July 15th, 2008


July Books 15) The Cruise of the R.Y.S. Eva

15) The Cruise of the R.Y.S. Eva, by Arthur Kavanagh

My latest little project is to read up on the fascinating Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh, whose life story combines my interests in Irish history and disability. I have ordered all three available biographies second hand, but was delighted to discover that the one book which he himself actually wrote is available in its entirety, complete with colour prints based on photographs which he took, online via Google Books.

The Cruise of the R.Y.S. Eva is a travelogue of a shooting cruise which lasted just under six months, from October 1862 to April 1863, taking Kavanagh and his wife and friends to Corfu and the surrounding coastline. (No mention is made of Kavanagh's children, though we know from other sources that at least two and probably four had been born since his marriage in 1855. Presumably they were left behind in Ireland.) It was an interesting time to visit politically; King Otho of Greece had just been overthrown, and the British government had promised to hand over Corfu (and the other Ionian Islands, under British rule since 1815) to the new Greek king, George of Denmark. Kavanagh was there in the last few months of the British presence, and makes it clear that he deeply regrets the decision:
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One senses that he may have had some other, larger British-ruled island in mind apart from Corfu.

But excursions into politics are rare (having said which, Kavanagh got elected MP for Wexford only a couple of years later). Mostly the book is about the technicalities of crewing a yacht from Ireland to Albania, and then shooting lots and lots of animals when they got there. (The final death toll, proudly printed on the last page, is "Pigs 10; Snipe 45; Deer 6; Plover 6; Jackalls [sic] 6; Pigeons 24; Hares 4; Swan 1; Geese 13; Bittern 1; Duck 54; Sea Pheasant 7;  Widgeon 152; Bargander [?] 3; Teal 102; Grebe Duck 4; Woodcock 203.") Lots of discussion of the locals and their quaint habits, and of the ecology of the shoreline. They ranged quite a long way both north and south, but Corfu was their base.

Kavanagh was only in his early 30s at this point, but had already had an adventurous life, which he occasionally reminisces about. I found this passage about his famous trip of ten years previously particularly interesting for its Collapse )

The striking thing about the whole book is that Kavanagh was sufficiently confident in his personal security to go wandering around the frontier between a fading Ottoman empire, an evacuating British protectorate, and a Greek kingdom recovering from revolution, with his wife and various retainers. The worst hassle he reports experiencing is when he is taking photographs of the local women, and has to get their husbands to stop them raiding his darkroom materials. Perhaps there are bits of the story he didn't tell. (He himself starts and finishes with the yacht; his wife and the other women come to the Mediterranean by train and commercial steamer.)

And there is no mention at any point of his disabilities. (The closest we get, perhaps, is in the incident of the women and the photographic stuff, where it is clear that he is unable himself to take physical measures to stop them.) As a narrative on its own merits, The Cruise of the R.Y.S. Eva is not especially remarkable; but in context it is extraordinary.