Kavanagh, Arthur Macmorrough (1831–89), landlord and politician, was born 25 March 1831 at Borris House, Co. Carlow, youngest of three sons and one daughter of Thomas Kavanagh (1767–1837), landowner, and his second wife, Lady Harriet Kavanagh (qv), née Le Poer Trench, daughter of the 2nd earl of Clancarty. Thomas Kavanagh, a catholic who had converted to protestantism, was MP for Kilkenny city (1797–9) and Co. Carlow (1826–31, 1835–7), and voted for the union in 1799. Claiming descent from the Gaelic kings of Leinster, he named his son after Art Mór MacMurrough (qv). Arthur was born with stumps for arms and legs but, helped by a dedicated family physician, Francis Boxwell, came to lead an active and fulfilling life. Boxwell consulted leading surgeons such as Sir Philip Crampton (qv) and his cousin Sir Henry Marsh (qv) and, optimistic at the child's considerable alertness and curiosity, devised various methods to counter his physical impairment. He designed a basket saddle which enabled Arthur from the age of two to sit up on a pony, and with time he would control the reins and become a skilled horseman. Learning to write with a pen in his mouth, and developing such control with his limbs, he painted, sailed, fished, and shot with considerable competence; hunting was a particular passion. However, attempts by Crampton and Marsh to affix artificial limbs proved unsuccessful and were abandoned. This alienated an already harsh mother, who blamed Arthur for not trying hard enough, and he remained reliant on personal servants his whole life. Educated from 1839 to 1843 among cousins at an academy run in Celbridge, Co. Kildare, by a distant relative, Dr Greer, who showed him great kindness, Arthur excelled in his studies.
After his father's death, his mother travelled extensively. Arthur was unhappy with their frequent separations, and in 1846 she agreed to take him to Egypt and the Holy Land, accompanied by his tutor, Rev. David Wood. Despite the alarming news of famine from Ireland, Lady Harriet pressed on to Constantinople, only returning to Borris late in the year. In 1848 he reconnoitred the rebel positions of William Smith O'Brien (qv) in the Carlow area, and evaded pursuers by jumping over hedges and fences in the dead of night while strapped in his saddle. His nocturnal sorties may also have facilitated trysts with local girls, and sometime in 1848 he fell in love with Frances Irvine, daughter of a local landowner. Their clandestine courtship was cut short by a scandalised Lady Harriet, who sent him away on a long trip with his older brother Thomas and Rev. Mr Wood. They left Ireland in June 1849 for Moscow and sailed down the Volga to Persia. Having developed a fever, Arthur was invited by Prince Mirza of Mosul to rest for a few weeks in his harem; he readily accepted, despite Wood's horror. They pushed on towards Kurdistan, still relatively unexplored by Westerners, and then India where Arthur achieved his ambition of hunting tigers, killing several, often astride an elephant. Thomas fell ill and sailed for Australia with Wood while Arthur remained alone in India. His hunting exploits helped him secure work as a dispatch messenger for the East India Company in Aurangabad. He supported himself for a year as his mother had stopped sending funds, but returned to Ireland when news of his brother's death reached him.
