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Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh : 1831-1889


Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh

Arthur was born at Borris House, Co. Carlow, on 25 March 1831, the third son of Thomas Kavanagh (1767-1837), by his second wife, Lady Harriet Margaret Le Poer Trench, daughter of Richard, second earl of Clancarty. His father was M.P. for Kilkenny in the last Irish parliament, and for Co. Carlow in the last two parliaments (of the United Kingdom) under George IV, and the first parliament under William IV.

His family traced its descent to the kings of LeinsterMap of Leinster. Born with only the rudiments of arms and legs, Arthur nevertheless, by indomitable resolution and perseverance, triumphed over his physical defects, and learned to do almost all that the normal man can do, better than most men. Though in general carried on the back of his servant, he had a mechanical chair so contrived that he was able to move about the room without even this assistance.

His chest was broad, but he could make the stumps of his arms meet across it, and by long practice he made the stumps themselves so supple, strong, and nervous, that with the reins round them he could manage a horse as well as if he had them between his fingers, and even make good use of a whip. In riding he was strapped on a chair saddle, and though thus exposed to the gravest risks in the event of his horse falling or breaking his girths, rode to hounds and took fences and walls as boldly as any in the field.

He was also an expert angler, fishing from a boat or from horseback, and supplying the want of wrist-play by dexterous jerks of the stumps of his arms. Nor did his practical dexterity end here. He contrived to shoot, and shoot well, both in cover and the open, carrying a gun without a trigger-guard, resting the piece upon his left arm-stump, and jerking the trigger with his right. He also became a fair amateur draughtsman and painter, and wrote more legibly than many who suffer from no physical defect.

Arthur was educated under private tutors at Celbridge, co. Kildare, and with his mother at St. Germain-en-Laye, and at Rome. He also travelled with his mother and his tutor, the Rev. David Wood, in Egypt, ascending the Nile as far as the third cataract, and in Asia Minor, visiting Sinai, Jerusalem, and Beyrout, in 1846-8.

On his return to Ireland in 1848 Arthur acted as a volunteer scout during Smith O'Brien's rebellion, riding sometimes many miles unattended in the dead of night.

During 1849-1851 he travelled with his eldest brother, Thomas, and his tutor to India by way of Russia and Persia. Tabriz was reached without notable adventure in November 1849, and the party were introduced to a Persian prince, Malichus Mirza. Arthur fell dangerously ill in December, and was nursed in the prince's harem. On his recovery the travellers crossed Lake Urumiah, and rode through difficult country and blinding sleet and snow to Mosul, passing on the way the scene of the recent murder of Stoddart and Conolly and recovering the latter's prayer-book.

Thence, after visiting Nineveh, they voyaged by raft down the Tigris to Bagdad, inspected the remains of the Tower of Babel, and rode by a perilous pass to Shiraz. On the way Arthur, dizzy with fever, saw the mule in front of him tumble headlong over the precipice, and was only saved from the same fate by the strength of his nerve.

At Shiraz he visited the tombs of the poets Sadi and Hafiz, and returned by Ispahan to Teheran, 26 June 1850. Thence a long and intensely hot march brought them to Bushire, where they took ship for Bombay, arriving there on 5 Jan. 1851. Arthur now had some experience of tiger-hunting, in which he acquitted himself brilliantly.

In December his brother, attacked by consumption, left India for Australia. He died on the voyage, and Arthur, who had remained behind, was for a time in want of money, and maintained himself by carrying despatches in the Aurungabad district. He afterwards obtained a post in the survey department of the Poonah district, but returned to Ireland in 1853, and succeeded to the family estates on the death of his brother Charles in that year.

On 15 March 1855 he married his cousin, Frances Mary, only surviving daughter of the Rev. Joseph Forde Leathley, rector of Termonfeckin, co. Louth. Arthur was, by the admission of Sir Charles Russell, 'a landlord of landlords.' He rebuilt in great part the villages of Borris and Ballyragget, on plans drawn by himself, which won the Royal Dublin Society's medal, and in other ways sought to promote the well-being of his tenantry. In this he was ably seconded by his wife, who taught the villagers floriculture and lace-making, the latter having been started by his mother.

Arthur subsidised and managed the railway line from Borris to Bagnalstown until it was taken over by the Great Southern and Western Railway. He was a justice of the peace for the counties of Wexford, Kilkenny, and Carlow, high sheriff of co. Kilkenny in 1856 and of co. Carlow in 1857, and a member, and from 1862 chairman, of the board of guardians of the New Ross poor-house, in which, though himself a strong protestant, he had a chapel provided for the benefit of Roman catholic inmates, the first of the kind in Ireland.

Daily he might be seen seated under an old oak in the courtyard of Borris House, administering justice, adjusting differences, making up quarrels, and even arranging marriages. Here, also, in the winter he distributed beef and blankets among the poor. Arthur represented co. Wexford in parliament from 1866 to 1868, and Co. Carlow from 1868 to 1880. During the Fenian rising he fortified and provisioned Borris House for a siege, and patrolled the country nightly as in 1848.

Arthur was a conservative, voted against the disestablishment of the Irish church, and took an active part in its reorganisation upon a voluntary basis. On the other hand, he supported the Land Bill of 1870. He spoke seldom, but with great weight; his maiden speech decided the fate of the Poor Law (Ireland) Amendment Bill of 1869. He supported the Peace Preservation Bills of 1870 and 1875.

He lost his seat at the general election of 1880, even his own tenantry voting against him; was appointed lord-lieutenant of co. Carlow, and sat on the Bessborough commission. Dissenting from the report of his colleagues, he drew up one of his own, in which the principal feature was a proposal to extend the Bright clauses of the act of 1870. Foreseeing the storm, he initiated the Irish Land Committee, of which he became one of the honorary secretaries.

He was also an energetic member of the Property Defence Association, and founded in 1883 the Land Corporation. In 1886 he was sworn of the Irish privy council. Worn out by anxiety and overwork, he succumbed to an attack of pneumonia at his town house, 19 Tedworth Square, Chelsea, on Christmas day, 1889. He was buried in the ruined church on Ballycopigan, a wooded hill in the demesne of Borris.

Arthur was an enthusiastic and experienced yachtsman, and published a very lively account of a shooting cruise off the coast of Albania, entitled 'The Cruise of the R.Y.S. Eva,' Dublin, 1865, 8vo.

Sources -
Mrs. Steele's Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh, London, 1891, 8vo; The Lancet, 14 March 1891; Blackwood, cxlix. 429 et seq.; Dublin Gazette, 1886.

Contributor - James McMullen Rigg 
Published  - 1891