THE LIFE & DEATH OF TOMAS KENT (1865-1916)
9th May 1916. Tom Kent’s nerves were so bad on the morning of his execution that the guards brought a chair in for the 51-year-old to sit upon. The priest who attended him in his cell now leaned close for his final confession. Shortly afterwards, the shots rang out.
The man for whom Kent Station in Cork City would one day be named was buried in qucklime in an unmarked grave. It was located somewhere in the yard beside the prison (then the Military Detention Barracks) at Victoria Barracks (now Collins Barracks).
The Thomas Kent branch of the Organisation of National Ex-Servicemen & Women (ONE) (Óglaigh Náisiúnta Na hÉireann Teoranta) are now leading a campaign to have his remains exhumed and reinterred in the Kent family vault at Castlelyons, County Cork. If the Kent family agree, it seems likely that Tom Kent would be given a State funeral.
The story is deeply reminiscent of the Forgotten Ten – Kevin Barry and nine other men executed during the War of Independence – whose remains were exhumed from Mountjoy Prison and reinterred in 2001.[i]
Sean Sherwin, the former Fianna Fail TD, was closely involved with the campaign for the Forgotten Ten and he is also acting as a liaison for the Tom Kent campaign.
Mr. Sherwin says: ‘There is a clear desire on the part of the Irish Prison Service to make the necessary preparations, locate the remains and exhume and reinter them in accordance with the Kent family wishes’.
One of the complications is that there are no precise records stating where Kent was buried. There is a gravestone in the prison yard dedicated to Kent, to which his family and the Thomas Kent branch of ONE have come for an annual commemoration every Easter since the foundation of the state.
As such, Mr. Sherwin says the first phase will be to ascertain precisely where the remains now lie, possibly with the same hi-tech ground penetrating radar (GPR) that was used in 2012 to discover the body of Richard III, the English King, beneath a car park in Leicester.
Tom Kent is often overlooked in the annals of the Easter Rising. Born in 1865, he was the second of nine children – seven sons, two daughter – raised in an Irish-speaking household of Bawnard House at Coole Lower, near Castlelyons, where his parents, David and Mary Kent, ran a 200-acre farm.[ii]
Educated locally, he became a fluent Irish speaker and had a penchant for poetry and drama. At the age of nineteen, he emigrated to Boston, arriving just as the city elected Hugh O’Brien as its first Irish-born Mayor. He spent the next five years working as a church furniture maker, as well as a stint in publishing.
He was back in Ireland by the autumn of 1889 when four of his brothers – Edmond, William, Richard and David – were amongst ten men hauled into a crowded Fermoy Courthouse, charged with orchestrating a boycott campaign.
Bawnard House, home of the Kents. (Photo courtesy of Ray Bateson of www.irishgraves.ie)
Two years earlier, Austin and Richard Rice, first cousins and neighbours of the Kents, had been evicted from their farm at Towermore for non-payment of rent.[iii] In July 1888, their farm was sold to Orr McCausland, a Belfast-based landowner, while the Rice homestead was occupied by his steward and general manager, a Scot called Robert Browne.
The Kent and the Rice brothers teamed up with Father Jeremiah O’Dwyer, the parish curate, to launch a boycott against Browne. As leading players of the Castlelyons and Coolagown branch of the Irish National League, they organised a meeting at Coolagown. Addressing a crowd of nearly 300 people, Fr. O’Dwyer asked them to ensure life for Browne became ‘too hot’ to handle.
In court, Browne also told how Edmond Kent, the eldest brother, threatened him on Fermoy bridge, while David Kent had blown horns at him and called him a ‘land-grabber’ outside Coolagown Church. Tom Kent did not appear in the dock but he was accused of throwing eggs at Browne’s car.
The court took a dim view. Fr. O’Dwyer was sentenced to six months in prison. Edmond and William were given four months with hard labour. David received two, while Richard was let go.
