A Book Review by Renée Huish
Meda Ryan: 16 Lives: Thomas Kent, O’Brien Press, Dublin, 2016.
RRP: €14.99 paperback; €10.99 ePub.
In the wake of The Easter Rising in Ireland in April 1916 fourteen men were executed by firing squad at Kilmainham gaol in Dublin. Thomas Kent was executed in Cork. All the firing squad executions had taken place by the 12th of May. The last of those to be executed was Roger Casement, who was hanged at Pentonville Prison, England on the 3rd August.
Sixteen Lives – Thomas Kent is one of the series of biographies of those who were executed. It explores the life of the least known of the patriots, who was shot at dawn at Cork Detention Barracks on 9 May 1916. Kent was one of the oldest of those executed, being fifty one years old. Older than him were Roger Casement, fifty two and Thomas Clark, fifty eight.
Thomas Rice Kent, as he preferred to be known, was born in 1865, the fourth of the nine children of David Kent and Mary Rice, at Castlelyons, Coole, Co Cork. The Rice Kent children inherited a proud tradition of Irish nationalism and social justice. Their mother, Mary Rice was related to Edmund Rice, founder of the Christian Brothers, and Canon James Rice, a close friend of Isaac Butt, and a father of the Home Rule movement. Her brothers included an archdeacon, and a Cork County Coroner. The births of all her children were registered to include the name Rice Kent. The farm where they were born had been her marriage dowry.
Historian Meda Ryan has pursued an impressive range of primary and secondary historic sources to provide this study of the life of Thomas Rice Kent, covering his family background, life in the latter part of 19th and early 20th century Ireland, his time in America, where he was active in the Irish nationalist movement, and his return to Ireland.
The lingering shadow of the famine, the rise and fall of The United Irishmen and Irish Republican Brotherhood (The Fenians), and the fledgling Tenant Rights League, whose aims were known as the 3 Fs’ – fair rent, fixity of tenure and freedom of tenant to sell his interest in his holding, was the background to Thomas’ early formative years. Up to the fall of Parnell two great questions dominated the social, economic and political landscape, the land question and the question of national independence.
In 1879 the political genius of Charles Stuart Parnell and the passion for social justice of Michael Davitt created a united front in addressing the struggle of the tenant farmers for security of holdings and the national struggle for independence. At Davitt’s invitation, Parnell addressed a meeting in Westport at which the Irish National Land League was formed, and Parnell became the President. The Land League was to become the greatest mass movement in modern Irish history with 200,000 members at its peak. It was in Co Mayo that the League was defied by Captain Charles Boycott, and their response to his actions added a new word to the English language. Boycotts of landowners and managers became a modus operandi of the League that quickly spread throughout the country.
In 1875 David Kent, father of Thomas, died, aged forty three, when Thomas was ten years old. By then the family had grown to nine children, although Elizabeth had predeceased her father, aged twelve. At their father’s death, Richard, the youngest was one year old. It became more difficult for Mary, their mother, to manage the farm and care for such a young family, especially having lost her youngest daughter. All the children attended National School, and Thomas, David, Richard and William later attended St Coleman’s College, Fermoy. It was this schooling that perfected their fluency in the Irish language, and fostered Thomas’ love of Irish history and literature.
The seven boys, especially the older ones were torn between helping on the farm, and raising money to support the family. It is likely that that pressure led to migration to America on the part of Thomas (1883), James (1884), and John (1887), and William later going to the diamond mines, in Durban, South Africa. Thomas obtained work in the printing industry in Boston, through a cousin of his grandmother, and also became involved in organising the Boston Irish in the Irish literary and cultural revival. His energies were taken up with work, cultural pursuits, sending money home to the family and raising money to support the victims of evictions taking place in his homeland. In 1889 Thomas returned to Ireland to avert the threat of eviction on his mother.
From 1889 he became a local leader in the Land League. Brothers Edmond, William and David were politically active, and all the brothers had come to the attention of the authorities. In 1890 Thomas was summonsed under the Coercion Act for offences relating to boycotting, and was imprisoned for two months. This was the first of a series of encounters with the law, leading to his eventual fate. Both James and John died in the US in 1893.
The Kents of Bawnard (the family home) were all marked men. Political agitation moved apace on all fronts from that point, and the Kents were in the forefront. There is no information on why Thomas travelled briefly to Durban in 1906, but it was probably to raise funds for the impending armed struggle. On his return he was inducted into the Irish Republican Brotherhood by Thomas Clarke.
Resistance of the Ulster Unionists to the Third Home Rule bill lit the fuse of resistance in the South. The Irish Volunteer Force was formed in 1913 and in Cork Thomas was arrested for organising the Irish Volunteer Force (IVF) locally. Meeting and organising with Roger Casement sealed his commitment to independence. Casement’s failure to enlist German support, with both weapons and manpower, and the later chain of events prevented Thomas from taking a prominent role in the 1916 uprising. As Commandant of the Galtee Battalion, he was to play a prominent role in the Rising in the south. After the capture of Casement at Banna strand, lines of communication had broken down and he never received orders.
Following the Dublin uprising, the order was given by the British authorities that all Sinn Féin sympathisers were to be arrested. Earlier, a somewhat foolhardy act on the part of youngest brother, Richard, in threatening a policeman added to the woes of the Kents. Seven members of the Royal Irish Constabulary went armed to the Kent home and ordered the whole family out. Thomas cried out ‘we are soldiers of the Republic, and there is no surrender’. The police then opened fire and Constable Rowe was shot and killed. It was unclear who had shot him, as there was considerable crossfire. Reinforcements were called for, consisting of over 100 troops with machine guns and rifles. A three hour siege ensued, in which Richard and David were wounded.
The Kent brothers and their eighty one year old mother were arrested and taken to Fermoy Military Barracks. Later their mother was released. Richard died of wounds. Thomas and William were tried by court martial under the Defence of the Realm Act. William was acquitted. Thomas was sentenced to death. Later David was tried and sentenced to 5 years penal servitude.
Thomas Kent faced his death proudly and his final request was that ‘no Irishman be asked to shoot me’.
This biography is a valuable source on Kent’s dedicated life in that it gives much information on his work for and commitment to Irish freedom. For those unfamiliar with Irish history, pre-reading on the broader political landscape is desirable. Whilst the rigour of the historic research is unquestioned, the biography lacks the dramatic core that would enable us to know more about Thomas, the man. A more in depth exploration of the role of his mother and her influence over the lives of her brood of seven sons and two daughters, and its final outcomes, would also enable a more human portrait of this hapless family. Mary Rice Kent worked tirelessly and exerted a huge influence over her family. She is a biographical subject in herself. All that being said, I am thankful to Meda Ryan for her considerable research on this neglected patriot, and rectifying for many of us knowledge that previously was little more than a name on our national Honour Board.
Renée was an educator, and has been involved for over two decades in Bloomsday in Melbourne as an actor and director.