irish Examiner archive.  Whether you are a researcher, historian or you simply want to explore your history visit Friday the State Funeral of Commandant Thomas Kent of the Galtee Battalion of Irish Volunteers will take place at Castlelyons. The evening before, his remains will lay in State in St Michael’s Church in Collins Barracks, Cork. For years, many people were unaware of Thomas Kent and only knew that he was someone that Kent Station in Cork was named after. By the end of this week, all that will have changed.

Thomas Kent was born on his father’s farm at Coolagown, Co Cork in 1865. He was the fifth of nine children born to David Kent and Mary Rice, the others being twins James and John, born in 1859; Elizabeth, born in 1860 (died 1872); Edmond, born in 1862; David, born in 1867; Elizabeth, born in 1871; William, born in 1873 and Richard, who was born in 1875.

Thomas Kent state funeral: Overdue accolade for life of defiance

When David Kent died in 1880, Mary took a lease on a 200-acre farm at Bawnard, Castlelyons. A short time later, her two eldest sons, James and John, emigrated to Boston and were later joined by Thomas and David. While in Boston, Thomas found employment with a publisher of Roman Catholic literature and also devoted considerable time to promoting Irish cultural. While Thomas was in Boston, his brothers Edmond, William, and Richard joined the Land League and became actively involved in the campaign for tenants’ rights. They were later joined by David after he returned home from Boston. In 1889, the four brothers were arrested and charged with conspiring to boycott the produce of a farmer who had obtained his tenancy after the previous tenant, the Kent’s uncle, Richard Rice, had been evicted.

When the brothers were brought before the local resident magistrates Richard was acquitted because he was only 13 years old. David, however, was sentenced to six months hard labour, while Edmond and William each got four months.

When he heard this news, Thomas decided it was time to return home. He arrived in Bawnard soon after his brothers had been released from prison and he decided to join them in the Land League. His decision led to him being arrested, along with William, and charged with conspiracy. This time, William was sentenced to six months hard labour and Thomas was sentenced to two months. It was his first time in prison — but the Kent brother’s fight for tenant’s rights had made them local heroes.

Though they retained their beliefs, when the Irish Parliamentary Party tore itself asunder during the ‘Parnell Split’ in December 1890, the Kents became disillusioned with politics and decided to concentrate on running their farm.

Thomas Kent state funeral: Overdue accolade for life of defiance

Thomas Kent

Thomas also found time to pursue other interests. He joined the Castlelyons branch of the Gaelic League, got involved with the GAA, and became a member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence. These activities occupied much of his life until April 1912, when Ireland was plunged into crisis following introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill in the House of Commons.

The intensity of Unionist opposition and the emergence of the Ulster Volunteer Force in January 1913 alarmed nationalist Ireland. In response to these developments a nationalist force known as Óglaigh na hÉireann, or Irish Volunteers, was established at a public meeting held in Dublin on November 25, 1913. A Cork Corps was formed at a meeting at Cork City Hall two weeks later and companies were soon being established in towns throughout the county. Thomas and his brothers quickly realised the importance of the Volunteer movement and they enlisted in 1914.

The objective of the Irish Volunteers was to “secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to all the people of Ireland”. This objective provided a unity of purpose for those within the movement, but that would change when Britain went to war with Germany on August 4, 1914. On September 20, 1914, John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, called upon the Volunteers to join the British Army to fight in the war. His action split the movement. Some 170,000 answered his call and became known as the National Volunteers. Approximately 12,000 more separatist- minded members, including the Kent brothers, believed Ireland should be responsible for its own foreign policy and that Irishmen shouldn’t take part in a war that Britain was fighting to advance its own Imperialist objectives. This group retained the title Irish Volunteers. Following the split, the Irish Volunteers embarked on a process of reorganisation.