From the dock, Edmond shouted, ‘Death or victory is our war-cry, and then the Saxon chains will break’, while another prisoner called Callaghan McCarthy managed to loose off a few bars of ‘God Save Ireland’ on a flute. The prisoners were handcuffed, taken out to a wagonette and driven to the railway station from where a special carriage transported them to Cork Gaol. Anticipating the crowd of several thousand who gathered to cheer the prisoners, the authorities provided the prisoners with an escort of 200 soldiers of the Royal Warwickshire and West Cork Regiments, with bayonets fixed.
The boycott on Browne resumed when the Kents had served their time. At the close of May 1890, Tom and his brother William were charged, alongside Austin Rice, with intimidating Mary Murphy, an elderly woman who worked for Browne, by making sure she was unable to purchase a pig at the fair. During their trial, Browne, now under police protection, told how horns were continually blown towards his house from the Kent residence.
When the magistrate sentenced the brothers to one month’s imprisonment, with hard labour, William roared ‘Victory is our cry and our motto no surrender’ while Tom slammed his fist upon the desk and shouted ‘God save Ireland’.
Uproar followed and the police were ordered to clear the court. As the prisoners were escorted to the railway station, District Inspector Ball became so unnerved by the cheering crowd that he ordered his men to charge with their batons and several people were injured. The army then blocked Fermoy Bridge and cleared the streets.[iv]
Tom and William Kent were still in prison when a fresh case came before Fermoy Court in June 1890. They were amongst seven men accused of attempting to ‘compel and induce’ fourteen members of McCausland’s workforce to leave his employment. William was described as the ringleader of a campaign to intimidate McCausland’s staff when they attempted to attend Mass at Coolagown Chapel. The case was raised at the House of Commons in London where both Kent brothers were named. Arthur Balfour, the Chief Secretary, described ‘the most disgraceful scenes … enacted Sunday after Sunday’. William Kent was accused of spitting upon the workers and their families, having ‘performed the acrobatic feat of entering the chapel by the window and assisted others to enter the same way.’ There was also much ‘jeering and jibing the police’. Tom Kent took ‘an active part in the disgraceful proceedings, but was not at all so bad as his brother William.’
Heavy sentences followed – six months hard labour for William, two for Tom – and once again a cheering crowd followed them to the train station in Fermoy.[v]
The family maintained a low profile during the 1890s but the Royal Irish Constabulary kept the brothers – and their family home – under constant surveillance.
In January 1899, Tom attended a meeting in Castlelyons to select a candidate to represent the Fermoy and Castlelyons district on Cork County Council. To loud applause, he told the crowd of the six policies he believed the candidate must be pledged to, namely Home Rule, the establishment of a Catholic University , the release of political prisoners, the reinstatement of evicted tenants and the compulsory sale of land to tenant farmers.
Above: Tom Kent.
When Michael Mackay of Ballyroberts was proposed as the Nationalist candidate, the motion was seconded by David Kent who seized the opportunity to point out to the gathering that the Unionist candidate, Colonel Johnson, had been Hon. Secretary to the Landlord’s Association. A show of hands was called for at the end of the evening. Mackay won by a huge majority.[vi]
It is not known when David Kent senior died but by 1901, his sixty-year-old widow Mary was living at Bawnard House with five of her bachelor sons, including Tom, as well as her daughter Lizzie. Tom is also said to have spent time in South Africa where, perhaps, he became aquanited with Arthur Griffith.
An avid supporter of Sinn Féin and the Gaelic League, Tom dabble in both poetry and drama. In 1913, he co-founded the Castleyons branch of the Irish Volunteers, said to be the first teetotal branch of the organization in Ireland. Many of these young men practiced their shooting amid the woods around the Kents home at Bawnard.
When the Irish Volunteers split over whether to answer John Redmond’s call and join the British Army, Tom teamed up with Terence MacSwiney, President of the Cork branch of Sinn Féin, to reorganize those Volunteers who opposed Redmond. I believe they had forty companies on their books from the initial 300 or so in County Cork, but these statistics need to be confirmed.
In August 1915, Tom attended the funeral of the Fenian leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in Glasnevin, Dublin, at which Patrick Pearse delivered his celebrated oration.
