Brothers in arms – An Irishman’s Diary on William Kent and Éamonn Ceannt
William Kent and Éamonn Ceannt with their father James in a family photogrpah taken some time before 1912. Back row: William, Richard, Michael, Éamonn, Áine (née Brennan). Front row: James Patrick, Elizabeth (née Cummins), James Snr, Nell Casey (née Kent), Jack Casey. Photograph: Courtesy of Mary Gallagher, author of ‘16 Lives: Éamonn Ceannt’
On Easter Monday 1916, Commandant Éamonn Ceannt and his men from the fourth battalion of the Irish Volunteers seized the South Dublin Union, where St James’s Hospital now stands.
The union saw some of the heaviest fighting of the first day of the Easter Rising, which extended into the corridors of a building that housed some of the poorest citizens of Dublin. The volunteers held off British soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment who were rushed from Richmond Barracks to quell the rebellion.
Exactly a year later on April 24th, 1917, Sgt William Leeman Kent was killed fighting in the first World War for the same British army that had executed his brother less than a year earlier.
There is a photograph of the Kent family taken some time before 1912. It depicts the widower James Kent (he died in 1912, his wife Johanna in 1895) surrounded by his children. Appropriately, given their respective political stands, William and Éamonn are furthest apart from the camera standing at the back.
With their trimmed Edwardian moustaches, the two brothers look remarkably like each other, though there are almost 10 years between them. William, the oldest of a family of eight, was born in 1871; Éamonn, born Edward Kent in 1881, was the second youngest.
They belonged in effect to a different generation. The rise in cultural nationalism in which Éamonn, a fluent Irish speaker and accomplished musician, played such a significant part came just too late for William Kent.
He was a career soldier who joined the British army at a time when the Empire was at its zenith. In that regard he was no different to thousands of Irishmen from a nationalist background for whom the British armed services offered opportunities not available in civilian life. James Kent had been a head constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), another security arm of the British state in Ireland.
Yet Éamonn Ceannt showed a precocious desire not to follow the same route as his brother, declaring in a school essay written in 1896: “I am Irish and no Irishman should serve in a foreign army”.
One of the stories that emerged after the Rising is that William Kent was court-martialled in Cork for stealing food to give to Thomas Kent (no relation), who was also executed, though he played no part in the Rising. As a consequence, William Kent was sent back to the Western Front in France. It is likely he would have been sent back in any case.
Kent survived the Battle of the Somme, but was killed in the Battle of Arras. This battle, which had started so promisingly for the British, was heading towards stalemate when the men from the 1st battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers went over the top in the late afternoon of April 24th.
They were part of the 29th Division that had captured the village of Monchy-le-Preux south of Arras 10 days previously and were looking to advance further into German lines.
The Dublins’ battalion diary records a tragic mix-up. A runner with instructions for the next attack lost his way and was unable to deliver his message.
Consequently, when the men went over the top, the artillery support was not available. The result was a slaughter. Twenty men were killed, 60 injured and 37 missing in no man’s land. The diary concluded that the men had attacked “with great gallantry and were faced by very heavy shelling, machine gun and rifle fire. After stubborn resistance they were compelled to fall back to their original frontline”.
In his personal diary, another Kent brother, Michael, believed William had been “struck down in advance on the enemy lines in France by machine gun bullets, the latter striking him just at the bottom of the chest. After dark a few of the lads went out and buried him”.
William’s body was never recovered from the battlefield; he is remembered on the Arras Memorial to the Missing.
By another tragic coincidence, the family back in Ireland was not informed of his death until May 8th, the first anniversary of Éamonn Ceannt’s execution.
For his remaining siblings, the trauma of having lost two brothers in such circumstances in less than a year must have been an unbearable loss. An in memoriam notice to these “brothers in arms”, with both mentioned beside each other, was published some time afterwards.
William Kent, it noted, was a “most efficient, non-comm (non-commissioned officer) and extremely popular with all ranks and with his numerous friends in Dublin and Naas where he was stationed at the depot during the Rising”.
The Malone family from South Circular Road in Dublin also endured the loss of two brothers in similar circumstances. Sgt William Malone died in May 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres; his brother Michael, an Irish Volunteer, was killed during the Battle of Mount Street Bridge during the Rising.
Earlier this month a memorial Mass was held in Stradbally, Co Laois, to remember Michael Aloysius O’Higgins who was killed in France 100 years ago. He was the brother of Kevin O’Higgins, the former minister for justice. It was Kevin O’Higgins who decided that a memorial to the Irish who died in the first World War should not be located opposite Government Buildings in Merrion Square, but in Islandbridge, a more peripheral location.
Citing that this decision was not based on personal animus towards the Irish war dead – how could it be when his own brother died – he nevertheless concluded: “No one denies the patriotic motives which induced the vast majority of those men to join the British Army to take part in the Great War, and yet it is not on their sacrifice that this state is based, and I have no desire to see it suggested that it is.”