Kavanagh, Lady Harriet Margaret (1800–85), artist, traveller, and antiquarian, was second daughter among three sons and four daughters of Richard Le Poer Trench (qv), later 2nd earl of Clancarty, and Henrietta Margaret Le Poer Trench (née Staples). In February 1825 she married Thomas Kavanagh (1767–1837) of Borris House, Co. Carlow, MP for Kilkenny city in the last Irish parliament and later MP for Co. Carlow. She was Thomas Kavanagh's second wife; they had three sons and one daughter. Later described as a ‘woman of high culture and unusual artistic power’ (Steele, The Rt Hon. Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh, 261), she was an accomplished artist and possessed progressive social and religious opinions. While a Low Church evangelical, she was neither a bigot nor a sentimentalist and encouraged methodists to use the Anglican church on the Kavanagh estate at Ballyragget, Co. Kilkenny.
In March 1831 she gave birth to her third son, Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh (qv), who was born limbless. Despite these disabilities, she refused to view her son as a hopeless case, and with the help of the local doctor, Francis Boxwell, determined to raise him as a normal child. She supervised his early education herself, teaching him first to paint and then write by holding brushes and pens in his mouth. She consulted Sir Philip Crampton (qv), the noted surgeon, and had a mechanical chair built for her son while also encouraging him to ride and follow outdoor pursuits. It was largely due to her perseverance that he overcame his disabilities and went on to have a distinguished political career.
Lady Harriet was also fond of travelling and in 1846 took her children to Saint-Germain-en-Laye to learn French, and later visited Rome. She had also determined to visit Egypt and the Holy Land, and in October 1846 left Marseilles on what was to become an epic journey. Travelling with two sons, Thomas and Arthur, her daughter Harriet, and their tutor, the Rev. David Wood, she hired two feluccas with Arab crews in Cairo and visited several sites of archaeological importance along the Nile, including Thebes, Karnak, and the Nubia region, ascending the Nile as far as the third cataract. She then decided to visit places of biblical interest and travelled to Tyre, Sidon, and Rhoda Island. In Aqaba she negotiated with Bedouin chiefs and, having hired camels and Bedouin guides, travelled to Hebron.
She visited Jerusalem (Easter 1847) and witnessed a confrontation between Orthodox and Roman catholic priests over control of the holy places. She later travelled to Petra, Sinai, Beirut, Smyrna, and Constantinople. After a second winter in Egypt, the party visited the Black Sea before returning to Marseilles in April 1848. They had faced considerable hardships and real dangers in the course of this epic journey. Travelling by horse and camel, one desert crossing had taken thirty-six days. It was not common for European travellers to visit Egypt, Arabia, and the Holy Land at this time. Women travellers were virtually unheard of and Lady Harriet later remarked she had experienced ‘quite enough danger to make it a very exciting business’ (McCormick, 61).
She later visited Corfu on at least two occasions (1850, 1852) and brought back samples of Greek lace to Borris. Through teaching her tenants to copy these Greek designs, a local lace-making industry was soon established. In 1860 she moved to Ballyragget Lodge, where she died 14 July 1885. Her remains were returned to Borris and buried in St Mullin's abbey. A large crowd attended the funeral. Lady Harriet kept a record of her travels in her journals and also drew and painted the sites that she visited. Her journals and paintings, including an oil portrait and a self-portrait, are in the possession of the Kavanagh family. She also acquired a large collection of Egyptian antiquities and these were donated to the RSAI after her death. The collection was later transferred to the National Museum of Ireland and formed the basis of the museum's Egyptian collection. There are also copies of two of her watercolours, a landscape and a self-portrait, on display in the NMI.