Disability history month: Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh

Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh Portraits disguised his disabilities

Born without arms or legs, Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh was an adventurer who rose to become a successful politician. Widely revered as a prodigy, he was also part of a rich and powerful family, writes Nicholas Whyte.

He was the heir to the ancient kings of Leinster. He was a horseback messenger for the East India Company in the 1850s. He wrote a book about hunting and painting on the borderlands between Greece and Albania.

He was a member of parliament for 14 years and became the leader of the Unionist MPs from Ireland.

And he had no arms or legs.

Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh was born to a wealthy landowning family in the south-east of Ireland in 1831, a younger son of a much older father who had converted to Protestantism from the family's traditional Catholicism. "It was manifest that his upbringing must be different from that of other men, born, as he was, without limbs," wrote his cousin in her biography.

Start Quote

I know of no more thorough realisation of the word 'freedom' than to be skimming over the boundless ocean”

End Quote Kavanagh's memoirs

Various painful surgeries had little effect, but in the end Kavanagh was able to use the fingers of his vestigial upper stumps to shoot, paint and write, and became a fearless horse rider, strapped into a special saddle.

His older brother had inherited the family estates, and in 1849 - having returned from an earlier trip to Egypt and Palestine - he and his other brother were sent off on a long voyage to the East.

This epic trip took them through Scandinavia, Russia and what are now Azerbaijan, Iran, Pakistan and India overland - it would be tough to repeat that journey overland even today.

When their money ran out, 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, and he returned home to become landlord of Borris.

Egypt circa 1860 Kavanagh passed through Egypt on his many travels

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.

His manservant carried him into the Chamber and was, exceptionally, allowed to remain there to assist him during debates.

Kavanagh had to pre-arrange his parliamentary interventions with the Speaker, as there was obviously no question of waving order papers.

Perhaps for this reason, the Hansard record shows a politician who delivered speeches (from notes poised on the crown of his top hat, placed on the bench beside him) based on diligent research, who was sometimes able to persuade his colleagues of the merits of his case.

Borris House Borris House, the family seat

But the 1870s were a time of change. The rise of the Home Rule movement under Isaac Butt and then Charles Stewart Parnell, combined with a secret ballot and an increase in the number of voters, eroded support for Irish Unionists like Kavanagh.

As their numbers dwindled, he became their leader, leading negotiations on land reform, state funding for Catholic university education, and nationalising the railways, taking a consistently pragmatic, thoroughly Conservative position, until he in turn lost his seat in 1880.

As an occasional researcher on Irish history and politics, and indeed an erstwhile election candidate, and also as the father of two profoundly disabled children, I find myself devouring any information I can find about Kavanagh - the four published biographies, his speeches in Hansard, and the late Victorian novel based on his life.

But it's very difficult for us in the 21st Century to get a picture of how Kavanagh was perceived by his contemporaries - and by himself. His cousin, Sarah Steele, published a passionate account of his life in 1891, which concentrates on the marvels of his travels and on his devotion to his family.

Some of his later biographers speculate wildly about his private life, on very little evidence. Charles Kingsley's daughter Mary, writing as Lucas Malet, used him as the basis for her novel, The History of Richard Calmady.

What's striking is that all those writers portray Kavanagh as a unique prodigy, a man whose unusual disabilities were compensated for, to an extent, by unusual gifts. He becomes a moral lesson in divine providence, or the virtues of bloody-mindedness, depending.

Disabled figures in history

  • UK Disability History Month runs from 22 November to 22 December
  • The Magazine is running a series on historical figures whose disability has been overlooked

But for today's reader, that isn't good enough.

Kavanagh made many speeches on behalf of his country or his social class, but as far as I can tell never once referred in public to his disability.

The portrait which adorns Steele's book discreetly fades out at the shoulders. His achievements came not as a result of support from society in general for those of its members who need help, but from the accident of his birth into a wealthy and powerful (if fading) ruling elite.

In an era when disabled people were generally kept out of sight and out of mind, Kavanagh's story is indeed remarkable.

Politicians with visible disabilities remain rare today. Dame Anne Begg, MP for Aberdeen South, and Brian Crowley, an Irish MEP whose constituency borders those which Kavanagh represented, are both wheelchair users and MP Paul Maynard has cerebral palsy.

The disability rights movement has a long way to go, but is gathering strength.

Kavanagh, however, wanted his disabilities ignored, so that he could be treated just like any other rich man. In the story of disability politics, he is an outlier rather than a trailblazer.

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