An Arthurian Legend

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In a diary entry dated 27th February 1853 Elizabeth Smith of Baltiboys, County Wicklow (known to her many posthumous admirers as the Highland Lady since she was of Scottish origin) wrote, ‘Mr Kavanagh has been burned to death, his fine old name and large fortune fall to that poor object, his brother, a poor cripple without either arms or legs only stumps. In this miserable condition he hunts! tied to his basket saddle, holding the reins between his mouth and shoulder, and he rides hard! He draws, writes, is really accomplished and intelligent. An old prophesy, it seems, foretold that the house of Borris would end with a cripple. Strange if true.’
An entire post could be written about Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh, and indeed he has been the subject of more than one book. As Mrs Smith notes he was born without full limbs, both his arms and legs stopping well short of the flexible joint. Yet neither he nor his family allowed this impediment to hinder him: in his teens he set off with his eldest brother – who suffered from tuberculosis – on a journey through Russia, Persia and India (where he got a job as a dispatch rider) and although the older sibling died, Arthur survived and indeed returned to Ireland when his middle brother was killed in a fire in 1853 and he thus unexpectedly became heir to the family estate of Borris, County Carlow.
Once there, he led a full life: he hunted, he fished, he shot, he sailed, he sat as an M.P. in Westminster for many years. He also did much to improve his lands and the condition of his tenants, not least by bringing a railway line to Borris at his own expense. An amusing story indicates how little attention he paid to his physical handicap. Having caught a train to Abbeyleix to visit Lady de Vesci, he commented to his hostess, ‘It is quite extraordinary. I have not been here for over ten years and yet the station-master still remembered me.’

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Borris 10

The MacMurrough Kavanaghs are an extremely old Irish family: in 1814 its then-head commissioned an illustrated book called ‘The pedigree of the ancient illustrious noble and princely house of Kavanagh in ancient times monarchs of Ireland and at the period of the invasion of Ireland by Henry the second, Kings of Leinster.’ This volume, which cost the considerable sum of £615 and two shillings, and took four years to complete, traced the family’s origins back to 1670 BC.
It is notable that while the book’s title referenced the arrival of the Normans in Ireland, it did not mention the part played by an ancestor in bringing about this occurrence. In the mid-12th century Diarmait mac Murchadha was King of Leinster until dispossessed of his title by the High King of Ireland for having abducted Derbforgaill, wife of Tiernan O’Rourke, King of Breifne. In order to regain his kingdom, mac Murchadha pledged an oath of allegiance to Henry II and received the support of Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, better known as Strongbow who married mac Murchadha’s daughter Aoife. Thus the MacMurrough Kavanaghs’ forebear was responsible for first encouraging the original Norman invasion of Ireland. Subsequent members of the family were not always so willing to bow to overseas authority: in the late 14th/early 15th century Art Mac Murchadha Caomhánach proved a formidable King of Leinster who regained full authority and control of territory. Yet in November 1550 Cahir mac Art Kavanagh appeared before the Lord Lieutenant Sir Anthony St Leger in Dublin where he ‘submitted himself, and publicly renounced the title and dignity of Mac Morough, as borne by his ancestors.’

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Borris has long been part of the MacMurrough Kavanaghs’ lands. It is believed that the core of the present house was built by Brian Kavanagh enclosing at least parts of a 15th century castle on the site. A date stone over the front entrance carries the inscription AD MDCCXXXI and thereby proposes that part of the building was completed by that year. It is likewise assumed that this house was classical in style, a reflection of what was happening elsewhere in the country as a result of changing architectural tastes and a more settled environment.
During this period the Kavanaghs made a series of advantageous marriages and by the end of the 18th century they owned some 30,000 acres spread over three counties: three successive generations married daughters of the well-connected and wealthy Butler family. In 1778 Thomas Kavanagh assumed responsibility at Borris for his sister-in-law Lady Eleanor Butler after she attempted to run away with Sarah Ponsonby. His efforts, however, proved futile and eventually the two women were allowed to move to Wales where as the Ladies of Llangollen they lived for over fifty years (for some more on this, see Of Wondrous Beauty Did the Vision Seem, May 13th).
During the uprising of 1798 Borris was subject to assault by the rebels and buildings were burnt but not, it would seem, the main house. Walter MacMurrough Kavanagh wrote to his brother-in-law that although a turf and coal house were set on fire and efforts made to bring ‘fire up to the front door under cover of a car on which were raised feather beds and mattresses’ yet these were unsuccessful.
It has sometimes been asserted that the reason why Borris was comprehensively remodelled in the second decade of the 19th century to the designs of those indefatigable architects the Morrisons père et fils, was because of damage inflicted in 1798 but an admirable new book* on the design and furnishing of the house pours doubt on this notion. Instead it would appear that Walter MacMurrough Kavanagh, who was also responsible for commissioning the illustrated volume tracing his pedigree, wished to give more tangible evidence of the family’s long history than did a classical house.

