It was Tuesday, May 2nd 1916 and dawn was just about to break. Seven men in the uniform of the Royal Irish Constabulory, turned into the long laneway, leading to Bawnard House, an impressive farmhouse on two hundred acres, a short distance from Castlelyons village in North Cork. These RIC men were in no mood to appreciate the breaking of a new day, however. They had been sent from Fermoy Barracks, with orders to arrest the Kent brothers of Bawnard House, long-noted for their nationalist views and a thorn in the side of the British for many years.
Only a few days before, the Easter Rising had ended with the unconditional surrender of members of the Volunteers and the Citizen Army. Later that Tuesday morning, the first of the secret and hurried court-martials would begin in Dublin when Pearse, McDonagh and Clarke would be found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Their executions would be carried out at dawn the following morning, Wednesday, May 3rd.
But these were tragic events still waiting to happen as the RIC silently approached the large and impressive Bawnard House early on that Tuesday morning. The four Kent brothers, all unmarried and living with their elderly widowed mother, Mary, were to be arrested. This, despite the fact that none of them had risen against the British during Easter Week, largely because the Cork Volunteers were totally confused by McNeill’s countermanding orders and didn’t have any idea what exactly was going on. The Kents, like so many others, up and down the country, waited in vain for word of a Cork uprising and when it didn’t arrive, they had returned home to Bawnard, disappointed and confused.
When the RIC, led by Head Constable Rowe, a native of County Wexford, demanded their surrender, the Kents refused. Was their refusal to go quietly and without a fight influenced by their chagrin at not rising up with their Dublin comrades the week before? We’ll never know now. What we do know is that when the brothers refused the RIC order, the constables opened fire on the house and the Kents returned it. For over three hours, the brothers, aided by their mother, who cleaned and cooled their guns, and the police had a stand -off, in the course of which Head Constable Rowe was killed and Richard, the youngest of the brothers, was severely wounded while trying to escape. David, another brother, was also injured in the shoot-out. Sometime during the attack, it seems the RIC were reinforced by the military. Finally, almost out of ammunition, the Kents had no choice but to surrender.
Iconic photo of Thomas Kent, barefoot, and his brother William, being taken over Fermoy Bridge, to jail
In Cork prison, Thomas, David and William were tried for the murder of Constable Rowe. Richard had, by then, died of his wounds. William was acquitted and returned to Bawnard while both Thomas and David were sentenced to death. David’s sentence was commuted to five years. He served only one year however, being released from an English prison in the general amnesty of 1917. Both brothers went on to be politically active in the tumultuous years that followed the 1916 Rising. William became the first Sinn Féin chairman of Cork County Council in 1917 and David became Sinn Féin MP for Cork East in the 1918 general election.
Thomas was not so fortunate and was found guilty of the murder of Constable Rowe. As yet another day dawned, on the following Tuesday, May 9th, clutching his rosary beads, the fifty one year old nationalist and devout Catholic, was executed by firing squad in Cork Jail. His body was thrown into a quicklime grave in the grounds and there he languished for ninety nine years before his remains were exhumed and buried, following a state funeral, in the family vault in his native Castlelyons in 1915. In 1966, the 50th anniversary of the Rising, the railway station in Cork was renamed Kent Station in his honour. Their mother, Mary, survived the deaths of her two sons by only a few months and died in 1917 while David was still in prison.
Lying in state at Collin’s Barracks in 2015
Today, you can visit the family vault in the tranquil grounds of the Roman Catholic Church in Bridesbridge, near Castlelyons. Interestingly, not far from the Kent vault is buried yet another famous Irishman, An t-Athair Peadar O Laoghaire, author of Mo Scéal Féin, for many years a staple of the Leaving Certificate Irish course. He served as parish priest of Castlelyons from 1890 to 1920 and as such would have been ministering in the village during all the turmoil of the years leading up to the War of Independence, dying at the height of that brutal conflict in the parochial house on March 21st. 1920.