Thomas Kent played a key role in this process. At the end of October 1915, he represented the Castlelyons Company at the 2nd National Convention of the Irish Volunteers held in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. In the summer of 1915, Terence MacSwiney became full-time organiser for the newly formed Cork Brigade and Thomas Kent was among the officers who assisted him in this task. Their efforts were so successful that, by April 1916, a total of 47 active Volunteer companies had been established in the county.

The Royal Irish Constabulary was familiar with Thomas Kent because of his membership of the Land League. However, his activities with the Irish Volunteers soon made him a marked man. In addition to his efforts to organise the Cork Brigade, he was also known to have disrupted British Army recruiting meetings. On January 12, 1916, he was arrested with Terence MacSwiney and charged with making a seditious speech at the village of Ballynoe earlier in the month. Although he was acquitted on this occasion, he was arrested the following month and charged with being in possession of illegally held arms and ammunition. This time he was found guilty and sentenced to two months in prison.

Thomas Kent state funeral: Overdue accolade for life of defiance

Prue Riordan, from Rathcormac, Co Cork, a niece of Thomas Kent, at his graveside during the Thomas Kent Memorial Ceremony at Cork Prison.

Thomas Kent was now the Commandant of the Galtee Battalion and when he was released from prison in April 1916, he immediately resumed his Volunteer activities.

By now, the plans for a rising on Easter Sunday that had been formulated by the secret Military Council of the IRB were well advanced. However, because of the confusion caused by a series of conflicting orders issued from Volunteer headquarters, the rising didn’t occur until Easter Monday and fighting was by and large confined to Dublin.

The first notice Thomas and his brothers, David, Richard, and William received that the rising had commenced was when they read about it in the newspapers. In the absence of any orders from Volunteer Headquarters, they immediately armed themselves in anticipation of being called upon to join the fight and, as a precaution against being arrested, they decided not to sleep at home at night until the military situation was Days passed and no call to arms was received. Eventually, on May 1, the Kents learned that the rising had failed and they decided it was safe to remain at home.

However, unknown to them, in the aftermath of the rising General John Maxwell, the British Commander in Ireland, had ordered a general round-up of Irish Volunteers — and the Kents were on the list.


In the early hours of May 2, Bawnard House was surrounded by the RIC. In his statement to the Bureau of Military History, William Kent later described what happened.

“I jumped out of bed, put my head out of the window and asked: ‘Who’s there?’ The answer was: ‘Police, come down.’ I immediately awakened Tom and said: ‘The whole place is surrounded. We are caught like rats in a trap.’ Tom put some clothes on, armed himself with a rifle and, without showing himself, called to those below: ‘What do you want?’ As expected, the answer came: ‘We are police and have orders to arrest the whole family.’ The reply was given defiantly by the whole family: ‘We are soldiers of the Irish Republic, and there is no surrender!’

“The police fired a volley to which we replied and a fierce conflict began. We were armed with three shotguns and a rifle. Our mother, then over 80 years of age, had dressed herself and all during the fight assisted by loading weapons. The fight lasted three hours. Head Constable Rowe was shot dead, while other members of the RIC were wounded. David was also badly wounded, having lost two fingers and received a gaping wound in the side. Military reinforcements arrived and when the last shot was fired from the house, we had no alternative but to surrender. Our ammunition was exhausted. The house was wrecked and not a pane of glass was unbroken. Following the surrender we were taken out through a window assisted by the military.

Thomas Kent state funeral: Overdue accolade for life of defiance

A bust of Thomas Kent

“Thomas was not permitted time to put on his boots. Thomas and I were immediately handcuffed. Richard, a famous athlete, was not handcuffed and in the confusion he attempted to escape by bounding over a hedge nearby. He was fired upon and fell wounded. We were then lined up against a wall of the house by the RIC who were preparing to shoot us, when a military officer interposed himself between us and the firing party. Ordering the police to desist, he said: ‘I am in command here. Enough lives have been lost and I take these men as prisoners of war.’ ”

Shortly after the Kents surrendered, Canon Peadar O’Leary arrived and attended to David and Richard before they were placed in an army lorry and taken to Fermoy Military Hospital. Thomas and William were marched to Fermoy Military Barracks, while their mother followed in a horse and cart. Thomas hadn’t been able to get his boots and he made the journey in his stocking feet.

