Lady Harriet Kavanagh


by Emmet Jackson

Lady Harriet Margaret le Poer Trench (Figure 1), artist and traveller, was born to Richard, 2nd Earl of Clancarty, and Henrietta Margaret, daughter of the Rt Hon. John Staples, in 1799. Harriet became the second wife of Thomas Kavanagh (1767–1837), an MP for the city of Kilkenny, on 28 February 1825. Harriet had four children, Charles, Thomas, Arthur and one daughter Harriet who was nicknamed ‘Hoddy’. Arthur was born limbless but Harriet was determined to raise him as she would any other child and reading her diaries one would never guess at his disability. Thomas Kavanagh died at the age of 70, after twelve years of marriage. Following the death of her husband, Harriet travelled extensively in Europe, Egypt and the Holy Land with three of her children, Thomas, Arthur, Harriet and a tutor, Rev. David Wood, in tow.

    Figure 1. Lady Harriet Kavanagh (Possibly a self portrait).


Figure 1. Lady Harriet Kavanagh (Possibly a self portrait).

Harriet kept diaries during her travels, which contain simple descriptive observations of her daily routine, the people she encountered and the places she visited. In addition to recording her daily travels, she sent detailed letters home to her family, preserved beautiful images in a sketchbook and acquired a collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts. Her niece Mrs. Steele, in her biography of Harriet’s son Arthur, gives a description of Harriet which highlights the importance of art in her life. She states that Harriet was a ‘woman of high culture and of unusual artistic power. During the years the many years, I might say, that she spent abroad, her sketches and water-colour drawings assisted the records of her graphic pen in reproducing for the benefit of those left behind the beauties of the scenery in which she delighted. Egypt, Palestine, the lovely island of Corfu […] it became a very magazine of bright impressions and happy recollections (Steele, 1891, pg 24).

A woman of high culture and of unusual artistic power
— Steele, 1891

Harriet set off for Egypt, from London, in October 1846, sailing first to France and then travelling overland by road and river to Marseilles, from where she set sail for Alexandria on the steamship SS Egyptus. She spent a number weeks in Cairo (Figure 2) where she became acquainted with some prominent Europeans ,including Sir Charles Augustus Murray, The Lieders, Sophia Poole and Poole’s brother, the famous author and orientalist, Edward William Lane.

   Figure 2. View of Cairo from Hotel Balcony, December 6th, 1847.


Figure 2. View of Cairo from Hotel Balcony, December 6th, 1847.

Two dahabeyas were hired in Cairo; the smaller was inhabited by the boys, Mr. Wood and the dogs, while the larger was for Harriet and Hoddy and was used as a reception area for visitors. Harriet referred to the dahabeya as her ‘pleasant little home’, and it was not especially luxurious, being furnished simply with beds, a table, six chairs and some shelves for books, along with a small kitchen. They sailed to upper Egypt as far as the Sudan before making their way back to Lower Egypt, stopping at temples and sites on their way. Her diaries and sketches capture describe visits to Thebes, Karnak, Kom Ombo and the Nubia region.

Harriet’s religious leanings may have inspired her before she arrived in Cairo to consider following the route of the Israelites, and while she was there the Lieders convinced her to complete this trip, as her diary entry for 4th November states: ‘Mr Lieder called and told us much about desert travel and advised us after the Nile to make the journey to Jerusalem by Mount Sinai’. So, following the Nile trip, Harriet and her family endured a grueling trip through the Sinai desert by camel. In the company of Harriet Martineau, the party left Cairo in February 1847, taking a route along the Red Sea and arriving at St. Catherine’s Monastery in early March.

The route to Sinai was not one that was often taken by Europeans, and Martineau comments in her own travel diary that ‘only three European parties had ever passed this way before us: and the novelty did, we believe, attract the attention of the roving Arabs who saw us, though they took good care that we should not see them’ (Martineau 1848, 294). From here they travelled to Petra and on to Hebron, which they reached in March 1847. They continued to Bethlehem, Jericho, Jerusalem, Damascus and Beirut, returning to Jerusalem on several occasions. After their journeys through, what are now, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria the Kavanagh party passed another winter in Lower Egypt. During her time travelling Harriet amassed a small collection of mostly Ancient Egyptian artifacts (Figure 3). The eclectic collection comprises over 300 objects, ranging from Greek glass to modern facsimiles of ancient Egyptian objects.

After returning to Ireland, Harriet was elected into the Kilkenny Archaeological Society in 1851 (Kilkenny Archaeological Society 1855, 180). It was to this society that her collection of Egyptian artefacts was bequeathed after her death in 1885. The society became the Royal Society of Antiquities of Ireland in 1890, after several name changes (Corlett 2007, pg. 83). The Society loaned the Kavanagh collection to the National Museum of Ireland in February 1920 and some of her objects are now on public display.

Figure 3. Fine faience figurine of the god Ptah, in the form of a dwarf and faience figurine of the goddess Isis (National History Museum of Ireland)

Figure 3. Fine faience figurine of the god Ptah, in the form of a dwarf and faience figurine of the goddess Isis (National History Museum of Ireland)

Lady Harriet is one of the first known Irish female traveller to Egypt and should be commended and recognized for her essential contribution to the study of travel to Egypt in the 19th century. Her sketches skillfully depict a forgotten Egypt and her diaries highlight the harsh travel conditions she and her family endured. For this reason, she is comparable to her more famous contemporary counterparts, such as Sophia Poole and her Sinai travel companion Harriet Martineau, and yet arguably Harriet Kavanagh’s achievement can be viewed as more admirable considering the fact that she travelled without a male companion and with three children, one of whom was disabled in a time when independent travel by a woman was not customary. An “exciting business” indeed.


Corlett, C. (2007) ‘The Kilkenny Museum (1849–1910) of the Royal Society of Antiquities of Ireland’. Old Kilkenny Review 59, 80–97.

Dawson, W. R. and Uphill, E. P. (1972) Who was Who in Egyptology. 2nd edn. London, The Egypt Exploration Society. 3rd edn, M. Bierbrier (ed.), published in 1995.

Foster, S. (2004) ‘Colonialism and Gender in the East: Representations of the Harem in the Writings of Women Travellers’. The Yearbook of English Studies 34: Nineteenth-Century Travel Writing, 6–17.

Jackson, E. (2013). "An Irish Woman in Egypt: the Travels of Lady Harriet Kavanagh, Chapter 6" in Travellers and Collectors (ed. Fortenbury, D.), Association of Studies in Egypt and the Near East. Oxbow Publications.

Lodge, E. (1832) The Peerage of the British Empire as at Present Existing. London, Saunders and otley.

Martineau, H. (1848) Eastern Life, Present and Past. Philadelphia, Lea and Blanchard.

Murphy, D. (2012). "Kavanagh, Lady Harriet Margaret Le Poer Trench". Dictionary of Irish Biography. (ed.) James McGuire, James Quinn. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

O’Cleirigh, N. (1994) ‘Borris Lace’. Irish Arts Review Yearbook 10, 140–42.

Rees, J. (2008) Women on the Nile. Cairo, American University in Cairo Press.

Steele, S. L. (1891) The Right Honourable Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh: A Biography. London, MacMillan and Co.

Thompson, J. (1996) ‘Edward William Lane’s Description of Egypt’. International Journal of Middle East Studies 28/4, 565–83.