6) The Incredible Mr Kavanagh: A Triumph of the Human Spirit, by Donald McCormick
7) Born without Limbs: A biography of achievement, by Kenneth Kavanagh
8) Kavanagh MP: An Inspirational Story, by David Cohen
The story of Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh is a fascinating one. Born with only stumps for arms and legs, he travelled much of the world and served for fourteen years as a Member of Parliament, one of the leading Irish Unionist MPs. His rather extraordinary physical exploits included shooting lots of wild animals and cutting down trees with an axe, as if he was taking it out on the animal and vegetable world. He ended up on the wrong side of Irish and British history, though, and is remembered really as a curiosity of local history in County Carlow more than anything else, and as the basis behind the equally unjustly forgotten Richard Calmady.
I am fascinated, but also feel a certain amount of ambivalence towards him. True, he triumphed over physical disability; but this was possible because of his vast inherited wealth. He used his position in parliament not to improve the fortunes of people with similar disabilities to his own, but to resist the erosion of the privileges of the Irish landlords. His travels do not seem to have much broadened his mind; he presents his journeys more as tests of his own manliness than as encounters with the Other, and the eventual failure of his political career has everything to do with his inability to be like the people of County Carlow.
These four biographiesdiffer quite substantially in their emphases on his story. None of them, I'm afraid, is especially outstanding in quality. The first, by his cousin Sarah Steele, was published in 1891, two years after his death, and is essentially her uncritical edition of Kavanagh's own writings and speeches. The next was published in 1960 by Devin-Adair of New York, no doubt reflecting its founder's interest in Irish oddities, and is probably the best of them. The 1989 biography by distant relative Kenneth Kavanagh was published by a small Catholic publisher in England, and not surprisingly is the most sensitive to the modern reading of Kavanagh's place in Irish history. And the most recent, from 2006, is by a pop psychologist author who has also written about the death of Princess Diana and the Soham murders, and throws in lots of fictionalised conversations and sex scenes (which I found rather dull, though he did offer some interesting psychological insights).
All four of the books concentrate quite rightly on the extraordinary expedition to Russia, Iran and India which Kavanagh, his elder brother, their tutor and a manservant made from 1849 to 1853. Kavanagh was sent abroad to stop him getting into some unspecified trouble at home. Steele, who presumably knew the full story, does no more than hint at it; the other three allow their imagination to run riot, especially Cohen who has the teenage Kavanagh shagging peasant girls all over Carlow. However, it's fairly clear from the evidence presented that his mother, herself an obsessional traveller, was simply worried about him forming an attachment with one Fanny Irvine (otherwise unidentified, but for some reason deemed unsuitable); no further explanation is really needed.
Added to this, all three later biographers have somehow picked up a story that "Malichus Mirza", a Persian prince who allowed Kavanagh to stay in his harem, had earlier helped the famous explorer Sir Richard Burton to translate the Kama Sutra. There is no chance whatever that this can be true. Kavanagh's "Malichus Mirza" is certainly Malik Qasim Mirza, one of the 57 sons of Persian emperor Fat'h Ali Shah, who spent most of his career governing the western provinces and certainly never hung around Bombay brothels. Burton's Persian collaborator is clearly identified as Mirza Mohammed Hosayn of Shiraz, a different person.
One other story which casts Kavanagh's own veracity into question is the tale of Conolly's prayerbook (previously discussed here). In short, there is little chance of any truth in it. Conolly and Stoddard were not in the same place as Kavanagh, and the later history of Conolly's prayer book is well established. I find it remarkable that none of the authors has made any attempt to map out the movements of the Kavanaghs, let alone match them to other sources - I've made a start, but it is a work in progress.
The other rather remarkable patchiness in treatment is of Kavanagh's political career. Steele gives it the most space but she is too close to it to give a good account - in one memorable passage, she complains that "The lowered franchise which [in 1880] gave the illiterate peasant a vote (or rather multiplied votes for the parish priest to place at Mr Parnell's disposal) flooded [Parliament] with publicans, petty tradesmen, adventurers, and such like" - having said which, her account of how the Land War appeared from the landlords' side is not a story we hear much of. Cohen has gone through Kavanagh's contributions to the Bessborough Commission on land reform, and pulls some amusing lines out of it. But it seems to me that Kavanagh's ideas on creating a peasant proprietor class in order to spike Home Rule are genuinely interesting, and I wish one of these four authors had explained them a bit more clearly.
The other interesting point which is impossible to ignore is Kavanagh's religion. His father had actually converted from Catholicism to the Church of Ireland, and Kavanagh was clearly devout - his personal writings and letters reflect a deep faith. It is clear that he was not as much of a bigot as his political enemies made out: he sponsored the construction of Catholic chapels, worked in good faith to get government funding for the Catholic university in Dublin, and (this more of an argument from absence of evidence) did nothing to oppose the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869. But I guess I am a bit disappointed that Kavanagh did not let us know more about how his personal situation affected his relationship with his creator. He did have interesting links - one of his daughters married the son of the Bishop of Derry, William Alexander, and his wife Cecil Frances Alexander, who wrote "All Things Bright and Beautiful" and "Once in Royal David's City". Kavanagh died on Christmas day, 1889, his family singing Christmas carols at his request as he slipped away. There are probably worse fates.