Mary Kent was released after a couple of hours. The following day, Thomas and William were put on a train under military escort and taken to Cork city.

Upon arrival at the Great Southern and Western Railway Station on the Lower Glanmire Road (now Kent Station), they were marched to the barracks. Two days later, Richard died of his wounds and Thomas and William were brought before a court martial and charged under the terms of the Defence of the Realm Act with “waging war against his majesty the king”.

William was acquitted but, for Thomas, it was a different story. On May 4, he faced a military court that heard evidence from members of the RIC and British Army who were present at Bawnard. Although he was permitted to cross-examine the witnesses, Thomas Kent was not represented by counsel. He was not permitted to call witnesses to speak on his behalf and no concrete evidence was provided which directly connected him to the death of Head Constable William Rowe. Notwithstanding any of this, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Once the sentence was confirmed by Gen Maxwell on May 6 and promulgated on May 8 by Lt-Cnl Lindsay, the officer commanding in Cork, preparations for the execution got underway. The date and time was set for 6am on May 9 and a work party was detailed to dig a grave in the exercise yard of the detention barracks.

Thomas Kent state funeral: Overdue accolade for life of defiance

Thomas and William Kent being marched across Fermoy Bridge by British soldiers. Thomas Kent was not given time to put his boots on and so walked in his stockinged feet.

In the early hours of May 9, Thomas Kent received his last meal and spent some time praying in his cell with Fr Patrick Sexton, the chaplain to the military hospital in Victoria Barracks. According to his brother William, when the officer in command of the Detention Barracks inquired if he had any request, he asked that his grave be consecrated and that no Irishman be ordered to shoot him.

He was then taken from his cell and placed against the wall of the exercise yard. There, clasping rosary beads given to him by Fr Sexton, Cmdt Thomas Kent of the Galtee Battalion of Irish Volunteers awaited his fate.

At precisely 6am, the officer in charge brought the firing squad to attention, and gave his orders. A volley of shots then rang out and Thomas Kent fell to the ground. Once his death was confirmed, his remains were placed in a shallow grave in the exercise yard.

The death of Thomas Kent was a huge loss to the Volunteer movement. He had proven to be an efficient officer and, had he lived, it is reasonable to assume that he would have played a prominent part in the War of Independence. For 99 years, his remains have rested in a lonely grave in a lonely place.

Because it was located in what was the Military Detention Barracks until 1972, when it became Cork Prison, access for members of the public was restricted. This, understandably, led to the story of Thomas Kent being forgotten by many people in Ireland. But the Kent family remembered. Over the years, on or near the anniversary of his death, they would make the journey his grave accompanied by members of the Defence Forces.

During the Civil War, the Detention Barracks was burned to the ground by anti-Treaty forces. Because of this, the precise location of Thomas Kent’s remains was unknown. However, the construction of a new prison in Cork and the closure of the existing facility brought Thomas Kent back into the public eye. It also made the matter of finding this remains a priority.

In June, an investigation led by the National Monuments Service of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht discovered and exhumed remains that were found near a monument that bore his name. A DNA test carried out on them confirmed they were those of Thomas Kent.

The forthcoming state funeral will remind people of the story of Thomas Kent and give them an opportunity to pay their respects to a man that, for years, was considered by many to be the Forgotten Volunteer.

There are over 1100 search results found for Thomas Kent in the Irish Examiner archive.  Whether you are a researcher, historian or you simply want to explore your history visit

Gerry White is a military historian and the author with Brendan O’Shea of The Irish Volunteer Soldier 1913-1923 (Osprey UK 2002), Baptised in Blood – The Formation of the Cork Brigade Of Irish Volunteers 1913-1916 (Mercier Press 2005), and The Burning of Cork (Mercier Press 2006). Over the years he has written extensively about Thomas Kent. He will deliver the eulogy at the 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

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