Turtle Bunbury

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(1831 – 1889)

In August 1849, 18-year-old Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh from Borris, County Carlow, set off on a journey from Ireland to India via Norway, Russia, the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf.
What made his 5,000 mile overland journey particularly extraordinary is that Arthur was born without arms, legs, hands or feet.


Of all the billions of humans who have wandered this earth, there has never been anyone like Arthur. Not only was this limbless gentleman an intrepid traveller, he was also a fine shot, a passionate huntsman, a noted sailor, a keen angler, an amateur photographer, a useful draughtsman, a best-selling author and a father of seven.[i]

The midwife who delivered Arthur at Borris House, Co Carlow, in 1831 cannot have placed much hope in his future.[ii] The baby comprised of a head, a torso, four stumps and his private parts.

To some, his birth was evidently the realization of a peasant’s curse placed on his mother, Lady Harriet Kavanagh. Like many well-to-do women of her generation she was a Protestant zealot, although her husband had been born a Catholic. She drew widespread condemnation from the people of Borris when she evicted two iconic statues from the village’s Catholic chapel.

Or perhaps Arthur’s deformity was simply a consequence of his mother’s imbibing too much laudanum, a powerful nerve-steadying cocktail of alcohol and opium popular with pregnant women in those times.

It was Arthur’s fortune that his parents were wealthy. His mother was a daughter of the Earl of Clancarty, a highly respected diplomat who had effectively redrawn the map of Europe in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars.[iii] His father, Thomas Kavanagh, was one of the richest landowners in Co Carlow, an influential Tory politician and hereditary heir to the Kings of Leinster.[iv]

At his birth, Arthur became fourth-in-line to the substantial Borris inheritance. Nobody could have imagined this limbless baby would so quickly outlive his half-brother Walter and older brothers Tom and Charles to inherit the lot.


Lady Harriet’s attitude was pragmatic from the outset. She believed Arthur’s disadvantage would be his very strength and insisted he be educated in private and raised like her other children. The ‘fair-haired, merry-looking’ boy often holidayed with his cousins, the Conollys of Castletown House, who later remarked on his determination to be just like everybody else. Indeed, aside from being strapped onto a pony or carried around on a servants back, the boy became so independent that it almost defies belief.

Meanwhile, his parents recruited the eminent Dublin surgeon Sir Philip Crampton who tried in vain to devise some mechanical contraption that would serve as his feet and arms. Instead, they bought a mechanical wheelchair which Arthur quickly moulded himself into, zipping around the rooms of the family mansion. It is also believed that he was able to move about by throwing his entire body into a sort of slalom, twist and hop rhythm.

The stumps where Arthur’s arms should have been were just long enough to meet across his chest. The boy spent an unimaginable length of time lying on his back, training the stumps, making them so supple, strong and nervous that they became as good as fingers. He simultaneously taught himself how to write with his stumps. Letters he wrote from Paris, where he spent two years with his mother between the ages of 10 and 12, are early examples of his exceptionally neat handwriting.[v]

He was also increasingly assured on horseback. His saddle was a small chair, made of leather and still to be seen in Borris House today, while he ensured his stumps were nimble enough to twist the reins. Not surprisingly, he made for a rather unusual sight at Carlow Hunt meetings but this fearless young man quickly wooed all with his courage, his horse leaping over the high walls at the same pace as any other. Arthur’s horse was called Tinker; he was buried at Borris in a field now called Tinker's grave. His hoof was mounted with silver. There is also a stuffed horse at Borris but the family do not think it is Tinker.


It was Arthur’s love for horses that brought him on his most extraordinary adventure, a journey that recently obliged the Long Riders’ Guild to describe him as ‘the most astonishing equestrian explorer of the 19th century.

Arthur had been gripped with wander-lust ever since his mother took him on a tour of France and Italy in 1841. Five years later, as Ireland braced itself for the Great Famine, Lady Harriot took Arthur, aged 15, his brother Tom Kavanagh and their tutor David Wood on an eighteen-month expedition to Egypt, returning with a collection of 300 items now housed at the National Museum in Dublin.[vi] During this trip, the Kavanagh’s journeyed on horseback overland from the River Nile across the deserts to Sinai, Jerusalem and Beirut.[vii]

In 1849, Arthur, Tom and David Wood once again set sail for Europe, leaving Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) on 4th June. It is believed that Arthur had formed an 'unsuitable relationship with an undesirable girl' - sometimes named as Fanny Irvine - prompting his mother to send him aboard. According to his diaries, Arthur certainly considered himself something of a ladies man. Family lore holds that many years later, Arthur escorted his prospective father-in-law on a tour of the Borris area and pointed out several of his illegitimate children as evidence that his deformity was not genetic.

