Éamonn Ceannt was born Edward Thomas Kent on 21 September 1881 in Glenamaddy, Co. Galway. One of seven children born to RIC Constable James Kent and his wife, Johanna. When his father was transferred to Ardee, Co. Louth in 1883, the young Kent, studious and socially awkward, attended the De La Salle national school. After five years in Ardee, the Kent family moved to Drogheda and from there, following James’s retirement from the RIC in 1892, they moved to Dublin, settling at 232 Clonliffe Road, Drumcondra, from where Edward attended the local Christian Brothers secondary school, O’Connell’s CBS, North Richmond Street, described by historians Michael Foy and Brian Barton, as a ‘veritable revolutionary seminary’.
On Leaving school, Ceannt took a job as a clerk in the finance department of Dublin Corporation. If the work was dull and routine, the ascetic Ceannt - he neither smoked nor drank - found an outlet for his interests in the Irish Ireland movement, his interest in the language and music sparked by the centenary commemorations for the 1798 rebellion. In 1899 he joined the Gaelic League and took to using the Irish form of his name. His commitment to Irish language and culture was serious: he devoted much of his energies to teaching Irish and to promoting Irish traditional music - in 1900, together with Edward Martyn, he helped to set up the Dublin Pipers Club, serving as its secretary. Later, in 1908, Ceannt, a devout Catholic, travelled to Rome with a team of athletes and musicians where he performed the uileann pipes for Pope Pius X.
By then, Ceannt, who married fellow language enthusiast Áine O’Brennan in 1905, had joined Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin, being elected to its national Council. Socialist-leaning, he helped in the unionisation of workers in Dublin Corporation, served as Chairman of the Dublin Municipal Officers’ Association and, during the 1913 Lockout, defending the Dublin workers in the face of criticism from Arthur Griffith.
But it was his separatist politics that attracted the attention of the IRB and he was sworn into the movement by Seán Mc Dermott in 1911, assisting in the publication of the movement’s newspaper, Irish Freedom. Ceannt was a founding member of the Irish Volunteers, serving on its Provisional Committee and subsequently, in late July and early August 1914, participating in the landing of arms and ammunition at Howth and Kilcoole. On 9 September 1914, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, he attended a meeting of leading separatists at the Gaelic League library on Parnell Square, at which it was decided in principle to use the opportunity of European hostilities to mount an insurrection. When the Volunteer movement split after John Redmond pledged their support for the war, he became a leading figure on its recast executive. In 1915, he joined the Supreme Council of the IRB and in May that same year he was appointed to the IRB’s Military Committee, which took responsibility for planning the Rising. In preparing the ground for that Rising, one Volunteer officer later recalled how Ceannt, in the months before Easter 1916, ‘took a crowd of us out one Sunday beyond Blessington; he sat on a stone wall and got us around him. He told us what to prepare for and said “Get guns and ammunition, honest if you can, but get them”’.
During the insurrection itself, Ceannt commanded 120 men of the 4th Battalion of the Irish Volunteers in occupying the South Dublin Union, a large sprawling site off James’s Street close to a number of British army barracks. The Volunteers were heavily outnumbered, yet it was here that some of the bloodiest fighting of Easter week took place. Preferring to fight to the death, Ceannt reluctantly acceded to Patrick Pearse’s order to surrender.
On 3-4 May, he was court-martialled at Richmond Barracks and condemned to death. In the hours before his execution by firing squad in Kilmainham Jail on May 8th, Ceannt penned a poignant parting letter to his wife. “My dearest wife Áine,” he began, “not wife but widow before these lines reach you. I am here without hope of this world, without fear, calmly awaiting the end . . . What can I say? I die a noble death for Ireland’s freedom. Men and women will vie with one another to shake your dear hand. Be proud of me as I am and ever was of you.” However, it wasn’t only his wife Áine O’Brennan that Ceannt left behind. He was also survived by their young son Rónán and a brother, William, who served with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
Mary Gallagher, 16 Lives: Eamonn Ceannt (O’Brien Press)
Read the Guide to the Manuscript Collection of Eamonn and Aine Ceannt in the National Library of Ireland