The Limbless Landlord, by Brian Igoe

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Thence they had a long (over 200 miles) journey by road to Chalon-sur-Saône, whence they took a steamer down the River Rhone to Avignon, which should have been much more comfortable. The swift flowing Rhone can be quite exciting to sail down, and this trip reportedly took thirteen hours. That would be an average of 16.8 knots!

Way way back in 2008, I read and reviewed four biographies of the fascinating Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh, an important Irish political figure of the third quarter of the nineteenth century, who notably was born with only stumps at his shoulders and hips instead of arms and legs. A bit more recently in 2012 I wrote a shorter piece about him for the BBC. I’ve also written up the one book that he wrote, and a novel based on his life. Brian Igoe sent me his own biography of Kavanagh to look at back in 2015, and I’m sorry to say that it took me until now to actually read it.

Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh

I complained of the four previous biographies that 1) none of them is particularly good, 2) none of them looked at Kavanagh’s political career in much detail (he ended up leader of the Irish Unionist MPs in the House of Commons) and 3) none of them looked at his religious beliefs. Igoe’s biography is certainly better than the other four, and looks at Kavanagh’s politics in detail, and at least gives more than passing notice to his religious practice, so I think I’d recommend it as a starting point to anyone wanting to explore Kavanagh’s life.

I felt that Igoe is particularly good also at looking at Kavanagh’s family circumstances, a younger son of a landlord family, a class that was already dying out, doing his best to stand up for his ideal of an old-fashioned, conservative Ireland in changing times. And to be honest, Ireland was a pretty conservative country until quite recently; had he lived to see Irish independence (he would have been 91 in 1922) he would probably have accommodated himself to it as he accommodated himself to other inconveniences in his life.

Igoe’s style is a bit breathless, and there are one or two moments where I winced at a truncation of the historical record. But he sticks close to the historical facts, as far as they can be determined from the record, where other recent biographers have taken the truncated figure of Kavanagh as a canvas to project their own fantasies onto. Really, the truth is extraordinary enough. You can get it here.