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Borris 3

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Superbly located on a raised site with views across to the Blackstairs Mountains Borris as we now see it displays signs of stylistic schizophrenia, not least in differences between the house’s exterior and interior. The former is cloaked in Tudoresque mannerisms with symmetrical battlements and finials, a central entrance portico with pointed arches and four corner turrets which until the middle of the last century were topped with octagonal lanterns. Each side of the window mouldings is finished with the head of a king or queen indicating the ancestry of the MacMurrough Kavanagh family. John Preston Neale included an engraving of the newly-completed Borris in his 1822 work Views of the seats of noblemen and gentlemen in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland and then described the house as being ‘of the period of Henry the Eighth, of which period, though so many beautiful examples are extant in England, yet in this country, Borris may be considered as unique.’
When Samuel Lewis wrote of the house in 1837 he observed that Borris ‘exhibits the appearance of an English baronial residence of the 16th century, while every advantage of convenience and splendour is secured within.’ Those advantages apparently included the ornate classicism which reigns internally. This is especially so in the entrance hall which although a square was given a circular ceiling by the Morrisons who treated it as a rotunda with extremely ornate plasterwork incorporating garlands, masks, shells and wonderfully three-dimensional eagles, the whole coming to rest on a series of scagliola columns around the walls. Likewise one end of the dining room has a recess containing service doors this space created by another pair of Ionic scagliola columns. The treatment of the stairs and landing reverts somewhat to an earlier era, not least thanks to a large arched window, the upper portion of which is filled with stained glass featuring the family coat of arms.

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Borris today is not as was designed by the Morrisons in the early 19th century. In the 1950s the service wing which connected the main building with the chapel was demolished, leaving the latter looking somewhat forlorn to one side. And the lanterns that topped the corner turrets were also removed. The greater part of the family land had gone, and with it much of the wealth. For a while the very future of the house looked perilous: for one of the very first Irish Georgian Society bulletins published in 1958 Lady Rosemary FitzGerald who had grown up in the place (her mother was a Kavanagh) wrote a piece called ‘A Valediction to Borris House’ in which she predicted ‘the house will soon be empty and roofless. The daws which possess the chimneys of every traditional Irish house will have the walls as well. This is inevitable. The house has been so rebuilt, altered, enlarged and generally muddled since the original keep was built in the ninth century that it is now impossible to maintain. It still needs the battalions of servants and unlimited cheap fuel that poured into the house until the First World War left so many big houses in reduced circumstances.’ Thankfully she was proven wrong and Borris still stands, a testimony to the staunchness of the MacMurrough Kavanaghs, the latest generation of which has this year assumed responsibility for the place. Borris may not be as big as was once the case, nor able to rely on the income of a large estate but there are now other ways of making a house pay for itself and all of these are being put to use.
And Mrs Smith’s citing of an old prophesy ‘that the house of Borris would end with a cripple’ also proved incorrect because Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh married and had seven children. Below is a portrait of the redoubtable character that still hangs in Borris, like the house itself a testimony to the triumph of will over circumstances.
*Borris House, County Carlow and Elite Regency Patronage by Edmund Joyce (Four Courts Press)

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For more information on Borris, see http://www.borrishouse.com

2 comments on “An Arthurian Legend

  1. barrett eagan says:

    Brilliant! One would love to have heard the tone of voice in which the station master comment was delivered!

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