Saturday, 21 November 2015


The question of upbringing

Much has been written on the remarkable life of Arthur Kavanagh (1831 - 1889), an Irish aristocrat born with no arms below the lower third of his upper arm, and no legs below mid-thigh –therefore neither hands nor feet. As an adult, in place of legs –
..he had about six inches [c.150 cm] of muscular thigh stumps, one being about an inch [c.2.5 cm] shorter than its fellow, while his arms are dwarfed to about four inches [c.100 cm] of the upper portion of those members, unfurnished by any approximations approaching, in the remotest manner, to hands.

Notwithstanding, he wrote well and drew, he fished and was a keen yachtsman, he rode well, including to hounds, was a good shot and hunted tigers in India – and was a womaniser before marrying, when he settled down and fathered seven children. He travelled extensively and sometimes adventurously, first with his mother to France and Italy, and in Egypt and the Holy Land, Setting out from from Norway, he rode across Russian from Saint Petersburg to Nizhnii Novgorod east of Moscow, then down the Volga, through Persia and Mesopotamia, to India. Back in Ireland, still only 24, he succeeded to the family estates and became a reforming and philanthropic landlord, a politician and Member of Parliament, before dying of pneumonia aged 58 in his London house, slipping away with his family around the bed, singing Christmas carols.

He had lived an extraordinarily full life, by any measure.

The nature of his limb deformities is not known. In the spirit of the times they were attributed to a peasants' curse upon his mother for removing two Catholic statues from a local Catholic chapel, or to her taking too much laudanum (alchohol + opium) during pregnancy:

Of greater interest, to educators, however, is the question of how he grew to be so dextrous, determined, independent and adventurous. What possibly relevant factors are discernable in his personal history?
Following his death, his cousin Sarah Steele published his biography. She wrote
It was manifest that his upbringing must be different from that of other men, born, as he was, without limbs.
The New York Times's detailed review of Sarah Steele's book was most critical of how it was that he turned out as he did, and puzzled why this question was not addressed –
It is the singular fault of this record of his life that we do not how a human being thus afflicted was able to do these extraordinary things... The sole direct reference to this matter is contained in this sentence following a statement of the year and place of his birth: 'From the outset it was obvious that his upbringing must be different from that of other men, born as he was without limbs'. Having learnt of this fact, the reader is constantly reminded how he could ride, hunt fish, shoot down wild beasts in India, and bring grasping Orientals to terms at the muzzle of his rifle. One is simply left to the exercise of [one's] own imagination, and this helps out very little.

More than a century has passed. His strength of character, even as a boy, has been mentioned frequently, but how did this come about? What factors were active in his upbringing, what pedagogic principles might there have contributed to bringing this indominable person into being? This is still not a contemporary question in our society. Usually it suffices to say, as does the Dictionary of National Biography, something like –
Kavanagh 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.,_Arthur_Macmorrough_(DNB00)

The following sketchy account derives from several sources.

The mother
Arthur Kavanagh was a descendent of the ancient kings of Leinster, and born into one of the wealthiest families in Ireland.
The story has it that his mother thanked God that he was born to her because she was wealthy and could give him a normal life.
...Lady Harriet Margaret Le Poer Trench, seems to have been a lady of redoubtable character, and she not going to see her son miss the opportunities that others had.
She devoted herself to Arthur’s welfare and upbringing and, along with his nurse, Anne Fleming, raised a young man who was marked by a gritty determination to achieve whatever he set his mind to.
...Lady Harriet, seems to have been a lady of formidable character, although not really tested until Arthur was born. She was no simpering maiden and devoted herself totally to this limbless child. Her elderly husband was uninterested in the little cripple, disinterested even...

The upbringer
[Lady Harriet] had employed a special nurse to look after Arthur, and to her must go much of the credit for his dogged spirit. Her name was Anne Fleming, and she had a remarkable talent, an insight into the little boy’s mind in all sorts of ways. She would place toys just beyond his reach so that he had to wriggle towards them, ignoring his screams of frustration. She showed him the potential of his short arm stumps, and encouraged him to try to get them to meet across his front.
Nurse Fleming would place toys just out of his reach and encourage him to wriggle towards them. She persuaded him to try to get his stumpy arms to meet across his chest. Through long hours of practice he was able to train his tiny arms to perform as well as any able-bodied person.
He could often be seen, even as a baby, lying on his back and trying to get them to meet. He would be given a toy to hold, a big one at first, and as the toys became progressively smaller, so his reach became longer. It made him rather round shouldered, but that was a small price to pay. The tips of his arm stumps became so supple that they could be used almost as fingers, and perform all sorts of tasks. Over the years he was to keep up his painful practice until he could get a tight grip on a cane, a pistol, even the hilt of a fencing foil.
As he grew older and reached the age when a normal child would have walked, Anne arranged for pads for his leg stumps and taught him to balance on them, then hop. Later he would hop from the floor up the stairs, to a sofa or to a chair. When he was two years old, instead of taking him for walks as she would a normal child (and did with the older children), she arranged for a small pony with a built up saddle, rather like a small bucket, into which he was strapped. Anne was to stay for years, and Arthur became very attached to her.
The following aperçu, no more than an aside in a holiday blog by 'Becky', is the only hint that I have read so far of the possible role of upbring in his developing personality, and its link to a wider world of special pedagogy
[She] sounds similar to Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s governess.
Who was Anne Fleming, where did she appear from and where did she go to? Did she take part in any other such special upbringings? A pioneer figure for whom history has made no place.