At any rate, the Kavanagh brothers and Wood set forth for Scandinavia, taking a steamship from Stockholm to St. Petersburg where they lived it up for somewhere in the region of two months, expending so much of their money on fine wines and hearty meals that they were obliged to contact their momma for more. They then voyaged south along the River Volga to the city of Nizhny to attend the Makaryev Fair. It appears that the Kavanaghs then planned to head home but Wood was of the opinion that they should carry on south. Their fate was decided by a game of billiards which Wood won and so onwards they went, back on the Volga, down to the windswept Caspian Sea. They called by Baku in present-day Azerbaijan, before disembarking just north of Tehran in what was then Persia.[viii]

For the next year, possibly longer, the three young men journeyed around Persia and Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). It was, by any stretch, an extraordinary adventure, not least because Arthur was strapped into a wicker basket for the bulk of it. They voyaged through lands replete with bandits, treacherous snow-blocked mountains, snakes and scorpions, ferocious weather and deadly fevers. In northern Iran, they were imprisoned in a wooden cage in a town square and ‘pelted diligently by the hospitable inhabitants with rotten eggs and bad oranges, soft things no doubt, but not the less trying to the temper.’ On another occasion, Arthur fell dangerously ill and awoke in a Persian Prince’s harem, being nursed back to life by an old female slave from Africa.

The brothers finally boarded a boat at Bushehr on the west coast of Iran and sailed for Bombay, arriving on 5th Jan. 1851.

However, India took its toll on Tom and, riddled with consumption, he and David Wood opted to sail on for the less feverish climes of Australia. Their voyage ended in tragedy for Tom died of consumption in Indonesia en route and Wood was killed in an accident soon after his arrival in Melbourne.

Abandoned in India, the ever-plucky Arthur successfully applied for a job as an official government despatch rider on the west coast.[ix] He managed to take some time out to go hunting and apparently shot 16 tigers. He bagged four tigers in one day, one of which was stuffed and brought home to Carlow. The 22-year-old shot them by resting the gun upon his left arm-stump, and jerking the trigger with his right.


However, when his mother got wind of what he was up to, she wired him the cash to get home. Two of Arthur’s brothers were now dead making him next-in-line to his brother Charles. Arthur sailed for Ireland, hoping to make it to Charles’s wedding. However, upon arrival he learned that Charles had been killed in a tragic fire and that consequently he was now the squire of Borris.[x]

Arthur transpired to be a remarkable landlord. The estates were in desperate condition on account of the ravages of famine and the succession crisis. But Arthur quickly took control, placing himself in the role of manager, and turned the family finances around to such an extent that by 1883, he owned nearly 30,000 acres near Borris, plus a further 10,000 acres at Ballyragget, worth approximately £8 million in today’s value.

He also had a touch of the Victorian philanthropic. He sunk £20,000 into the improvement of his tenant’s holdings, offering them free timber to roof their houses from his new sawmill. In cold winters, he distributed beef and blankets around the parish. He rebuilt the villages of Borris and Ballyragget, for which designs he won a medal from the Royal Dublin Society. He helped his wife develop floriculture and lace-making to such an extent that Borris Lace found its way to wedding ceremonies as far away as Russia. He paid for the railway to come to Borris, spending a fortune on a mighty 16-arch granite viaduct that still stands today.[xi]

In 1855, he married his cousin, with whom he had four sons and three daughters.[xii] He was, by all accounts, a devoted family man. In 1865, he published ‘The Cruise of the R.Y.S. Eva’, a bestselling travelogue about a shooting cruise along the coast of Albania, now available in its entirety on Google Books.[xiii]

Arthur was elected MP for Wexford at the age of 35 and remained a key figure in the Irish Unionist party until 1880, emerging as its effective leader at a time when Sir Isaac Butt’s Home Rule Party was in the ascendance.[xiv] He spoke on tax, nautical laws and reform of both the Irish railway system and the Royal Irish Constabulary. But land was his foremost interest. He passionately supported the landlord system whilst simultaneously decrying absenteeism and the eviction culture that would bring Parnell and the Land League to power.

