An Irishman’s Diary: Thomas Kent and the Rising

Brian Maye: on one of the executed 1916 leaders

 

Of the 16 men executed following the 1916 Rising, only two were executed outside of Dublin. Roger Casement was hanged in Pentonville Prison in London on August 3rd. The other was Thomas Kent, who was born 150 years ago on August 29th. At 50, he was among the oldest, with Casement, Tom Clarke and John MacBride, of the men to be executed.

Kent was reared in Bawnard House, Castlelyons, near Fermoy in Co Cork. His family had a long history of nationalist and agrarian involvement. His father David Kent and mother Mary Rice farmed 200 acres and there were nine children in the family. He attended the local national school until he was 14, not an unusual age to stay in primary school in those days in rural Ireland.

At 19 he went to Boston and spent five years there working in a church furniture business and in a publishing company. While there, he took part in various Irish cultural activities. From an early age, he had shown an interest in poetry and drama. He returned home around 1889, mainly for health reasons.

Boycott

He and his brothers became involved in the Irish National League’s plan of campaign to help tenant farmers in distress. Two members of the Irish Parliamentary Party who were central to the running of the plan were Timothy Harrington from Castletownbere and William O’Brien from Mallow. The Kents’ first cousins and neighbours, the Rices, had been evicted from their land and the farm sold. The Kent brothers organised a boycott of the new owners, for which they were brought before the courts.

In June 1890 Thomas was sentenced to two months and his brother William to six months in Cork jail. In the House of Commons, chief secretary Arthur Balfour condemned their “disgraceful” actions. Thomas’s experience of prison further damaged his health and, with the fall of Charles Stewart Parnell and the deep divisions engendered by the parliamentary party split, he appears to have withdrawn from political action. He devoted his free time to Gaelic League activities and furthering his interest in drama. Religion played an important part in his life and, as a member of the temperance movement, he abstained from alcohol.

Historian Turtle Bunbury referred to Kent possibly spending time in South Africa in the late 1890s, where he may have met Sinn Féin founder Arthur Griffith. (Griffith went there partly because he was experiencing poor health and this would tie in with Kent’s health problems.) According to Bunbury, Kent was a strong supporter of Sinn Féin and he was certainly friendly with Terence MacSwiney, who was active in the Cork branch of Sinn Féin.

When the Irish Volunteers were formed in 1913, the Kent brothers became active in the new organisation, founding a branch at Castlelyons in 1914, reputedly the only teetotal branch in the country at the time. When John Redmond’s Woodenbridge speech in September 1914, urging Volunteers to join the British army to fight the Germans, split the movement, Thomas Kent joined with MacSwiney to reorganise the anti-Redmond branches of the Volunteers in Cork.

Grave

He travelled extensively to Volunteer-related activities, the most notable being the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa in Glasnevin in August 1915, at which Patrick Pearse gave his famous graveside oration. The Kents were aware of the plans for the Rising and spent Easter Sunday in Cork, waiting for word from Dublin. Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order arrived, causing them to stand down but they did not return home until May 1st, when the Rising was over.

Next morning, the police surrounded the house and called on them to surrender. A gun battle followed in which a policeman was killed; David and Richard Kent were wounded, the latter so badly that he died shortly afterwards.

The Kents were arrested and court-martialed. William was acquitted, David was sentenced to five years’ penal servitude and Thomas was sentenced to death and executed on May 9th.

The exact location of his grave in the yard of Cork prison (part of what was once Victoria, now Collins Barracks) was not known for certain until ground-penetrating radar, the highly sophisticated type that was used to find the remains of Richard III under a car park in Leicester in 2012, was used to locate it. His remains will be reburied in the family vault in Castlelyons following a State funeral on September 18th.