He started 1916 in dramatic fashion, orchestrating a major disruption of a rally organized by Redmond to recruit more Irishmen for the British Army. The rally took place at Ballynoe, near Tallow, County Waterford, on 2nd January.[vii]
While Redmond spoke, Tom set up a second platform from which MacSwiney spoke out against recruitment. Meanwhile, Redmond’s supporters were thrown asunder by the local GAA who marched through them, carrying hurleys over their shoulders as if they were rifles.
Kent and MacSwiney were duly arrested for sedition under the Defence of the Realm Act. While they awaited trial, their houses were raided on 13th January. A five-chambered revolver was found at Kent’s home, along with 54 rounds of ball cartridge and 27 rounds of revolver ammunition. However, the police were far more excited by a series of letters at MacSwiney’s home on Victoria Road. These were written from his brother John who gave his address as ‘Berlin’. The code-breakers set to work in a bid to prove that Sinn Féin was in open collusion with the Kaiser’s spymasters. It took several weeks for them to work out that John MacSwiney lived in Berlin, Ontario.[viii]
MacSwiney’s trial in February was a farce. Dr. H. A. Wynne, the Crown Solicitor and a staunch unionist, pushed it too far by claiming MacSwiney had urged that ‘a bullet should be put through the brain of Mr John Redmond’ during his speech at Ballynoe. The magistrates dismissed the charges against MacSwiney but, adding a dash of comedy, they fined him one shilling, without costs, for being ‘in possession of a cipher capable of communicating naval and military information’.[ix]
Meanwhile, Tom Kent appeared before a Court of Summary Jurisdiction in Cork on 21st February, charged with making a speech at Ballynoe ‘likely to cause disaffection amongst the civilian population and likely to prejudice recruiting’. The prosecutor claimed he ‘played into the hands of the Germans, Turks and Bulgarians’ by urging Ballynoe’s inhabitants not to join ‘those who were fighting their battles in France, Flanders and elsewhere’. With the exception of the Stipendiary Magistrate, the Bench dismissed the case and he was acquitted.[x] That same day, Tom’s brother Richard and a man called Kenery brazenly paraded down Fermoy’s main street with a rifle but the police appear to have turned a blind eye.
The Kent brothers were ready for action on the eve of the Easter Rising. They spent Easter Sunday in Cork, awaiting word from Dublin to mobilize. The hours crept by and there was still no word. Finally, J.J. O’Connell arrived from Dublin with the countermanding order from Eoin MacNeill urging all Volunteers to stand down.[xi]
The brothers returned to Bawnard House that evening but all hell broke loose at 3:45am when six policemen arrived at the house with orders to arrest the entire family. A voice from within the house retorted: ‘We will never surrender – we will leave some of you dead’.
As is so often the case with shootouts, there are several versions of what happened next.[xii] Suffice it to say, a gun battle erupted in which Head Constable William Neale Rowe had his head blown off by a shot fired from a window of the house, as Prime Minister Asquith informed Parliament.[xiii]
William Kent would later suggest the fatal shot was fired by his brother Richard who, on account of an accident, had lately spent some time in a lunatic asylum. Indeed, despite the fact four of the Kents’ guns were used, William claimed all the shots had been fired by Richard.
According to some accounts, Mrs. Kent, now in her late seventies, remained by her sons’ side throughout, apparently ensuring their guns were kept clean, cool and loaded.
Above: Tom Kent’s grave at Collins Barracks. (Photo courtesy of Ray Bateson of www.irishgraves.ie)
At 4:50am, William Kent shouted out the window that David, the youngest brother, had been hit. When he called for a priest, the police insisted they throw down their weapons and ammunition first. Ten minutes later, two shotguns were hurled from a window but no ammunition.
At 6:40am, the 15th Royal Fusiliers arrived and surrounded the house. With their ammunition all spent, the Kents opened the door and surrendered. Thirty-six-year-old Richard Kent, an athletic man, made a bolt for the woods but was promptly shot down.[xiv] He died of his wounds the following day.
