Two brothers fighting two very different wars


by Ciaran Mc

Exactly a year to the day after the commencement of the Easter Rising, 24th April 1917, Sergeant-Major William (Bill) Leeman Ceannt was killed in action during the First World War, Battle of Arras. A year previously, Commandant Eamonn Ceannt, Bill’s younger brother, had occupied and instructed the 4th Battalion of the Irish Volunteers in the rebel garrison, South Dublin Union, in their fight against the same British army his brother committed too. The grievous news of the death of Bill on the Western Front reached the Ceannt family on 8th May 1917, the date of the first Anniversary of Eamonn’s execution by the British for his part in the Easter Rising. The fascinating story of the two Ceannt brothers, Eamonn the Easter Irish Revolutionary, and, Bill the Great War British soldier, illustrates the diverse allegiances amongst families and the political complexity of Ireland in the early part of the 20th Century.

Eamonn Ceannt, in many ways, is the “unknown” man among the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. As one of the seven signatories to the proclamation of the Irish Republic, Eamonn was a pivotal figure in the planning of the Rising and as Commandant of the South Dublin Union, where some of the fiercest fighting took place during Easter week. Some believe, Eamonn was the “physical force” advocate amongst the Easter leaders. The Rising for Eamonn was the culmination of a life dedicated to political activism and the advancement and achievement of Irish freedom.

As with many young people of the late 19th century, the centenary of the United Irishman’s 1798 Rebellion coupled with the Gaelic cultural revival was to contribute significantly to the national resurgence, impelling many to join a variety of organisations, some that were heavily infiltrated by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Eamonn’s passion for the Irish language (aged 15, changed surname from Kent to Ceannt) propelled him into the ranks of the Gaelic League, a movement to promote Irish as a spoken and literary language, persevere Ireland’s national identity and “de-anglicise” the Irish people. He was an accomplished piper and conducive to the Irish music revival of the time. In 1908, he travelled with a group of Irish athletes to Rome where he played the pipes before Pope Pius X.

The Gaelic League, as it did to so many, politicised and radicalised Eamonn’s already advancing beliefs. He joined Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Fein Organisation in 1907, compelled by its “commitment to Irish Independence” and was to rise through its ranks. Four years later, in 1911, he was sworn into the IRB by Sean MacDermott, a fellow signatory to the Irish Proclamation. With the militant threat posed by the initiation of the Ulster Volunteers, Eamonn stated in 1913, “it is the duty of all Irishmen to be skilled in the use of arms. Preparation for War is the best guarantee of peace.” Soon after, he was involved in the establishment of the Irish Volunteers. Quickly, Eamonn became a member of the Provisional Committee and a leading figure within the movement. He was to play a key active role in financing and arming the Volunteers and was involved in the Howth gunrunning of July 1914. Following the split in the Volunteers, Eamonn was elected financial secretary and was appointed commandant of the 4th Battalion in March 1915.

On 9th September 1914, Eamonn convened a crucial meeting involving leaders of the IRB Supreme Council at 25 Parnell Square which agreed to use the War as an opportunity to strike a blow for Irish freedom. In May 1915, Eamonn was co opted onto the Military Council of the IRB along with Patrick Pearse and Joseph Plunkett with the sole objective of putting plans in place for an armed rebellion. Many of the meetings of the Military Council were held at Eamonn’s residence in Dolphin’s Barn.

On Easter Monday, 24th April 1916, Eamonn took command of 120 Volunteers at the South Dublin Union. During Easter week, the 4th Battalion held off a number of sustained attacks by the vastly superior British military. The fighting became an intense hand to hand struggle, but Eamonn’s military expertise and bravery ensured his men held their position as the British failed to take the garrison. His calm leadership under pressure and that of Cathal Brugha during the intense fighting and bombardment was praised and recognised by the men of the South Dublin Union. On Sunday 30th April 1916, Thomas MacDonagh broke the news of the surrender to Eamonn. Under direct orders from the Provisional Government, Eamonn reluctantly surrendered. Major Rotherham who oversaw the surrender of the South Dublin Union was astonished such a tiny band of men held off two major assaults by the British. Eamonn led his men from the South Dublin Union, “a brave band who fought a clean fight for Ireland” (Father Augustine) where he ordered his battalion to lay down their arms and equipment.

In the gymnasium of Richmond Barracks, in the aftermath of the Rising, Eamonn Ceannt was picked out by the Dublin Metropolitan Police detectives, known as “G men.” At his court martial on Wednesday 3rd May 1916, presided over by General Blackader, Eamonn pleaded, “not guilty.” After hearing evidence, Eamonn’s closing address to the court was “remarkable in its clarity.” On the back of his charge sheet, it read, “shall not deny anything proven or admit what is not proven.” The next day, Eamonn was found guilty as charged. He was sentenced to death by being shot. On the early morning of 8th May 1916, Eamonn, after taking Holy Communion from Father Augustine, in a letter to his wife wrote, “I die a noble death for Ireland’s freedom.” He walked to the Stonebreakers Yard of Kilmainham Gaol, hands tied behind his back, a cloth around his eyes, a small square piece of paper acting as a target for the 12 man firing squad. At dawn, 4.05am, with Father Augustine’s crucifix in his hand, Eamonn Ceannt echoed his last words, “My Jesus Mercy” before the executor shots rang out.

Eamonn’s brother, Bill, was a soldier with the Royal Dubliner Fusiliers. Having spent the opening phase of World War One stationed in Fermoy, County Cork, Bill was charged at a court martial for giving stolen food to Thomas Kent. The same Thomas Kent who was executed in Cork Jail for a gunfight with the RIC in the immediate aftermath of the Easter Rising. Bill was posted to the Western Front on 11th September 1916. During the Battle of the Somme, in November that year, he was seriously wounded and eventually promoted to Company Sergeant-Major. During the Battle of Arras, in early 1917, Bill was struck down by machine gun fire during an advance of enemy lines and subsequently died from his wounds. The Ceannt family received a scroll admonishing him amongst those who answered the call of King and Country, “let those who come after see to it that his name not be forgotten.”

The legacy of the Easter Rising and the wave of sympathy that swept the country in its aftermath ensured Eamonn’s War was more accepted than Bill’s War. Eamonn Ceannt in his last letter was perhaps right, “In the years to come, Ireland will honour those who risked all for her honour at Easter 1916.” Bill’s name and many thousands of other Irishmen who were killed and maimed in the First World War, were the names that for decades would be forgotten and ignores. Brothers by blood, yet their blood spilled in a commitment to very different allegiances, one to Ireland and the other to Britain. Perhaps, the words of Eamonn as true to himself as that of his brother, Bill, “This generation can claim to have raised sons as brave as any that went before.”

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