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Miriam Lord: Thomas Kent, proud patriot, home at last

1916 centenary beckons: ‘They really couldn’t ignore the last man shot outside Dublin’

The State funeral of Thomas Kent at St Nicholas Church, Castlelyons, Co Cork. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Applause greeted the arrival of the cortege, but all conversation stopped in the churchyard as the funeral procession came through the gates. The large crowd fell respectfully silent when they saw the family walking slowly behind the remains.

Some blessed themselves when the coffin passed. Others bowed their heads.

It’s a familiar scene to all of us – one that’s repeated day in and day out in church grounds all over the country.

This could have been a final send-off for someone who died a few days ago, albeit somebody very important. Burials with full military honours are not that common.

Instead, the crowd was paying its respects to a man who died 99 years ago – one of the 16 patriots executed in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising. But Thomas Kent, sometimes known as “The Forgotten Volunteer”, was one of only two executed outside Dublin. He was shot by firing squad at the Military Detention Barracks in Cork, his body buried in a shallow grave within its walls.

Kent, from comfortable North Cork farming stock, was in his early 50s when he faced his execution. As a member of the GAA, the Gaelic League and the Land League, he could never be labelled a one-dimensional revolutionary.

Devout Catholic

A devout Catholic and committed member of the Pioneers, he became involved in political activity with his brothers, joining the Irish Volunteers in 1914 and becoming Commandant of the Galtee Battalion two years later.

The brothers didn’t take part in the Rising, but in the aftermath, when the Royal Irish Constabulary surrounded their home at Bawnard near the village of Castlelyons, they resisted arrest. Thomas was captured after a gun battle, court-marshalled, charged with “Waging war against His Majesty the King” and sentenced to death.

Many decades on, when the remains of other patriots were exhumed from Mountjoy jail in Dublin and reinterred with full military honours at Glasnevin cemetery, the sacrifice of Thomas Kent went unrecognised.

But North Cork and the village of Castlelyons never forgot. On Friday, the Taoiseach paid particular tribute in his graveside oration to Kent’s elderly nieces Prudence Riordan, Kathleen Kent and Eileen Kent, three women who “tended the flame of his memory”, making sure his “time extends to our own and that of our children”.

Prudence and Kathleen stood proudly with the President of Ireland as their uncle finally came home. Eileen, who is in her 90s, couldn’t be there to witness her dearest wish being granted.

Altar gifts

But the younger generations of the Kent family were out in strength. Some of them brought gifts to the altar: a photo of Bawnard House, the family home where Thomas lived with his mother, sister and brothers; his Pioneer Pin; an old book of stories in Irish written by his parish priest, and the precious rosary beads he twined through his fingers at the time of his death.

The ceremony stirred deep emotion in the locals who crowded the churchyard and packed the marquee next to it. Big screens conveyed the requiem Mass to them – when family and dignatories were counted in, there was little room left inside tiny stone church of St Nicholas.

Residents of the small, close-knit North Cork community are intensely proud of their illustrious son. The village was sparkling for his special day.

John Sisk, who lives on Abbey Lane, was helping his neighbours put pots of freshly cut garden flowers outside their homes for when the funeral cortege passed. The narrow country road is a short walk from Bawnard House, close to the impressive ruins of an ancient Cistercian Abbey.

“I’ve lived here all my life, and my father before me and his father before him. The parish of Castlelyons is very proud to see this day. This is probably the proudest day we ever had, and ever will have.”

He says his father, Dick Sisk, would have remembered as a small boy Thomas Kent passing up and down the road.

Framed Proclamation

Down through the years, it was always hoped that, one day, he would return to them, to rest among his own people. “When I was a youngster, this was being talked about all the time,” recalls John, who has a framed copy of the 1916 Proclamation on the wall above the mantelpiece in his cottage. On the sideboard is a framed copy of the famous photograph showing Kent after his early morning arrest, walking under armed guard in his stockinged feet across the bridge in Fermoy.

“But they were different days then. It’s easier now. I think the catalyst for today’s event is next year’s 1916 centenary. As part of that they really couldn’t ignore the last man shot outside Dublin.”

He went with friends and family members to Thursday night’s lying in State at Collins Barracks in Cork city. They had their photograph taken with Kent’s grand-nephew, Eamon Walsh.

“Thomas Kent was a man with a vision for a better Ireland” remarked John, echoing sentiments which would be expressed by speakers at the church and in the churchyard later in the day.

A lot of people in the crowd wore medals awarded to family members and passed down the generations.

Eileen Collins O’Donovan from Ballynow near Mallow proudly displayed her father’s War of Independence medal on her lapel. “I’m very proud of it – he was given the medal on the 50th anniversary of the Rising. He wore it on a few different occasions, but this is the first time I’ve had a chance to show it off,” she said.

Her father, Jack Collins from Fermoy, is dead a long time now. “But this is such a great occasion I felt I had to be here, just as some small link with the brave men and women who fought for our freedom.”

And so Thomas Kent was finally laid to rest in the family plot in the grounds of the church, beside the holly and fir trees and in the shadow of a stately old Yew.

Military pomp

With a President and a Taoiseach to mark the occasion, there were bishops and ambassadors and the full military pomp that goes with a State funeral.

When the Last Post sounded, the veterans from the Organisation of National Ex-servicemen stood to attention and one old soldier removed his beret and rested it on his crutch. Then a drum roll, and the national flag was hoisted full mast.

After reveille sounded, the band burst into a rousing rendition of the national anthem. Lips quivered and a few tears were shed.

What would Kent have thought of it all? The British ambassador sitting next to the Papal Nuncio at his funeral Mass, with the bosses of the Garda Síochána and Defence Forces sitting behind them? A male voice choir for Cork jail singing in the gallery?

And proud and free fellow Irishmen and women recording the event for their children on things called smart phones.

Home at last.