The incensed constables flung Tom and William against a wall and were all set to execute them on the spot when a British officer intervened and said there had been enough shooting done. The two men were marched into Fermoy – Tom barefoot – where they were photographed on the bridge. A horse-drawn cart followed carrying their wounded brothers David and Richard.
Two days later, Tom, William and David Kent appeared before a Field General Court-martial, charged with taking part in an armed rebellion, under Regulation 50 of the Defence of the Realm Regulations. Explaining the trial to the House of Parliament in July 1916, Prime Minister Asquith stated: ‘In the interests of public safety, it was decided to exclude the public from this Court, at which no counsel appeared for the prisoner’.[xv]
David Kent was sentenced to death; his sentence was commuted to five years prison. He was released by Lloyd George as part of a general amnesty in June 1917 and came home to a hero’s welcome in Fermoy.[xvi] He was subsequently elected to the Executive Committee of Sinn Féin and became Sinn Féin TD for East Cork at the General Election in 1918.[xvii] Re-elected in 1922 as an anti-Treaty Sinn Féin TD, he continued in politics until 1927 and passed away in November 1930.
William Kent was acquitted and went on to become the first Sinn Féin Chairman of Cork County Council in 1917. From 1927 until 1933, he represented Cork East in the Dáil, initially as a Fianna Fail TD and then with the short-lived National Centre Party. In 1934, he was awarded £1,250 compensation for the damage done to his house and furniture during the siege. [xviii]
At his court-martial, Tom Kent spoke somewhere in the region of eighty words. He was convicted of high treason, sentenced to death and executed in Cork Detention Barracks on 9th May 1916. He was shot by a twelve man firing squad, armed with Lee Enfields. As was standard practice at the time, one soldier fired a blank in a rather bizarre British effort to alleviate feelings of guilt amongst the shooting party … Russian Roulette in reverse, I guess. [xix]
It was not known which of the 150 cells he occupied until the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Rising in 1966 when Dr. Seamus Fitzgerald, a fellow prisoner, identified it from a painting done in 1922 by David Barry. A plaque was subsequently erected on the cell.[xx]
If Tom Kent’s remains are found, it seems likely he will be reinterred in Castleyons as soon as practicable thereafter. This may coincide with the 1916 centenary although Mr. Sherwin stresses that there is ‘a very strong anxiety’ on the part of the family to ensure any such activity is non-political.
With thanks to Ray Bateson (www.Irish graves.com), Gerry White (Chairman, Cork Branch, Western Front Association), Sean Sherwin, Jim Connolly Heron (Concerned Relatives of the Signatories to the 1916 Proclamation Dublin), Matt Doyle (National Graves Association), Aidan Lambert (National Graves Association), Meda Ryan (author of an upcoming biography on Tom Kent for the ‘Sixteen Lives’ series), Joe Nolan, Las Fallon, George Miller and Leslie Ann Horgan who commissioned this article for the Irish Daily Mail in February 2014.
[i] Aside from Patrick Mahers who was buried in Ballylanders, Limerick, at his family’s request, the remains of the Forgotten Ten were reinterred in Glasnevin. (The Irish Times, Thursday, May 3, 2001, p. 6). At that time, the Kent family made no application to have Tom’s remains likewise removed. A senior member of the family felt his grave was sacred ground and that it should not be disturbed. There were also concerns that Kent’s remains, if found, could be mixed up with those of others who were likewise executed and buried in the prison yard. The Forgotten Ten was rather easier because the British had made detailed map of where everyone lay. It may be that details of Tom Kent’s precise whereabouts can be found with the records of the Cork Detention Centre … which may be held by the National Archives in the UK.
In Feb 2014, there were plans afoot to rebuild the prison on the site of the existing car park although this should not affect the prison yard where Tom Kent was buried.
[ii] The implication of the census results is that Tom was the second oldest of the five sons in Coole at that time. There were originally nine Kent children – seven boys and two girls – but three had died by 1911, perhaps much earlier. See census results for the Kent family in 1901 at http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/pages/1901/Cork/Coole/Coole_Lower/1144017/ and in 1911 at http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/pages/1911/Cork/Coole/Coole_Lower/412331/ It is to e noted that The Irish Times of 10th July 1867 (p. 3) refers to the arrest of a Fenian called David Kent for ‘suspicion of connection with the recent rising’.
