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
His family traced its descent to the kings 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
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
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