The ancestral home of the MacMurrough Kavanaghs, Kings of Leinster, is one of the few Irish estates that can trace its history back to the Royal families of ancient Ireland. Indeed descendants of the original family still live at Borris House in the centre of the village.
The Act of Union of 1800 signalled the decline of Georgian Dublin and brought about the demise of the city’s elegant houses. An interesting result of this event was that the former members of parliament were awarded £15,000 each as an incentive to vote for the act of the union. This was a vast amount of money in the 1800’s and as a result it allowed the MacMurrough Kavanaghs of Borris to embark on a lavish building programme. This transformed their mansion into a Tudor revival show-piece complete with battlements and turrets, a new service wing and chapel, new stables, garden folly tower and an impressive mock-medieval gatehouse as a grand entrance from the village’s main street. Internally the house was substantially rearranged with the provision of a spectacular entrance hall, a grandiose new staircase which led to the library on the first floor, an elegantly remodelled drawing room, a new study and dining room. The house had suffered considerable damage during the rebellion on 1798 which was another obvious reason for rebuilding.
Arthur McMurrough Kavanagh
Arthur McMurrough Kavanagh, probably the most revered of all the Kavanaghs, was born in 1831 to Walter MacMurrough Kavanagh of Borris and his second wife Lady Harriet. Despite medical concerns beforehand, nothing could have prepared the family for the disability with which their third son was born. On seeing the child Lady Harriet is alleged to have remarked “Thank God he was born to me and not to anyone else”, the reason being that he was deformed, having only six inch stumps where his legs and arms should have been.
Despite Arthur’s physical condition, he grew up to be the most extraordinary member of his family, and a source of inspiration for disabled people the world over. He became a real all-rounder, excelling at boar hunting, shooting, horse riding, yachting and fishing. One of his favourite sports was archery, in which he drew the bow with steel hooks that were attached to his stumps. His mother was a distinguished water colourist and she taught him to paint holding his brushes in his teeth. As a child, he was wheeled in a chair or carried on a servant’s shoulders, despite his disabilities he was a superb horseman and travelled extensively throughout central Asia during his lifetime. When he rode, he did so tied on to a padded chair, with the reins tied around his arm stumps and his whip tucked into his side.
It seemed highly unlikely that the young Arthur would ever succeed to the Borris House seat, a position to which he was only fourth in line after his half-brother Walter and his two older brothers Thomas and Charles. However, by February 1853, all three older sons had died. The estate was severely neglected at this time, ravaged by the effect of the Famine and he was widely recognised as a progressive landlord, improving farming methods and undertaking much building in the town. He introduced new industry to the area by building a sawmill and new cottages for his tenants. He also instigated the construction of the impressive 16-arch viaduct, situated at the lower end of the village, which carried the now defunct great Southern and Western Railway line between Bagenalstown in Co. Carlow and Ballywilliam in Co. Wexford. In 1857, his mother Lady Harriet visited Corfu and was impressed by the lace-making industry there. She brought lace making back to Borris and ran it as a cottage industry providing valuable local employment, encouraged by her son. It became known for its intricate designs and was widely sought after in Europe and further afield.
He married his first cousin Frances Forde Fleathley, and together they had six children. Aged 35, he was elected M.P. for County Wexford, and in 1868, he was returned for County Carlow, becoming the only totally limbless man to sit in the House of Commons. He enjoyed the special distinction of being allowed to arrive at Westminster by water because of his disability. Below Borris Lock is a tiny one-eyed bridge, behind which is a concealed harbour. It was from this tiny harbour that Arthur Arthur travelled from Borris to CheekPoint in Waterford by boat and from there on to Westminister on a two masted schooner named “The Lady Ava”. With the rise of Charles Stewart Parnell and the Home Rule Party his political career ended in 1880. Shortly after, his health started to fail and he died on Christmas morning 1889 at the age of 58. He was unique for the determined way in which he overcame his physical difficulties to lead a life that would have been the envy of the more able bodied.
This is an impressive 470ft. Long rail viaduct just outside borris. It was built in 1862 by William le Fanu (engineer) and John Bagnall (contractor). This sixteen-arch limestone bridge once carried the railway line fifty feet above road level and serviced the Bagenalstown to Wexford railway. It was closed for rail traffic in 1963 but has since been re-opened as a pedestrian footbridge as part of a planned nature trail.
Mount Leinster Heritage Drive and the Blackstairs Mountains are accessible from Borris via the viaduct at the end of the town.
Sacred Heart Catholic Church
This church was built 1820 J Walsh PP., enlarged and remodelled 1836 J Beauchamp PP”. The site was provided by the MacMurrough Kavanagh family. It is a large, T-plan, barn-church that has a façade of granite decorated with limestone which incorporates a Romanesque style doorway. The stained glass window over the main altar consists of three granite-framed panels depicting the crucifixion, with the three under portions depicting Sts. Fortchern, Brigid and Fiachra. The sanctuary was re-ordered by Fr. Peter Boylan P.P. (1956-1985).
The Catholic Girls School
The Catholic girls school is a two storied, five bay building which dates to 1832. It has an Elaborate Tudor-Gothic revival façade with crenellated turrets (battlements) on the corners. The main feature is a slender, gabled, three-stage tower with an open lantern on top, flanked by projecting porches. The tower is believed to be the work of Thomas Cobden. The building now houses the local library.