[iii] The Rices initially leased the farm from the Peard family but it seems it was later acquired by Orr McCausland. Mary Kent, mother of the Rice brothers, was born a Rice and perhaps grew up at Towermore. Curiously, one of Richard Rice’s brothers was Crown Prosecutor for East Cork so they were not a family without influence. The Irish Times, 10 September 1889, p. 6.
[iv] The Irish Times, Thursday, May 29, 1890.
[v] The Irish Times, Thursday, June 19, 1890, p. 6; (The Irish Times, Thursday, June 20, 1890, p. 5.
[vi] The Rev. P. O’Leary, PP, Castlelyons, presided. The Irish Times, Monday, January 9, 1899, p. 4 and p.7.
[vii] Some accounts suggest this rally took place at Dungourney but The Irish Times strongly implies that it was Ballynoe. However, there was a similar situation at Dungourney, to which the Dungourney company of the Irish Volunteers attributes its origins. Perhaps someone can enlighten me on this some day?
[viii] ‘A short memoir of Terence MacSwiney’ (1922), P.S. O’Hegarty (Talbot Press, 1922), p. 62-64. https://archive.org/details/shortmemoirofter00oheg
The Irish Times simply reported that a cipher had been found in MacSwiney’s home which had been adapted for ‘communicating naval and military information’.
[ix] ‘A short memoir of Terence MacSwiney’ (1922), P.S. O’Hegarty (Talbot Press, 1922), p. 62-64. https://archive.org/details/shortmemoirofter00oheg
[x] The Irish Times, Wednesday, February 16, 1916, p. 7; Tuesday, February 29, 1916, p. 3 – the latter date is too faded to read; Weekly Irish Times, Saturday, April 29, 1916, p. 7.
[xi] As news of the rebel onslaught in Dublin reached Cork, the local authorities were on high alert. The Catholic Bishop of Cork intervened, the Volunteers agreed to hand over their arms to the Lord Mayor for safekeeping. On 2nd May, Tomas Kent encountered some police at a fair.[xi]
[xii] Probably the most detailed account of the siege is on page 2 of the weekly irish Times, 24th June 1916. Amongst the six policemen – four sergeants and two constables – who comprised the original police party was Sergeant Samuel Caldbeck.
[xiii] Questions in Parliament – The Case of Tomas Kent, The Irish Times, Thursday, July 6, 1916, p. 6. Head Constable Rowe left a widow and four children. An application by his widow Sarah Jane Rowe for £2500 compensation on the grounds that his death was directly connected to the Easter Rising rather than a standard attempt by ‘a peace officer to bring disturbers of the peace to justice’. (The Irish Times, Wednesday, August 2, 1916, p. 6).
[xiv] Asquith told Parliament that he ‘was shot while attempting to escape after the surrender.’ Questions in Parliament – The Case of Tomas Kent, The Irish Times, Thursday, July 6, 1916, p. 6.
[xv] Questions in Parliament – The Case of Tomas Kent, The Irish Times, Thursday, July 6, 1916, p. 6.
[xvi] The Irish Times, 26 June 1917, p. 5.
[xvii] David Kent was arrested again in April 1918. (Weedkly Irish Times, 20 April 1918, p. 2).
[xviii] The Irish Times, Friday July 20th 1934, p. 7.
[xix] Weekly Irish Times, Saturday, April 29, 1916, p. 7. Tom was convicted of high treason (as opposed to murder) and sentenced to death for taking “part in an armed rebellion…for the purpose of assisting the enemy.” The sentence was confirmed by General Maxwell (and Lord French, the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief in Ireland?). Could the execution have been carried out on the morning of Monday 8th May, rather than 9th May as generally stated? I think there is room for doubt here as contemporary accounts in Irish Times suggests 8th …
[xx] The Irish Times, Thursday, June 9, 1966, p. 14.