Kildare Voice 31 August 2007
Kildare-based families dominated the irish political scene for four decades in the 18th century
For four decades in the 18th century, Kildare placed itself at the heart of Irish politics. The most powerful politicians in the country lived within a few miles of each other in North Kildare – giving the county a prominence not known since the heydays of the Fitzgeralds.
Their power was practically unrestricted, and although some of their names have passed into popular culture (a bar in Celbridge is still known as the Speaker’s Bar), the hegemony of the Conolly’s and Ponsonby’ largely forgotten.
They came to prominence because of the undertaker system, a peculiar by-product of the Williamite wars. Undertakers were local power brokers, those Irish protestants who offered their services to the king to sort out troublesome legislation.
In return undertakers expected to be consulted regarding policy and to receive a substantial share in the patronage the colonial administration had at its disposal. It meant big political and church jobs for sons, brothers, cousins and supporters.
The system was dominated by three families in its heyday, and two of them were from Kildare.
When the first of the great undertakers, William Conolly from Castletown died in 1729, he was succeeded in his role of undertaker by his nephew, Ralph Gore, a horse racing enthusiast. But Gore’s power slipped away, despite the support of his Aunt Catherine Conolly and her Conyngham relatives.
He held on as Undertaker, if not speaker, until he too died in 1733, and Henry Boyle from Cork stepped in to the role, supported by Conolly’s neighbours the Fitzgeralds of Carton.
The Boyles until the money bill dispute ended with a division of power between Boyle and another great Kildare family, the Ponsonby’s of Bishopscourt, who became the most powerful in the history of the county.
Brabazon Ponsonby (1679-1758), had landed himself the role of revenue commissioner under the Duke of Devonshire, lord lieutenant 1737-45.
His family intermarried with the Duke’s children, and a powerful alliance with Archbishop Stone to challenge the dominance of Henry Boyle in 1753. Boyle was dismissed, but managed to rally enough support to have the job shared out with the Ponsonby’s.
In the compromise which resulted, John Ponsonby became speaker and the leading undertaker. The patronage at their disposal meant that Ponsonby’s occupied leading titles and bishoprics all over the country.
His reign came to an end when London looked for Ireland’s share of the army to be increased to 15,000 troops in 1759. Dublin lost the argument, probably because Boyle and Ponsonby demanded too high a price for supporting the measure, and the power of the Ponsonby’s and the either undertaker system was effectively broken.
Even after the George Townshend’s viceroyalty brought the undertaker system to a halt and undertakers gave way to direct management (which usually meant bribery) by a resident lord lieutenant, the Ponsonby’s held on to a good deal of their power.
The family returned to political favour under the Duke of Portland, Lord Lieutenant 1782, under whom John Ponsonby’s sons William Brabazon Ponsonby 1744-1806) and George Ponsonby (1755-1817) became respectively postmaster-general and first counsel to the revenue commissioners.
Both were dismissed for their stand on the regency issue and became opponents of the administration, forming an unlikely alliance with Henry Grattan. John Ponsonby was, with Grattan, a founder of the Whig club in Dublin in 1789. He supported Catholic emancipation, and after his death George sponsored a bill for parliamentary reform and led the opposition to the Union.
It has been said their commitment to both may well have been largely opportunistic, a signal to Dublin Castle that the family was for sale, should they be given renewed access to enough patronage.
After the Union, the Ponsonby’s briefly returned to prominence in London. From 1808 to 1817 George Ponsonby led the Whig Party at Westminster but at a time of Tory extremist hegemony (one of his opponents was shot dead in the House of Commons) he never came close to becoming Ireland’s first and Kildare’s only Prime Minister of England.
Instead that honour went to a Dublin or a Meath family in 1828.
Instead George Ponsonby is most famous for misinforming the Westminster House of Commons that the Irish bishops had allowed a Royal veto over Catholic Church appointments.
There was another Prime Ministerial connection. Caroline Ponsonby famously married Melbourne, the English Prime Mini8ster after whom Australia’s second city is named, leaving him to have an affair with the poet Lord Byron.
Kildare, meanwhile went on to supply three Ministers of Finance and an EU commissioner to the Independent Irish State. We haven’t had a Taoiseach yet, nor will it be likely that any of our political leaders will leave a legacy comparable to Bishopscourt and Castletown.
26 Apr 1756 John Ponsonby elected Speaker of the House of
10 May 1758 Archbishop Stone, the Earl of Shannon and Speaker Ponsonby sworn in as L.J.s
24 Feb. 1771 Government opposition led by the Ponsonbys 132 votes to107
26 Feb 1771. John Ponsonby, resigns as speaker after refusing to present the customary address to the King; riots ensue, quelled by military
26 June 1789 Whig Club formed in Dublin by the Earl of Charlemont, Henry Grattan and John Ponsonby, to fight for internal reform and to resist a legislative union
12 Dec. 1789 John Ponsonby dies at age 76
4 Mar 1794. George Ponsonby bill for parliamentary reform rejected (142-44).
15 May 1797 Grattan and Ponsonby’s withdraw from parliament when reform bill defeated (117-30)
22 June 1799 George Ponsonby’s resolution ‘that the House would be ready to enter into any measure short of surrendering their free ‘ resident, and independent legislature as established in 1782’ passes by majority of two
1808-13 George Ponsonby leads Whig opposition in English House of Commons
1817 8 July George Ponsonby dies at age of 62
Eoghan Corry examines the powerful Co. Kildare family connections in national politics – particularly the Ponsonby family – The Kildare Voice, 31 August 2007. Our thanks to Eoghan.