The doctor
When he was about four years old, a new influence came into his life, and a most important one it was too – Doctor Francis Boxwell. A recently qualified young gentleman, he came from a landed family at Butlerstown in County Wexford, and was very much at home with the Kavanaghs at Borris. He was an old family friend, and in 1835 when he arrived, his qualification papers from Glasgow University were only weeks old.
He developed an instant rapport with young Arthur, and indeed with his mother. He visited almost daily, and with keen intelligence realised how important it was to be  consistently friendly, but firm. He lectured Lady Harriet on the vital necessity that Arthur should be instinctively self-sufficient if he was to have any hope in life, and how he must be proud of his family heritage – how he must be, limbs or no, a man.
Dr Boxwell wins good mention here, gaining credit for Lady Harriett's goals for her son and (below, from the same source) for getting Arthur Kavanagh on horseback.

Riding a horse came as naturally to Doctor Boxwell as breathing, and one of his first actions was to replace the leading reins on Arthur’s pony with real ones. This he managed by having a harness made for Arthur’s torso with straps and buckles, and the reins were attached to these. He also redesigned the bucket in which he sat, turning it more into a sort of saddle chair, and indeed one of them can still be seen in Borris House today. So equipped, by turning his shoulders or pressing down on one or both reins with a stump or stumps as required, he could turn a horse or stop him as well as anyone.
It was a brainwave, and combined with the new saddle into which Arthur was firmly strapped, it gave him immense and hitherto undreamed of mobility.
Arthur had a natural affinity for horses, perhaps increased by his dependence on them. He would talk to them, and they with a soft whinny would sometimes talk to him, too. And this applied not just to his own stable. Often abroad, forced to ride half-trained animals over often precipitous passes he would encourage them just by talking to them in his deep, mellow tones, sympathising with their difficulties and sometimes even with their terrors.
Ripping yarns and derring do

The account of Arthur Kavanagh's upbringing presented above is a composite of selections from biographic materials available on line. The particular intentions and the veracity of the various sources quoted is unknown.

What Arthur did with his life, both as a traveller abroad and later as a politician in Ireland and at Westminster, is a tale of Victorian can-do and grit:

Rupert Taylor has recounted a brief anecdote (possibly apocryphal) –
...he visited a friend after a long absence and said 'You know, it's at least ten years since I was here and the railway station master recognized me.'

Granting Arthur Kavanagh's most favourable social background, he was brought up to be a characteristic hero of his time.


(1867)An extraordinary Member of Parliament, Warwick Argus and Tenterfield Chronicle (Queensland, Australia), 8 February, p. 2

(1891) Born without arms and legs. New York Times (Book review)

(2012) Disability history month: Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh, BBC News Magazine, 6 December
He does not fit comfortably into the contemporary British disability narrative: 'In the story of disability politics, he is an outlier rather than a trailblazer'.

(n.d) The limbless lord, Wizzley (writers' blog)

'Becky' (2013) National Country Fair, Borris, 2013 Ireland, 5 August (holiday blog)

Bunbury, T. (n.d.) The incredible Arthur Mcmurrough Kavanagh, (1831 – 1889)

Igoe, B. (2012) Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh – the limbless landlord, The Irish Story, 21 December

Steele, S. L. (1891) The Right Honourable Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh: a biography, London, MaMillan
Online facsimile

Whyte, N. (20o8) The lives of Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh, From the heart of Europe, 5 August
Critical review of four biographies

Further bibiography

Kavanah. A. (1865) The cruise of the R. T. S. Eva, Dublin, Hodges, Smith & Co.
Reproduced on line in full. I have seen it written that the illustrations are by Arthur Kavanagh, as well as the lively text. I cannot confirm this. I gather that he wrote and drew with the pencil in his mouth, directing it with his arms.

Rigg J.M. (1891) Mrs. Steele's Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh, The Lancet, 14 March, Online, behind pay barrier (book review)

Rigg, J. R. (2012) Kavanagh, Arthur MacMorrough, Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 30 (1885-1900)

Whyte, N. (2008), The lives of Arthur Kavanagh, Live Journal, 5 August

Critical review of four biographies of Arthur Kavanagh

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