UCC lecturer Gabriel Doherty looks back at the life, family and legacy of Thomas Kent.
ONE of the many fascinating aspects of the forthcoming state funeral for Thomas Kent is the light it shines not alone on the life story of an unjustly neglected patriot, but also on the wider history of which he was an integral part: The story of a family steeped in the Irish-Ireland movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the story of the seismic shifts in the social, economic and political conditions that took place in his native north Cork during his lifetime; and the story of the choices made at critical moments that decisively influenced the course not alone of an individual’s, but also the nation’s, destiny.
The family in which Thomas Kent was reared was in numerous respects remarkable, yet in others quite typical of that time: Large (nine children in all, several of whom, including Thomas, remained unmarried to their death); pious (at the moment of his execution by firing squad fired he was described as standing in an attitude of prayer, rosary beads in hand); intensely patriotic; perforce used to emigration (in his younger days he spent time in both Boston and South Africa, and he was not the only sibling to emigrate — though the fact he was a returned emigrant, twice over, marks him out as a rare figure in the emigrant culture of the time); and headed by a powerful matriarch (a widow before her time, along with so many of her contemporaries, Thomas’s mother, Mary née Rice, was the dominant influence in the life of her children, and her views on the national question decisively shaped theirs. In turn, she devoted her life to them, and her death eight months after Thomas’s was surely no coincidence).
Many other families of the period manifested these qualities, of course, but it was the sheer intensity with which the Kents acted upon their convictions that marked them out as noteworthy. In a nutshell, they were active in almost every aspect of the ‘civic society’ of north Cork, and were frequently in the vanguard in creating and sustaining organisations and mobilisations, especially those that had a bearing on the national situation.
The first, and arguably the most important, of these was the agitation over land tenure that was such a feature of Irish life during the Land League days of the early 1880s, and of the ‘Plan of Campaign’ later in the decade.
The Plan was implemented with peculiar intensity around north Cork, and gave rise to several cause célèbres, notably the ‘Mitchelstown Massacre’ of 1887 and the death of John Mandeville in 1888. This latter incident arose from Mandeville’s involvement in the implementation of the Plan on the Kingston estate, an agitation to the success of which the Kents were vital, and which led to repeated terms of imprisonment for several of the boys, alongside their parish priest and others. It is symptomatic of the solidarity that bound the family together that Thomas and his siblings fought with especial passion the cause of their first cousins (Austin and Richard Rice), who had been evicted from their holding for non-payment of rent.
A bust of Thomas Kent
As befitted the product of an Irish-speaking household, Thomas was also one of the pioneers of the local branch of the Gaelic League at this time, and he and his siblings were pillars of the movement in an area where Anglicisation had for decades been proceeding apace.
As with so many others of their generation, the vituperative, personalised nature of the Parnell split led to the alienation of the Kents from organised nationalist politics for most of the 1890s. Once the rupture within the Home Rule cause was healed at the turn of the century — characteristically Thomas was nominated to act as secretary to the north-east branch of the Irish National League formed in Castlelyons in April 1900 — he and his kin were to be found (almost always in an official capacity) in the local branches of prominent national organisations — including the GAA, Sinn Féin, and the Pioneer Total Abstinence Society, among others.
This last named was one of the causes dearest to his heart, and he certainly was one of the most passionate advocates of the doctrine of ‘Ireland sober, Ireland free’. Indeed, when he helped to form a company of Volunteers in the early months of 1914, his insistence on this point led to the boast that it was certainly the first (and possibly the only) ‘dry’ unit in the entire Volunteer structure. A kindred spirit of Terence McSwiney’s, the two men worked closely together following the Volunteer split in 1914, and were especially active in the campaign to obstruct recruitment into the British army— activism that led to yet another arrest, in January 1916.
Cork’s martyred lord mayor Terence McSwiney with his family. He worked closely with Thomas Kent after the Volunteer split of 1914.
At Eastertime 1916, then, the Kents were clearly a family with a stake in the country’s future; while in no sense rich, they were comfortably well-off and adequately educated, by the standards of the day; they were civic-minded, and had, at considerable cost to themselves, given decades of voluntary service to their community. In short, they were the antithesis of the ‘corner boy’/’murder gang’ caricature of the republican constituency sedulously circulated by their opponents.
Had they been so inclined, had they, for example, been primarily motivated by personal ambition, on the May morning when the Royal Irish Constabulary came for them, they could have rested on their substantial laurels and, without disgrace, allowed themselvesto be taken into custody, in the certain knowledge that, were Home Rule to ever come to Ireland they would be well-placed to a leading role in their locality, and possibly beyond.
YET, with a selfless, immortal courage incomprehensible to those less noble than they, when that decisive moment arrived — when all that they had worked for seemed to lie in literal and metaphorical ruins — they chose, they dared, to fight rather than to submit, and, in so doing, they hazarded death in preference to dishonouring their name and betraying their values. To quote the words used by them on that occasion, words that were thrown in the face of those who had come to arrest them, and which were used in evidence against Thomas at his court-martial: ‘We will die before we surrender.’
In so speaking, they threw down the gauntlet of principle not just, or even primarily, at the feet of the Crown forces who opposed them that day, but more pointedly to the generations of their fellow countrymen and women who would follow them, down to the current time.
Their refusal to bend the knee to authority a century ago, to live their life most fully and most sincerely by risking its end, would nowadays be condemned by some (possibly many), and seem incomprehensible to even more. In a republic they nurtured with their lives, the values that sustained them have become profoundly counter-cultural.
We are separated from them by a chasm of altered sensibilities, between the two sides of which History can fashion but a makeshift bridge. It is a matter for personal reflection on which side of that bridge the more inspirational, the more admirable, the more socially useful qualities are to be found.
Gabriel Doherty lectures at the School of History at University College Cork
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 www.irishexaminer.com/archive
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved