The Limbless Landlord

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This is the story of Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh, a 19th century Irish Landlord who was born with no legs or arms, and yet was an expert horseman, a first class shot, a noted yachtsman, an active local Justice of the Peace and administrator, and a Member of Parliament.

And all this before modern medicine had developed the prosthetic limb. I shall call him Arthur, although in his own day such familiarity from a stranger would have been unthinkable.

Through Arthur’s extraordinary life we catch glimpses of the world he inhabited from 1831 to 1889. We go with him to the Nile Valley and the Sinai Desert. We follow him to Russia and the Great Makariev Fair, the World Trade Fair of the day. We see him in Persia when the new reforming Shah Nasser al-Din Qajar, who brought railways and telephones to his country, ascends the Peacock throne. And in India just as the railway reaches Bombay, where he hunts from the back of an elephant and takes a job as a dispatch rider. We are introduced to William Ewart Gladstone, Charles Stewart Parnell, Benjamin Disraeli and Daniel O’Connell.

And above all we look at Ireland in the 19th century, the Railway boom, the Great Famine and the lesser one thirty years later, the life of the aristocrat and the peasant, the Fenians and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and the increasingly vicious confrontation between Landlord and Tenant which followed. Arthur seems not to have involved himself on the national or international stage as the confrontation developed, concentrating on events at home, in Borris and Ross and Kilkenny and Carlow.

I have traced four biographies of Arthur, one of them by his cousin Sarah Steele who wrote only two years after his death, one by a Kavanagh, Kenneth Kavanagh, who was only remotely connected – “too remote to be of any consequence” as he put it. Another, perhaps the best, is by Donald McCormick and published in 1960 by a New York publishing company specialising in things Irish which seems now to have ceased trading, and one (in my view distasteful and possibly libellous) is by a “pop-psychologist”.

None of them really tackle the time of Arthur’s life which, so his wife later wrote, were his happiest days – his political life. And two of them, including that by Kenneth Kavanagh, seem to me to take an unnecessarily  prurient interest in events which may or may not have occurred such as Lady Harriet’s nights out in Cairo or Arthur’s dalliances in St. Petersburg. These were after all Victorians, with the virtues and vices of their age, and Arthur’s story is quite remarkable enough without the vices, real or imagined.

The problem one faces in writing about Arthur the politician is the dearth of information on those years of his life. The stage was full of outstanding events and  personalities during his fourteen years as a Member of Parliament. When he first took his seat it was 1866 and Lord Derby was, briefly, Prime Minister. Arthur was to remain in Parliament until 1880, fourteen years. He was 35 at the beginning of this period and almost 50 at the end, a period which should have been – and may have been – his most productive years.

During those years, apart from the first eighteen months or so when the ailing Lord Derby was Prime Minister, either the liberal Gladstone or the conservative Disraeli had that job, for some six years each. Gladstone was to return again after winning the election in which Arthur finally lost his seat. For most of this time Ireland was a dominant theme in the House of Commons. Isaac Butt led the Irish faction initially, succeeded by Charles Stewart Parnell.

Apart from Ireland, other momentous events in the period vie with Arthur and with each other for our interest. There were the Reform Acts and the Education Acts and the Land Act. Trade Unions were legalised and Secret Ballots were introduced. The Suez Canal was opened and Australia was linked to England by a submarine Telegraph Cable. Stanley found Livingstone and the Zulu War was fought. One would not have been bored, sitting in the Mother of Parliaments during those years. There was plenty to interest Arthur.

He must have interacted with the leading luminaries in the House, although probably not on terms of close friendship. Towards the end he himself was the de facto leader of the Irish Unionists. So Gladstone would have regarded him as a crusty old curmudgeon whose vote was committed to the “other side” unless the question was something to do with the sea. Disraeli might have viewed him with condescending sympathy. And Parnell, perhaps, with scorn. All three of these political giants could not but have respected his guts in overcoming his disabilities, nor the professionalism of his presentations. But none of them, so far as I have been able to trace, wrote about him. Nor, again so far as I have been able to trace, did Arthur record any extensive relationship with them.

There are, of course, his speeches recorded in Hansard. He was in Parliament for fourteen years, and during that time he spoke 106 times, or an average of seven times a year. Gladstone by contrast spoke an average of 145 times a year, and Disraeli 88 times. And many of Arthur’s “speeches” recorded by Hansard were mere questions lasting a minute or so. One cannot glean much from these.

One could of course imagine how he must have felt and lived in London, but I have chosen not to do that. I am trying to write about Arthur as he was, not as I imagine he might have been. Inevitably some element of imagination may have crept in, although I have tried to keep it to a minimum. His London houses, for example. I have traced three addresses in London, and I know he died in one and there is a reference in an archive on MP’s to his residence in another, 12 Victoria Square. I have assumed he bought that around 1868, but I could be years out.

On one point such evidence as I have is contradictory – the date when Dr. Francis Boxwell came on to the scene. Two of the biographers, Kavanagh and McCormick,  place him in Borris House at Arthur’s birth.  But according to the roll of graduates of the University of Glasgow he graduated as a doctor there in 1835 and died aged 76 on April 15th 1887. That makes him unqualified at the date of Arthur’s birth, 1831. Moreover the Boxwell family tree  agrees that he  was born in 1811, on  18th July at Butlerstown, County Wexford, Ireland (and died 15th April 1887, also  in Butlerstown, which also agrees with the University record). So he was 19 when Arthur was born. And yet in later years he apparently wrote, in a long letter to Sir Philip Crampton, “I have often wondered whether there was any more I myself could have done before the birth. …………I cannot tell you why, but I sensed rather than diagnosed that something was wrong, but had absolutely no evidence to go on.”

I don’t know how to reconcile these apparently irreconcilable pieces of evidence, so in this edition anyhow I have brought Dr. Boxwell into the picture four years after Arthur’s birth.

My Prologue, though, is pure imagination. My great grandfather did not die in 1900, nor did he write books. But it seemed like a good way to introduce Arthur Kavanagh.

For the Kindle Book, click HERE.


I recently came across a box of diaries left by my great grandfather who died at a venerable old age in 1900. Also in the box was what I at first took to be another of his novels, for he was a prodigious writer. Indeed it may have been, but it was, sadly, incomplete, only a few pages long. It read:

I suppose it must have been twenty-two or twenty-three years ago now, when I was visiting England as I did from time to time, and was passing an hour or two with my brother in the Gallery at the House of Commons. I was reminded of it today by an article in the “deaths” column of  the newspaper which brought a tear to my eye.

“Dublin, 25th December, 1889. Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh, one time Member of Parliament for Carlow, at his London house, in his fifty-eighth year. Peacefully, in bed. R.I.P.”

From our seat in the Visitors’ Gallery we had a grand view. I could see John Bright, Benjamin Disraeli, Mr. Gladstone, but one man in particular caught my eye as he entered.

“Who is that man there, Geoffrey” I whispered, “the blind man who has just come in?”

“Why, that’s Professor Fawcett”, said he. “The noted economist”. I had heard of Fawcett when I was at Cambridge, as he had had an amazing academic career there not all that long before I went up.

“Imagine the pluck that must take, to speak in Parliament if you can’t see”.

“Well, yes,” said my brother, “so it must, but for my money Kavanagh takes the Crown. Look, down there, the member with the large, strong head, not wearing his hat, and dressed in that odd cloak.” I looked where he pointed, and asked “What’s the matter with his legs?”

“He has none” said Geoffrey, “nor no arms, neither. Yet he hunts, he shoots, he fishes, he is a noted yachtsman, and seems to have travelled all over the world. He is the Member for Carlow. He seldom speaks, but when he does, people listen.”

At that moment a hush fell upon the Chamber and I saw that the Member for Carlow had attracted the attention of the Speaker.

“I think we’re in luck then” I whispered, “for isn’t he about to speak?” Indeed he was.

A deep, bass voice filled the chamber with those pleasant Irish tones from home:

“I wish to ask the Vice President of the Board of Trade, with reference to the Return of Wrecks on the Irish Coast for the years 1864, 1865, and 1866, lately laid upon the table of the House, which shows that out of the nineteen casualties named, eleven happened between Carnsore Point and Wicklow Head, whether any steps have been taken towards the better lighting of that coast; whether a Commission was not appointed to consider the dangerous state of that coast; and, if so, when their Report will be laid upon the table?”

As we left some time later I asked Geoffrey, “Do you know him yourself? What is he really like?”

“We’ve met a few times. He is always carried into the House in the arms of a stout Irish retainer. He carries him from his brougham, into the court, and up the steps to the corridors. There he takes to his wheel-chair, and is wheeled to his place in the Chamber, always reserved conveniently close to the Speaker so he can use the side door nearby. He is exceedingly reserved in manner, but if you were to meet him at the club, or his own dinner-table, you would find him very genial, well-read, a good story-teller, a wit in short, a charming companion.”

