I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh entered the world in March 1831 into a family that traced its lineage back to the kings of Leinster in south-east Ireland. He was just able to make the stumps of his arms meet across his chest and he learned to use his vestigial fingers to great effect. He became an excellent shot, accomplished horseman, painter, writer, and politician.
Kavanagh’s Early Life
In her 1891 biography of her cousin, Sarah Steele wrote “It was manifest that his upbringing must be different from that of other men, born, as he was, without limbs.”
His mother, Lady Harriet Margaret Le Poer Trench, seems to have been a lady of redoubtable character, and she was not going to see her son miss the opportunities that others had.
She devoted herself to Arthur’s welfare and upbringing and, along with his nurse, Anne Fleming, raised a young man who was marked by a gritty determination to achieve whatever he set his mind to.
Nurse Fleming would place toys just out of his reach and encourage him to wriggle towards them. She persuaded him to try to get his stumpy arms to meet across his chest. Through long hours of practice he was able to train his tiny arms to perform as well as any able-bodied person.
As with most aristocratic children, Arthur received his schooling at home but, of course, he faced special challenges. Books were hung round his neck and he turned the pages with his lips. He held a pen in his mouth and used the supple ends of his arm stumps to guide the nib.
Irish historian Turtle Bunbury writes that “aside from being strapped onto a pony or carried around on a servant’s back, the boy became so independent that it almost defies belief.”
A special saddle, like a chair, was made for Arthur and, once strapped in, he rode to hounds with panache. He galloped and jumped fences and walls with his horse, Tinker.
Already well travelled, Arthur, his brother Tom, and their tutor David Wood began a long adventure in 1849.
Passage to India
At the age of 18, Arthur Kavanagh embarked on an epic journey.
He and his companions started in Scandinavia and had such a good time, wine and general carousing are mentioned, that they had to send home for more money.
(It should be pointed out that although was deformed in many ways, Arthur Kavanagh was not deficient in the procreative department. Indeed, it seems he was quite extraordinarily active in that area.)
They entered Russia and travelled down the Volga to the Caspian Sea and then on to Persia. They spent a year rummaging around in what is now Iran, a region, as noted by Turtle Bunbury, well known for its “bandits, treacherous snow-blocked mountains, snakes and scorpions, ferocious weather and deadly fevers.”
On one occasion, for some misdemeanour or other, they were put in a wooden cage and exhibited in a town square. According to Kavanagh’s recollection, they were then “pelted diligently by the hospitable inhabitants with rotten eggs and bad oranges, soft things no doubt, but not the less trying to the temper.”
Kavanagh experienced all these adventures while strapped into a wicker basket.
The party turned up in India in January 1851, and ran out of money again.
The BBC says “Kavanagh put his equestrian skills to good use as an East India Company messenger, while his brother headed east and died of a fever in Java. Soon after, he learned that his other brother had also died.”
Return to Ireland
When he was born it seemed unlikely that Kavanagh would inherit his family’s fortune.
However, with the death of his two older brothers, Arthur Kavanagh was now the lord of the manor.
He set about managing the family’s estates from Borris House and turned the finances around. By 1883, the family owned about 30,000 acres of land. And, while improving the family’s fortunes, he did a lot to improve the lives of tenant farmers. He organized the building of a sawmill to provide free lumber to local villagers. Also, he rebuilt a couple of villages to his own designs and won a Royal Dublin Society prize for creating high-quality houses at low cost.
Settling down to domesticity, he married his cousin Frances Mary Leathley in 1855 and together they had seven children. They helped farmers recover from the devastation of the potato famine by encouraging the growing of flowers for market and by starting a lace-making venture.
People from rich, aristocratic backgrounds were expected to give back to society in the form of service to the general wellbeing; Arthur Kavanagh became a magistrate and oversaw the work of the local poor house.
The BBC records that “For those of his class who wanted it, a seat in the House of Commons could easily be arranged, and so Kavanagh was duly elected, first for Wexford and then for his home county of Carlow.” He served in the British Parliament from 1866 to 1880, but members had never seen the like of him before.
When Parliament was in session he sailed his two-masted schooner, Lady Eva, across the Irish Sea, up the English Channel, and the River Thames. Moored opposite the Houses of Parliament, his servant rowed him across the river and carried him to his seat in the Commons.
During his time in Parliament he became a key leader of the forces favouring continued union with Britain. But his view was out of favour with the majority of Irish people who wanted home rule. Rejected by voters in 1880, he still served as Lord Lieutenant of Carlow and was sworn in as a member of the Irish Privy Council.
The end, in the form of pneumonia, came for this remarkable man on Christmas Day 1889. As his life ebbed away his family, at his request, sang Christmas carols. An obituary in The Times said he had given “the world a wholesome lesson of how far courage and perseverance can compensate for physical defects.”
- There is a story that Arthur’s bride-to-be had some qualms that their children might inherit their father’s deformities. To put her mind at rest, he drove her around the neighbourhood of the ancestral mansion and pointed out several children with complete limbs that he had fathered.
- Arthur Kavanagh always saw himself as unexceptional. Once he visited a friend he hadn’t seen for a long time and told him “You know it’s at least ten years since I was here and the railway station master recognized me.”
- “The Right Honourable Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh.” Sarah Steele, Macmillan and Co, 1891.
- “Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh. 1831-1889.” Kavanaghfamily.org, undated.
- “Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh -The Limbless Landlord.” Brian Igoe, The Irish Story, December 21, 2012.
- “The Incredible Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh. 1831-1889.” Turtle Bunbury, undated.
- “The Cruise of the R.Y.S. Eva.” Arthur Kavanagh, Hodges, Smith, 1865.
- “Disability History Month: Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh.” BBC News Magazine, December 5, 2012.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor