Ireland,  Phoebe,  Western Europe

Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh MP

Photograph of Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh Photo Credit -
Photograph of Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh Photo Credit –

Bit of a short post tonight ladies and gentlemen, but an interesting man nonetheless.

Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh was born in County Carlow, Ireland, on March 1831, the third son of Thomas Kavanagh MP, and his second wife, Lady Margaret Le Poer Trench, daughter of the Earl of Clancarty. He was followed by his sister Harriet. Due to an unknown birth defect, many suspecting Lady Margaret’s excessive laudanum habit during her pregnancy, Arthur was born with no limbs; stumps were all he had. His two older brothers Charles and Thomas Jr were not similarly afflicted, as neither was his sister.

Despite his profound physical disability, in an age where such an issue would be considered a barrier to living a productive life, Arthur flourished under his mother’s care; she was determined for her little boy to live as full a life as possible. She engaged the help of a local doctor, Francis Boxwell, and between them they taught him to paint and write using his mouth, and with the help of a specially constructed saddle, to ride a horse by the age of three. He was also able to fish and hunt with a great deal of skill, and the assistance of equipment constructed especially for purpose including a wheelchair designed by Sir Philip Crampton, a leading Irish surgeon and anatomist who specialized in children’s medicine.

As a young man, Arthur was discovered by his mother to be conducting rather loose moral liaisons with several of the servant girls on the family’s estate, and so was sent away to tour Uppsala, in what is now Sweden. From there, accompanied by his eldest brother Charles, and a man of the cloth for whom Arthur developed a keen hatred, he travelled to Moscow and then across Egypt and the Middle East to India, where Charles died suddenly of tuberculosis in December, 1851, leaving twenty-year-old Arthur stranded, disabled and alone, with just thirty shillings to his name.

Kavanagh's birthplace at Borris House, Borris, in County Carlow Photo Credit-
Kavanagh’s birthplace at Borris House, Borris, in County Carlow Photo Credit-

His mother had apparently extended a line of credit for him, but terminated it quite abruptly when she discovered he had charged a two week stay in a harem, and so he was forced to approach the East India Company for a job as a dispatch rider, demonstrating once again that his physical short-comings were no barrier to his success. That same year, Thomas also apparently died, although records indicate Charles died first and was the eldest child, meaning that the period between the two older boys deaths was very short, and as a result, Arthur inherited the MacMurrough title and estates.

He travelled back to Ireland to take up his seat and once established, in 1855, at the age of twenty-four, married his cousin Mary Frances Forde-Leathley. According to anecdotal evidence, It was either Mary or her father who asked him prior to giving his blessing to the marriage, whether there was a chance his condition could be hereditary. To which Arthur replied, “Not in any of the children I have already!” And pointed out several strong healthy children in the neighbourhood which he claimed were his own. The couple went on to have seven healthy children, three daughters and four sons.

With assistance from Mary, Arthur was known as a generous landlord to his tenants, following the failure of the potato crops during the famine, and having inherited not just his titles but a lot of debt of his family’s and that of his tenants, instead of going the same way as many other landlords and evicting the tenants, he chose to beg borrow and generally obtain as many materials as possible, tools and so forth and set up his own sawmill, staffed by his tenants, as well as those who had lost their own homes and assisted them to build their own village, Borris. He later donated land to the railways in return for the lines to pass through Borris. He was known for his benevolence, often putting together parcels of food and necessities for the villagers, sometimes as a Christmas gift, often just because it was needed. His simple answer being that he had been raised to believe that each and every Lord had a duty to take care of their tenants, not evict them. He didn’t have much but he shared what he had.

He served on the Board of Guardians to the new local poorhouse and worked as a County Magistrate, a role in which he took a leading interest. He was appointed High Sheriff of Kilkenny in 1856 and Carlow in 1857. Between 1866 and 1880, he served as MP for first Wexford and then Carlow under William Gladstone as a Conservative. He was known for having a man-servant accompany him to Parliament, carrying him around in a basket. He lost his seat in 1880, however Gladstone placed him on the Bessborough Commission, convened to investigate the working of the Landlord and Tenant (Ireland) Act of 1870 which was passed as a means of dealing with the issue of peasant proprietorship following the Irish famine of the 1840s. Arthur was the only dissenter on the commission.

He watched sadly as Ireland split into two factions, based on religion, as most of the Landowners were Protestant and several prominent Catholics were campaigning for home rule, his beloved Ireland descended into violence with the Irish Republican Brotherhood under the Fenians. He wrote his own report based on his dissent in the convention which led to his appointment onto Salisbury’s Privy Council.
On Christmas day 1889, after a substantial weight loss, and complaining of chest pains, Arthur was forced to take to his bed. He asked for a visiting choir to gather around his bed and sing to him. As they sung, he slowly and quietly slipped away. He was just short of 58 years old.