This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine
When Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh took his seat in the House of Commons in 1866, you might think that he was doing exactly what was expected of him. The head of one of the oldest aristocratic families in Ireland, and the owner of a great estate, what could be more predictable than that Arthur should follow in his father’s stead and enter parliament?
In fact, this was probably the last thing that had been expected of him. When he was born in 1831, Arthur hadn’t just been the 14th child and fourth son, with a negligible chance of inheriting – he had been born with severely foreshortened arms and legs.
Such a disability may have condemned a poorer child to penury and stymied the career of even the wealthiest. His father, Thomas Kavanagh, a keen sportsman and famously hard rider, was devastated by what he saw as the catastrophe of a son without hands and feet. What could be expected of such a child, in a culture that so valued physical strength and sporting prowess in young men? He couldn’t walk; he couldn’t follow his brothers to school; he couldn’t keep up the family tradition for younger sons and join the navy. It must have seemed to his father, who died when Arthur was six, that his youngest son couldn’t do much at all.
A crack shot
Had he lived a little longer, Thomas might have revised that opinion. By the time Arthur came of age, it was clear that he was a force to be reckoned with: he had become a notable horse rider, a crack shot and, it was said, a distinctly wild young man. This wildness is one explanation that has been offered for his mother’s extraordinary decision to banish him from Ireland at the age of 18 and to send him, along with his brother and tutor, on an incredibly dangerous attempt to travel overland from Scandinavia to India, a journey of well over 4,000 miles.
According to Arthur’s more sensationalist biographers, his mother sent him on this expedition hoping that he wouldn’t return. If so, she badly miscalculated – Arthur was the only one of the trio who came back alive.
Arthur seemed to positively relish the dangers and privations of their travels, recording them for posterity in a daily journal. He described the social whirlwind of their time in St Petersburg and Moscow, the balls, the parties and the drunken revels.
He wrote of their journey across Persia, of sleeping on the ground in winter and undergoing “the trial of a water cure” as his frozen garments defrosted, of being “pelted diligently” by suspicious villagers and of riding over narrow mountain passes with the prospect of being “dashed to a thousand pieces” every time his horse slipped.
Everything, right down to the challenges of foreign food, is preserved in these meticulous diaries – everything, that is, apart from the fortnight he spent in the harem of Persian prince Malichus Mirza, recuperating from an illness. Whether because he was too ill to write or because it would have been ungentlemanly to record what went on there, he committed nothing to paper – although he certainly seems to have taken pleasure in teasing his censorious tutor about it.
Perhaps it is no wonder that when Arthur returned to Ireland as heir of the financially precarious family estate at Borris House in County Carlow (following his elder brothers’ deaths), he seems to have been undaunted. He set about rescuing the family fortunes, saving the estate from financial ruin through careful management and long-sighted investment. He extended the railway line from Dublin across his estates, developing local industries and taking a keen interest in the welfare of his tenants.
Burned in effigy
But if Arthur was a relatively benevolent landlord, he was implacably opposed to the idea of tenants’ rights and of Home Rule for Ireland, taking his seat in parliament as a Conservative. For over a decade, his parliamentary career was a success. He was even commended by his political enemy William Gladstone and, despite the turning of the tide towards Irish nationalism, he seems to have truly believed that his tenants were behind him. It is said that when he saw the bonfires burning on his estate on the night of the 1880 general election, he thought his tenants were celebrating his victory. In fact, they were burning him in effigy.
Arthur never lived at Borris again, but remained in London until his death in 1889. His wife, Frances, remained by his side. The couple married young and it seems to have been a true meeting of minds, with Frances aiding Arthur in all his projects for the estate and accompanying him on his yachting trips and foreign travels. They had seven children, the eldest of whom eventually represented County Carlow in parliament, as his father had done before him. Perhaps bowing to the inevitable, he took his seat as a nationalist.
Arthur’s descendents still live at Borris House. But his most important legacy may not be in the bricks and mortar of the stately home where he lived. As a disabled man who travelled the world, rode, sailed, shot, had a political career – did everything, in fact, that disabled people were meant to be incapable of doing – Arthur was a trailblazer. His extraordinary achievements represent a sustained refusal to accept the limitations others would impose upon him: surely a life to be celebrated.
Clare Walker Gore is a junior research fellow at the University of Cambridge. She is one of the BBC’s New Generation Thinkers for 2015–16.