Whenever Parliament met, the bearded adventurer sailed Lady Eva, his two-masted schooner, down the River Barrow from New Ross, across the Irish Sea and up the Thames where he moored it directly opposite the House of Commons. A servant then rowed him across the river, wheeled him into the House and carried him to his seat. Westminster had never seen anything like it.[xv]

For many in Borris, their most memorable recollection of this remarkable individual was when, as a justice of the peace, he convened beneath an old oak tree in the courtyard at Borris to listen to the people’s ‘tales of perplexity or grievance’ and administer justice and counsel accordingly. He often had his stuffed bear in attendance, which must have been rather off-putting to some.[xvi]

Despite his benevolence, Arthur’s Conservative beliefs were at odds with the escalating popularity of Home Rule and the Land League. Although he favoured land reform, he could see clearly how property laws were swinging against landlords and, as such, threw his all into what he perceived as ‘a Nationalist conspiracy to depreciate unduly the value of Irish land’.[xvii] Arthur’s son and heir Walter Kavanagh subsequently disagreed with his father’s politics, siding with John Redmond’s Nationalists and became Home Rule MP for Carlow which was a great boost for the nationalists cause.


At the 1880 election, Arthur was rejected by the voters, his tenantry included, who saw Home Rule as the first real chance for them to become land owners in their own right. The election result severely weakened Arthur’s zest for life.[xviii] However, he did recieve some bounce back when Gladstone, ostensibly his political enemy, appointed him to the Bessborough Commission to review Irish lad situation. He was also sworn onto the Irish Privy Council and served as Lord Lieutenant of Carlow,

On Christmas Day 1889, the 58-year-old workaholic succumbed to an attack of pneumonia at his London town house, 19 Tedworth Square, Chelsea. At his request, his family sang Christmas carols as he slipped away. He was buried in the ruined church on Ballycopigan, a wooded hill in the demesne of Borris.[xix]

Arthur’s obituary in The Times said he had given ‘the world a wholesome lesson of how far courage and perseverance can compensate for physical defects’. By his indomitable resolve, he triumphed to become one of the most skilful men of his generation. And yet, throughout his writings, Arthur never referred to his disabilities. His brilliance was that he never believed himself to be remotely unusual. When he paid a visit to a friend once, he remarked: ‘It's extraordinary. I haven't been here for ten years, but the stationmaster recognised me instantly.’

With thanks to Aoife Kavanagh, Sara Kavanagh, Morgan Kavanagh and Elinor Kavanagh.



Many of your readers have heard and read about the Right Honorable Arthur McMuorrough Kavanagh who for many years represented Carlow in the House of Commons, and did not lose his seat until the growing power of the National League made it well-nigh impossible for any landlord to retain the confidence of his constituency. Mr Kavanagh enjoyed all the advantages of birth and fortune-he was descended from a historic family, and he inherited a considerable landed estate. But there were few of the humblest cotters on his broad domains who would have cared to change places with him. Born without arms or legs, a mere trunk, he managed by years of patient exertion to triumph over physical disadvantages which would have crushed most men. He was thoroughly well educated, a crack shot, a daring horseman, and a model landlord. He managed to lead an honorable and useful life. He could only ride by being strapped on to the saddle, he could only shoot by an ingenious arrangement of straps and hooks, he could only enter into a house on the shoulders of a servant. But he managed to become a great social favourite, and to lead quite as active a life as the majority of Irish country gentlemen.

His biography by his cousin, Mrs L. L. Steele, is as interesting and exciting as a novel. During the Smith O'Brien rising, when he was little more than 18, he was staying with his great aunt, then Dowager Marchioness of Ormonde, at Garrycricken near Slieve-na-Man. Mr Kavanagh went out to reconnoitre the rebels, but was discovered and pursued by some of their mounted men. But he galloped across country which they dared not follow, and put his horse to fences which his pursuers were afraid to take. After the collapse of the Smith O'Brien rebellion in the historic cabbage garden, Mr Kavanagh went abroad and travelled through Russia to Persia and India, where he remained some time, but eventually returned to Ireland, and in 1854, when only 24 years of age, succeeded to the family property, through the death of his brother. In the following year he married his cousin, by whom he had seven children, none of whom inherited his physical defects. He improved his property, assisted in building a railway towards New Ross, and devoted himself to the welfare of his tenants.

