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1881-1899: A Constabulary Childhood
When Éamonn Ceannt (Edward Thomas Kent) was born in Ballymoe, County Galway, on 21 September 1881 to Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) Constable James Kent and his wife, Johanna, few could have imagined that he would live to become Commandant of the 4th Battalion of the Irish Volunteers, that he would sign the Proclamation of the Irish Republic and that he would be executed by firing squad following a hastily convened field court martial on 8 May 1916.
The year 1881 started badly in the west of Ireland with an exceptionally hard winter. Although the deprivation was not comparable with the period of the Great Famine, well within living memory, hunger was widespread and starvation was an ever-present threat. But for James and Johanna Kent the situation was less bleak than for many of their neighbours. James had a good pensionable job with regular pay and subsidised accommodation.
James Kent had been born on 14 July 1839 in Rehill, near Mitchelstown, County Cork. He joined the RIC on 15 January 1862. His family farmed in Lyrefune, a townland of Ballyporeen, County Tipperary. When he joined the RIC he gave his occupation as ‘labourer’ and was recommended as a young man of good character and a suitable member of the RIC by his parish priest. Like most of his contemporaries, he had received an elementary education in reading, writing and arithmetic. A tall, well-built man, he was in excellent health and easily met the physically demanding conditions for the force. For a landless younger son like James, the RIC presented a welcome opportunity for improvement.
His wife, Johanna, was from Buttevant, County Cork, and they met when he was posted in nearby Kanturk. By the time Eamonn was born in 1881, they had been married for nearly eleven years. Although money would have been tight in the early years of their marriage James was now approaching the maximum salary of £70 per annum for a constable with nearly twenty years’ service.
Like many of her contemporaries, Johanna spent the early years of her married life caring for their young children. At the start of 1881 they had five children under the age of eleven: William Leeman (Bill) John Patrick (JP), Ellen (Nell), James Charles (Jem) and Michael (Mick). Their fifth son, Edward Thomas (Ned) – who was subsequently to adopt the Gaelic translation of his name, Eamonn Ceannt — was born in September that year and their youngest son, Richard (Dick), two years later. Even if she had the time or inclination, the regulations of the force prevented Johanna from taking up any occupation for profit outside the home, such as dressmaking, nor could she take in lodgers.
As for James, he was part of a quasi-military force of men whose daily lives were highly regulated. They were always ‘on duty’ and were expected to be available at all hours. They could not serve in their own home localities or those of their spouses. When they were assigned to a new location, their priority was to get to know their new community. As a young recruit, James would have received training in the elements of police duties, including proficiency in ‘the use of arms and military movements’, and would have operated under a Code of Regulations that required him to know his neighbours, including their political views. Like most of his contemporaries, James’s duties entailed collecting information, patrolling the countryside, and acting as an officer of the courts, reporting such things as prosecutions for allowing two donkeys to wander on the public highway, or for having a dog without a licence, or for being drunk on the public street. Until the late 1870s the Irish countryside had been quiet, from a policing point of view, and the life of a policeman a ‘rather mundane and tedious occupation’.