I paid my respects to Thomas Kent tonight.
A name confined to Irish history books until his remains were uncovered in a shallow grace in Cork prison earlier this year, it was simply something I felt compelled to do.
I loved history as a subject in school by my class didn’t study the 1916 Rising in detail because the Leaving Cert exam questions around that period of Irish history were considered to be ‘unpredictable’.
I followed the entrance signs, climbed the small incline up to the chapel within the ground of Collins Barracks and as I signed the Book of Condolences, a changing of the guard begin. An immediate hush fell on the crowd still gathered in clusters around the church.
It’s fair to say we are generally unfamiliar with military guards of honour and procedures in Ireland but there was something touching, and sad in the deliberate motions of the defence force members that filed away from Kent’s coffin, only to be replaced by four colleagues moments later.
The four men that entered from a back hallway were impeccable dressed. They were armed and by the time their commanding officer was finished with his commands, their heads were bowed in an intensely sorrowful way.
At that moment, I couldn’t help but think of Thomas Kent himself. While awaiting execution for armed rebellion in Cork 99 years ago, could he ever have imagined such a scene?
And what would he think of Ireland today? A country were people sleep homeless on the streets, where families are losing their houses because of mistakes made by the now-forgiven banking industry, where the opportunity to make money seems to trump any morals or ethics we as a nation might have. Where one in six people born in Ireland now live overseas.
“The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally…”
Thomas Kent also made me think of my own grandfather. I was lucky enough to know all of my grandparents very well during my early lifetime. They each gave me something different and for my ‘country’ grandfather, Ireland and its history were very important.
Fourteen years ago, and a few months after I had started college in Dublin, he came to visit with my grandmother and mother in tow. Once my cousin & I were duly fed and watered, he wanted to pay a visit to the GPO on O’Connell Street.
Grandad was short and stocky, never afraid to speak his mind and was very much a country gentleman visiting the big smoke that day. As we stood in the centre of a packed GPO, he gave a rather colourful version of James Connolly’s demise – collecting the attention of more than a couple of interested tourists along the way.
For several years after he passed, I would often nip into the GPO as a reminder of those now precious moments. When the portraits were removed, I was disappointed to learn that they were no longer deemed ‘appropriate’.
It often strikes me that the only people ashamed and unfamiliar with Irish history seem to be Irish. We cannot understand Ireland today without knowing our history. For me, it’s that simple.
Attending a friend’s wedding a number of years ago, I was asked to give a lift to an older American couple that needed a way to travel from the church in Mayo to the reception in Sligo.
It didn’t take long for me to discover that the gentleman had previously been the White House correspondent for a major US newspaper. After asking him what Barack Obama was really like and to nominate his favourite president of all, this former scribe spoke at length and in great detail of his admiration for the economic policies of one Michael Collins.
His knowledge and insight was incredible. I have always had an interest in Collins myself but it paled in comparison. Why is it that it takes someone looking in from the outside to make us realise how much we have and how lucky we are in many ways?
For most Irish people, the 1916 Rising is something they connect with school and the distant past. It’s considered irrelevant to life today. The people of Cork and Ireland – on September 17 and 18, 2015 – will have had an opportunity to pay their respects to someone that gave their life to try and create an Irish Republic 99 years ago. It doesn’t seem a stretch to use the ‘once in a lifetime’ phrase about now.
When we go to celebrate the centenary of the Rising next year, I hope common sense prevails. It should be a solemn moment of respect to the men and women that gave their lives during that period, and not a money-making opportunity dressed up as a ‘celebration’. We owe at least that much to ourselves and the people involved 99 years.
Thomas Kent: Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.