During the Fenian rising of 1866 he showed the same courage and loyalty which he had displayed in 1848 and he gave the most valuable assistance to the Government. In the same year he defeated Sir John Pope Hennessy for Carlow, and three years afterwards took part in a debate in the House of Commune on the second reading of the Poor law (Ireland) Amendment Bill. He made an admirable speech and created a most favourable impression. From that date he took part in many discussions, and was regarded as a great authority on Irish affairs, although his views, of course, were those of his class. In the settlement of the business affairs of the church of Ireland he displayed great shrewdness and sagacity, as well as extreme generosity and liberality.

In 1880 he lost his seat, but he subsequently took a leading part in all the movements initiated by the Irish land lords, was a member of the Bessborough commission and drew up a separate report, which in the debates on the Land Act was repeatedly referred to as the ablest exposition of the landlords' case that had eve', been put forth.' He initiated defensive associations, the Irish Land committee, the emergency committee and the Land Corporation. I do not wish to be regarded as approving his politics. But I had the greatest respect for Mr Kavanagh as a man. Never shall I forget my astonishment during the debates on the first Irish Land Bill, seeing a stalwart man march into the House of Commons, bearing in his arms an extra ordinary looking object, which at first sight seemed scarcely human. But when it was deposited in its seat I at once realised that it was a man, and one both clever and masterful.

His deficiencies were scarcely observable when he was seated, although the places where should have been arms and legs were mere excrescences, something like the tutts that ladies now wear upon the shoulders of their dresses. I could see that he was popular with the members who sat around him and that he was a persona grata with both sides of the House. Mrs Steele has done well in preserving the memory of a man with more than ordinary ability, and with the courage and determination of a hero.-Age cor.

Kilmore Free Press (Victoria, Australia), Thursday 7 May 1891 p 3.


[i] In 2003, Mealy’s auctioned a rare carte-de-visite size portrait photo of a lady in full dress, standing and posing by a chair, inscribed on reverse, "Mrs. L.... Alexander nee Bruen, photographed by Mr. Arthur Kavanagh, 1859".

[ii] Arthur was born at Borris House, Co. Carlow, on 25 March 1831, the third son of Thomas Kavanagh (1767-1837), by his second wife, Lady Harriet Margaret Le Poer Trench, daughter of Richard, 2nd Earl of Clancarty. His father was M.P. for Kilkenny in the last Irish parliament, and for Co. Carlow in the last two parliaments (of the United Kingdom) under George IV, and the first parliament under William IV.

[iii] Lord Clancarty cannot have imagined that his limbless grandson would one day know Europe far better than he ever did.

[iv] The Kavanagh family traced its descent to Dermot, the King of Leinster who invited Strongbow to Ireland and thus opened the country to conquest. Arthur was named for his forbear, the indomitable Sir Art MacMurrough, nemesis of Richard II.

[v] In 1841, Arthur accompanied his mother to St Germain-en-Laye outside Paris, where they remained for two years and during which time they visited Italy.

[vi] They were accompanied by their tutor, the Rev. David Wood. They also explored Cairo and ascended the Nile by boat as far as the third cataract.

[vii] Arthur became particularly attached to his Arab steed. ‘Poor beast, I cried the day I left him – he knew me so well. He used to lick my face when I came out of the tent in the morning to see him and at luncheon-time in the heat of the day, when I used to sit under him for shade, he would put his head between his front legs to take a bit of bread without moving for fear of hurting me.’

On his return to Ireland in 1848 Arthur acted as a volunteer scout during Smith O'Brien's rebellion, riding sometimes many miles unattended in the dead of night.

[viii] As Arthur put it: ‘‘We started by Norway to make our way overland to India, went through Norway, Sweden, into Russia, through its immense extent to the Caspian Sea, visiting the great fair of Nizni Novogorod. We made our way across the Caspian from Astrachan to Asterabad [now Gorgan, northern Iran] and were caged for a day in the latter town in a sort of wooden structure, in the middle of the only square, and pelted diligently by the hospitable inhabitants with rotten eggs and bad oranges, soft things no doubt, but not the less trying to the temper. Thence we went from the north to the south of Persia [now Iran], intersecting Kourdistan and Louristan …’. Being pelted with eggs was one thing. In Kurdistan, the Kavanaghs discovered the fate of two earlier Irish travellers, Conolly and Studdert [sic], who were tied to a tree and ‘foully murdered … because they would not become Mussulmen.’ Arthur attributed their own survival to ‘our poverty, possessing little more than our rifles, horses, and a change of clothes, one shirt off, and another shirt on’.[viii]

[ix] He carried despatches in the Aurungabad district on the west coast of Maharashtra. He later obtained a post in the survey department of the Poonah district.