Kavanagh was dismayed at the decay during the Famine of the family estate, run by his brother Charles. Sympathetic to the plight of its tenants, he convinced his mother to make him under-manager. When Charles died in a fire later that year Arthur became the master of Borris, determined to be an active and innovative landlord. Because of the need for an heir, his mother's attitude altered dramatically and she arranged a match with Frances Mary Leathley from Termonfeckin, Co. Louth, a distant cousin with no dowry he had known for many years. The couple were married privately at 1 Mountjoy Square on 15 March 1855. Frances was intelligent and kind and the marriage was a happy one. Their first child, Walter, was born in 1856 and was healthy and able bodied, as were two more sons and three daughters. Now an influential landlord, Arthur was committed to the improvement of the area, and redesigned the villages of Borris and Ballyragget. His design for a slate-roofed cottage won an RDS medal for architecture, while Frances encouraged lacemaking and floriculture. Arthur became a local magistrate and chairman of the New Ross board of guardians in 1862. A staunch protestant who read a sermon every morning, he nonetheless subsidised the establishment of the New Ross poorhouse's catholic chapel. He became JP for Carlow, Kilkenny, and Wexford, and was high sheriff of Kilkenny (1856) and Carlow (1857). Entirely devoted to his estate and his social duties, he often held an informal court for his tenants under the great oak tree at Borris House, dispensing justice as ‘part wise, part enlightened despot’ (Cohen, 137). Desirous of following in his father's footsteps and representing Carlow at Westminster, he was, however, conscious of his lack of formal education and the logistical difficulties which his presence in the commons would raise. His mother and wife disapproved of this ambition (for varying reasons), and in 1862 he did not seek the nomination.
Over the years he had frequent bouts of depression and often turned to the sea for consolation, becoming an ardent yachtsman. On 29 October 1862 he set out on the Eva to cruise the Mediterranean and hunt in Albania. His acutely observed account of the journey, The cruise of the RYS Eva, was published in 1865 and includes photographs he took on the trip; it revealed a deeply rooted sense of Irishness and regret at Ireland's religious divisions. He undertook further cruises to Holland and Scandinavia. Finally confident enough, he stood as a conservative at the Wexford by-election of 1866 and won the seat. His impairment had not been an issue in the campaign and he was cheered when he was wheeled onto the floor of the house of commons to sign the register of new members. He made his maiden speech in April 1868 on the lack of lighthouses on the Wexford coast and the endangerment to shipping. He also urged the improvement of the railways in Ireland, having himself subsidised the link from Borris to Bagnalstown, and lobbied for various Irish causes. Fearful of radical agitation and hostile to the Fenians, he claimed that he himself was an Irish patriot who supported the union. In the 1868 general election he stood for Carlow and took the seat, unopposed, having made it clear that he was against the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland.
As a benevolent landlord, he considered his property his immemorial right. He objected to many clauses of Gladstone's 1870 land bill, and maintained that his class was now being persecuted. During a private meeting with the prime minister (when both men discovered their shared passion for axing trees), Arthur pointed out that his family had held their lands in Leinster for seven centuries uninterrupted. Gladstone urged him to support the bill and offered him a place as deputy to the chief secretary for Ireland, but Kavanagh refused. His first speech to the new parliament, on the reform of the poor law, struck a balance between the needs of the poor and the rights of landlords, many of whom made sacrifices to improve Ireland. This won him praise from both sides of the house and he ended up supporting the 1870 land bill while putting down a number of amendments. Although progressive on some social issues, he voted against the 1872 ballot act and supported the peace preservation bill of 1875. He disliked C. S. Parnell (qv), and was critical of the obstructionist tactics of the Irish parliamentary party. Against a tense background of growing unrest, he stood in the 1880 election assuming his tenants would support him, but under the new system of secret ballot he was resoundingly defeated. He revealed to Lord Ashbourne, Edward Gibson (qv), his devastation at this personal sense of betrayal, ‘the hard part of the burden and the poison of the sting’ (cited in Bence-Jones, 30).
In 1880 Gladstone appointed him one of five members of the Bessborough commission to investigate the Irish land question. As it was reaching its conclusion, the personal loss of his second son, Anthony, made him less politically accommodating. Refusing to support the commission's main recommendation that the ‘Three Fs’ (fair rent, free sale, and fixity of tenure) should be granted to tenant farmers, he produced his own report which he presented to parliament in March 1881. He continued to be active in public life, was appointed to the Irish privy council in 1886, and deluged The Times with numerous letters on the land question. However the years of strain had taken their toll on his health, and he died 25 December 1889 at his home in Chelsea; he was buried on Ballycopigen hill at Borris.