That was the first time I ever heard, or indeed to my shame had ever heard of, Arthur. But then and there I promised myself I would get to know the man if I could, and would write about him. It’s what I do, write, and hope thereby to influence people.

And there it ended, apart from a few pages of scribbled notes which were obviously jotted down as he discovered new stories he wanted to insert. If the novel was ever finished, it has been lost. So I thought I’d try and finish what my great Grandfather had started. I have time on my hands, now that I’m retired.

It’s been a fascinating voyage of exploration, following in Arthur’s footsteps, and one that would never have been possible even in my father’s day, before the Internet. But now anyone can voyage anywhere in the world, and even a little way out of it, at the touch of a button. The libraries of the world are opening up to us the sum of human knowledge. The author can now do the bulk of his research from his desk, before finally indulging in some old fashioned, but essential, field research.

This is the result.

For the Kindle Book, click HERE.

Chapter 1. Boyhood.

Arthur was born in Borris House, Borris, in the County Carlow in Ireland, on the 25th of March, 1831. In the wider world outside the family home, that was when Daniel O’Connell was being hailed as the uncrowned King of Ireland, for he had brought Emancipation to Catholics, ninety percent of the population. It’s hard for a modern, 21st century, mind to grasp what Ireland was like in those days from the perspective of that ninety percent, with the vast bulk of the population living in subjection to the few colonial administrators and residents, the plantation owners, the police. And all too often the majority living in poverty.

The “Irish Irish” as opposed to Anglo Irish, were generally Catholic. Roman Catholic. And Celtic of course, in the old fashioned sense of the word. I have been taken to task for writing “Celtic” here, since  modern scholarship does not recognise the word as an ethnic term, but it is, I feel, a colloquial term and conveys the right sense. It was the religion rather than the race, though, which had become the distinguishing mark by which the English administrators would maintain their apartheid. For the mystique of the Catholic religion, easily identified, had become deeply ingrained into the Irish psyche, and to change it at the whim of the foreigner was impossible now.

It all went back to 1534 and Henry VIII’s break with Rome from which sprang the Protestant Church. Or perhaps more directly, to 1690, the Battle of the Boyne campaign and the Treaty of Limerick which ended it. If you know all about that, jump the next couple of pages! If not, a brief summary is, I think, necessary to understanding the stage upon which Arthur’s story was to be played.

The Civil Provisions of the Treaty of Limerick which protected Catholics and their interests were eminently reasonable, but they were completely ignored. They might never have existed. The period from the Treaty to the Catholic Relief Act of 1778 was a period of absolute rule, of political, economic, and social domination of Ireland, by the ‘Protestant Ascendancy’ – the great Williamite Protestant landowners who were now proceeding to enclose large tracts of land.

That rule was entrenched through a number of laws enacted between 1691 and 1728, collectively known as the Penal Laws. In summary, the main points were:

All Catholics were excluded from Public Office.

No Protestant could marry a Catholic.

Catholics were barred from holding firearms or serving in the armed forces

Catholics were barred from sending their children abroad to be educated.

Catholics were barred from membership of Parliament.

Catholics were barred from voting.

Catholics were barred from the legal profession and the judiciary.

Catholics were barred from entering Trinity College Dublin.

By an act called the Popery Act, when a Catholic died, his land was to be divided equally between his sons unless the eldest of them converted to Protestantism. If he did, he could inherit all the land. The act was said to be an application of the old Brehon Law provisions to the Irish, but the real objective – which was successfully achieved – was to increasingly diminish the size of individual Catholic landholdings.

Protestants who converted to Catholicism were (in effect) outlawed.

Catholics were barred from buying land under a lease of more than 31 years.

Catholics were barred from inheriting Protestant land.

Catholics were prohibited from owning a horse valued at over £5 (in order to keep horses suitable for military activity out of the majority’s hands). £5 would be about £675 today.

Catholics were barred from teaching ‘publicly or in private houses ….. or instruct youth in learning within this realm’ upon pain of twenty pounds fine and three months in prison.

So, until 38 years before Arthur was born, Catholics could not become lawyers or judges. All officers in the police were Protestants. Catholics could not become mayors, sheriffs, aldermen, councillors, members of parliament….. and they had to pay a tax, these Catholics, the hated tithes, to support Protestant Churches and Vicars, perhaps the greatest insult of all.

For the Kindle Book, click HERE.

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