[x] Charles Kavanagh, 7th Hussar’s, was preparing to marry a girl from Meath on Easter Monday. He died from burns on Feb 23 1853, three days after his dressing gown having fire at Borris.

[xi] Arthur subsidised and managed the railway line from Borris to Bagenalstown until it was taken over by the Great Southern and Western Railway. The first sod for the Bagenalstown & Wexford Railway was cut by Lady Harriet in Borris on New Year's Day 1855, year he married. It was designed by William Le Fanu a Dublin based engineer. However the company’s plans was too ambitious, its standards too high, with 27 bridges and the magnificent 16 –arch granite Borris viaduct which cost £20,000 – and it went bankrupt in 1864. In 1874, he spoke in Parliament in favour of State purchase of Irish railways.

[xii] On 15 March 1855 Arthur was married by special licence at No 1 Mountjoy Square to his cousin, Frances Mary, only surviving daughter of the Rev. Joseph Forde Leathley, rector of Termonfeckin, co. Louth. She died 6/2 1908.

[xiii] As Nicholas Whyte puts it, the book ‘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: 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.

[xiv] Arthur represented co. Wexford in parliament from 1866 to 1868, and Co. Carlow from 1868 to 1880. He voted against the disestablishment of the Irish church, and took an active part in its reorganisation upon a voluntary basis. He became one of the most prominent members of the Church representative body and was its main financer. On the other hand, he supported the Land Bill of 1870, considering it to be an advanced act, specifically supporting clause 3 which offered compensation to tenants for disturbance. His maiden speech decided the fate of the Poor Law (Ireland) Amendment Bill of 1869. He supported the Peace Preservation Bills of 1870 and 1875. According to both The Times and the Sydney Mail, he spoke frequently in the House and was always listened to with attention ‘though behind his back the wits dubbed him “the turtle”’.

He was also high sheriff of co. Kilkenny in 1856 and of co. Carlow in 1857, and a member, and from 1862, chairman, of the board of guardians of the New Ross poor-house, in which, though himself a strong protestant, he had a chapel provided for the benefit of Roman catholic inmates, the first of the kind in Ireland. During the Fenian rising he fortified and provisioned Borris House for a siege, and patrolled the country nightly as in 1848.

[xv] As such, Arthur Kavanagh was the man who first asserted the right of MPs to moor their craft opposite the House of Commons. That wasn’t his only first for Westminster. One of the standing orders of Parliament was that nobody but MPs could pass up and down the floor of the House during the sittings. An exception was made for Mr Kavanagh who, having been rowed in a boat from his yacht to the Parliament building, was now permitted to have a servant wheel him into the House, take him from his chair and carry him upon his back to place him in his seat.

[xvi] Daily he might be seen seated by the stone mounting-block under the old oak in the courtyard of Borris House where Kavanaghs had been dispensing justice for generations. There is a photo of the bear in "The Irish Century, A Photographic History of the Last Hundred Years," 1998, Michael MacCarthy Morrogh.

[xvii] He was a key member of the Property Defence Association and, in 1883, founded the Land Corporation which was the only body established that would compete against the Nationalists.

[xviii] He also sat on the Bessborough Commission as a representative of the landlords. Dissenting from the report of his colleagues, he drew up one of his own, in which the principal feature was a proposal to extend the Bright clauses of the act of 1870. Foreseeing the storm, he initiated the Irish Land Committee, of which he became one of the honorary secretaries.

[xix] On 13 Feb 1890, The Times reported that the Lord Lt had appointed Lord Rathdonnell to be Lieutenant and Custos Rotulorum of Co Carlow in place of the Rt Hon Arthur Kavanagh.


James McMullen Rigg (1891), Mrs. Steele's Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh, London, 1891, 8vo; The Lancet, 14 March 1891; Blackwood, cxlix. 429 et seq.; Dublin Gazette, 1886.

Arthur’s biography by his cousin Sarah Steele is on-line in its entirety HERE.

See also: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?_r=1&res=9E05E3DE163AE533A25755C0A9629C94609ED7CF)

For an interesting angle, see also Nicholas Whyte’s view: http://nwhyte.livejournal.com/1070350.html