Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: Meeting Kavanagh

This is a work-in-progress blog serial about aspects of the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Previous posts and other background material are available at the project landing page#IUCRevisited

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“…like most people who have paid any attention to the recent history of Ireland, I knew how wonderful an illustration his whole career has been of what philosophers call the superiority of man to his accidents, and plain people the power of the will. But I knew this only imperfectly.”
–William Henry Hurlbert

During his travels in Ireland, Hurlbert met a wide variety of people, from Members of Parliament and Dublin Castle officials, to landlords and agents, as well as Irish nationalists, activist priests, farm laborers and jarvey drivers. None could match the extraordinary personal story of Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh.

Kavanagh

The Irish aristocrat was born with “no arms below the lower third of his upper arm, nor legs below mid thigh. And in consequence, no hands and no feet,” Brian Igoe wrote in The Limbless Landlord, a 2012 eBook, also edited into a related article for The Irish Story. And yet, Kavanagh also was “an expert horseman, a first class shot, a noted yachtsman, an active local Justice of the Peace and administrator, as well as a Member of Parliament.”

In his book, Hurlbert noted that he had corresponded with Kavanagh years earlier when he was a New York newspaper editor. He knew about the Irishman’s physical condition. Upon meeting Kavanagh at his Borris House estate in County Carlow, the American reported:

His servant brought him up to the carriage and placed him on it. This was impossible not to see. But I had not talked to him for five minutes before it quite passed out of my mind. Never was there such a justification of the paradoxical title which [James John Garth] Wilkinson gave to his once famous book, The Human Body, and its Connexion with Man,–never such a living refutation of the theory that it is the thumb which differentiates man from the lower animals.

During a three-day visit, Hurlbert and Kavanagh discussed the agrarian uprising in Ireland, including the host’s effort to support “a defensive organization of the Irish landlords against the Land League.” Kavanagh also told Hurlbert that Chief Secretary for Ireland Arthur Balfour was doing “great good” at Dublin Castle.

They toured the estate grounds, with Hurlbert walking and Kavanagh “going with us on horseback” and explaining “every hill and clump of trees on this large domain … like a master of woodcraft through all manner of leafy byways to the finest points of view” along the River Barrow. Hurlbert was awed by “magnificent Scotch firs” and “remarkable Irish yews.”

Borris House

Borris House was a “stately and commodious, and more ancient than it appears to be, so many additions have been made to it at different times.” In one room, Hurlbert found “many curious old books and papers” to keep a student of early Irish history “well employed for a long time.”

Hurlbert was among one of last guests Kavanagh welcomed to the estate. According to Igoe, who cited Ireland Under Coercion in his research, it was about this time that Kavanagh developed diabetes and other health problems. He stayed mostly at his London house, perhaps because of access to better medical care. Kavanagh died there on Christmas Day, 1889, three months before his 58th birthday.

NOTES: From pages 301-318 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American

NEXT: On Moonlighers

Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan