Political dynasties were a feature of the political landscape of eighteenth-century Britain and Ireland. A product in the first instance of the hierarchical order that was a defining characteristic of Europe’s ancien regime, their emergence and survival was sustained by social deference and by a political system that facilitated the perpetuation by the elite of electoral control. In respect of the former, the preparedness of those outside the elite to entrust the responsibility of governing to their social superiors was demonstrated by the preparedness of voters, freeholders and freemen, to cast their ballot as their landlords directed for candidates the latter deemed appropriate. The electoral system played a crucial part by permitting determined individuals and ambitious interests to bring a majority of the kingdom’s 109 boroughs that were responsible for returning 218 of the 300 members in the House of Commons within their control. This was possible because most boroughs had a small electorate. In corporation boroughs without freemen, which numbered 55, the right to vote was restricted to three borough officers and thirteen burgesses. The electorate in corporation boroughs with freemen, which numbered 36, was larger, but even in the thirty-two county constituencies and the county boroughs that embraced eight of the country’s main urban centres, where the electorate could number several thousand, the ability of landowners to instruct freeholders and freemen how to cast their vote ensured that the membership of the House of Commons came overwhelmingly from the landed elite. Their capacity to shape the representation was facilitated, prior to 1768, by the absence of provision for regular general elections, which might have encouraged greater voter independence and, other than the short-lived party system of Queen Anne’s reign (1703-14), by the absence of party alignments that might have posited ideological alternatives that challenged or diminished the tradition of voter deference.
Arising out of this, influential families were enabled to dominate the representation of individual constituencies for long stretches, and thereby to ensure that those chosen to sit in parliament were family members or nominees who were content to conduct themselves as directed by the current leader of the family. This can be demonstrated, for example, by reference to the boroughs of Athenry, County Galway, which was long controlled and represented by members of the Blakeney family; Athlone, County Westmeath, which long returned a member of the St George family; Doneraile, County Cork, which was controlled by the St Legers; and Ratoath, County Meath, which was dominated by the Lowthers. In these and many other instances, influential or ambitious local interests were generally content to establish control over a geographically contiguous borough, and to endeavour to maintain the status and influence gained thereby by tightly controlling access in order to maintaining their ascendancy within a constituency. However, there were others, with loftier ambitions and generally larger estates that aspired to exercise influence at a national level. They recognised that if they could bring a number of boroughs under control and ensure the election of family members and friends who were willing to act in concert, they could wield disproportionate influence in parliament. More tangibly, they could use the consequence this gave them with the Irish administration at Dublin Castle, which required a majority in the House of Commons to process the legislation upon which the stability of the kingdom and a smooth Anglo-Irish nexus depended, to obtain power and the perquisites of power – remunerative office, pensions and peerages – for themselves and their dependents. The families that did this most successfully reads like a who’s who of the most prominent landed families in eighteenth-century Ireland. They include the Brodricks of Midleton, County Cork, the Conollys of Castletown, County Kildare, the Agars of Gowran, County Kilkenny, the Fosters of Dunleer, County Louth, the Beresfords of Curraghmore, County Waterford, the Fitzgeralds of Carton, County Kildare and the Boyles of Castlemartyr, County Cork. Of these, the most powerful parliamentary connexion was that built by Henry Boyle upon the ruins of the once formidable Brodrick connection. Maintained by Boyle from the early 1730s until his death in 1762, when its management passed to his son, the second Earl Shannon, it provided the basis for the Boyles’s eminence in eighteenth-century Irish politics and was the source in considerable part of the income and influence they required to sustain their high standing. Others, envious of Boyle’s influence, aspired not just to emulate their achievement but also to displace them as the dominant interest.
The most serious challenge was provided by the Ponsonbys of Bessborough, Pilltown, County Kilkenny. Their emergence as a family of consequence during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was a logical consequence in the first instance of their broad acres and their commitment to the maintenance of a Protestant interest in Ireland. However, like the Boyles and other ambitious aristocratic families, they hungered after power and the elevated status this brought. Guided by Brabazon, first Earl Bessborough, who was enabled by substantially expanding the family estate, by forging advantageous dynastic alliances, and by constructing a powerful political interest to advance this ambition dramatically, they were in a position by the early 1750s to challenge Henry Boyle. They never enjoyed the unrivalled ascendancy Boyle enjoyed at his peak, not least because they did not possess a leader of Henry Boyle’s skill, and because the circumstances in which they exercised power were less politically stable. None the less, they remained an effective force in Irish politics throughout the late eighteenth century. Moreover, because they adapted better than most (the Boyles included) to the emergence of party alignments and embraced the demand for political and constitutional reform in the 1790s and afterwards, they not alone successfully negotiated the transition to the united parliament brought into being by the Act of Union, they remained a political force of some consequence at Westminster for much of the nineteenth century.
2. The emergence of the Ponsonbys in Ireland
The first representative of the Ponsonbys to settle in Ireland was Colonel Sir John Ponsonby. Originally from Haile in Cumberland, Ponsonby came to Ireland with Oliver Cromwell in 1649 and was rewarded for his military services with a knighthood and an extensive parcel of land in south County Kilkenny. Unlike many Cromwellian soldiers, who were content to realise the financial value of the lands they were granted, John Ponsonby aspired to build up a large estate in Ireland. The owner of a modest 57 acres in County Kilkenny prior to the outbreak of rebellion in 1641, whose defeat precipitated one of the largest transfers of land in Irish history and consolidated the foundations of the anglophone aristocratic elite in Ireland, he was enabled to advance his ambition by the acquisition of several parcels of land in the county, in which he was confirmed in possessed by the Act of Settlement (Document 1). The largest of these, previously in the possession of the Anglo-Norman family of D’Alton, after whom it was named Kildalton, was located in the Suir Valley in south Kilkenny. Ponsonby signalled his intention of make this his place of residence and of creating an estate according to the English model he esteemed by building a large house and by renaming the estate Bessborough in honour of his second wife, Elizabeth. He also harboured political ambitions and, having served during the 1650s as sheriff of counties Wicklow and Kildare, he was elected in the early 1660s to represent County Kilkenny in the Irish parliament. Ponsonby was not a high profile member of the House of Commons, and the refusal of Charles II to authorise a further parliament during his lifetime limited his political opportunities. However, by the time of his death in 1678, aged 60, he had successfully established the Ponsonbys in County Kilkenny and on the Irish political horizon.
Sir John Ponsonby was succeeded by his eldest son, Henry. He shared his father’s stern Protestantism and he attracted the hostile attention of the authorities during the late 1680s when the presence on the throne of the Catholic James II made for a difficult environment for Protestants in Ireland. Included in the infamous Act of Attainder approved by the Jacobite Parliament in 1689, which declared 2470 named Protestants traitors and directed that their lands should be seized, the future looked distinctly bleak for the Ponsonbys at this time. Henry’s brother William (1659-1724), who was a military officer, had previously been dismissed from the army as part of the policy pursued by James II’s Irish lord deputy, the Earl of Tyrconnell, to catholicise the army. Redemption came in the form of William of Orange. His elevation to the throne in 1688 at the expense of James II in an event its supporters termed the Glorious Revolution was warmly welcomed by Protestants across the British Isles. The Ponsonbys shared these positive sentiments, and were warm supporters of the Protestant succession for several generations thereafter. William Ponsonby’s willingness to join with other Protestants in the mid-1690s in signing the Association for the protection of William III, and the efforts of his grandson, John, to raise four independent companies of horse to assist with the defence of the kingdom in 1745-6 when Irish Protestants apprehended a Jacobite invasion are indicative of the Ponsonby’s enduring commitment to the maintenance of an explicitly Protestant establishment.
These demonstrations of loyalty were in the future. The commitment they reflected was forged in the difficult environment of 1689-90. Henry Ponsonby spent these years in the comparative safety of England, but William, his brother, was actively engaged in the military struggle to defeat the Jacobites. He was at Londonderry in 1689 during the siege, and he achieved a measure of renown during his lifetime as one of the military officers who comprised the council at war that determined to resist ‘the Irish enemy with their utmost force and to continue the war against them to the last, for their own and all Protestants preservation in this kingdom’ (Document 2). Celebrated thereafter in popular doggeral as ‘Ponsonby [the] brave’ who saved ‘the threatened walls of Derry’, the immediate consequence of his military exploits was his promotion to the rank of Colonel.
The more significant outcome of this episode, and of the subsequent defeat of the Jacobite army at the battles of the Boyne, Aughrim and the surrender at Limerick was that it secured the Ponsonbys in possession of the extensive lands they had acquired a generation earlier in County Kilkenny. Indeed, they were enabled to increase their estate, as William Ponsonby availed of the opportunity provided by the Commissioners for the sale of forfeited estates to purchase a modest parcel of 281 acres of land forfeited to the crown by defeated Jacobites in 1702-3. He also acquired a long lease on 1200 acres of Dalton land from the Duke of Ormond. As his brother Henry had died heirless by this point, William was now head of the family, and he demonstrated that he was as eager as his father to play a political role by securing the return to parliament in 1692 for the constituency of County Kilkenny.
William Ponsonby represented County Kilkenny for 29 years, until his elevation to the peerage in 1721. In the interval, he demonstrated that he was a politician of some skill and ability by taking a prominent part in the business of the House of Commons. Consistent with his strong Protestant convictions, he was an active member of the Dublin Castle faction that pursued the impeachment in 1695 of the controversial Lord Chancellor, Charles Porter, whom many believed was a crypto-Jacobite. He also favoured the ratification of the Penal Laws against Catholics as necessary for Protestant security, but it is significant that as a member of parliament for the Duke of Ormond’s County Kilkenny, which was a stronghold of Toryism during the reign of Queen Anne, he accommodated these opinions in parliament and in the locality. His own convictions remained firmly Whig, however, which paid dividends in 1715 when, following the accession of the Protestant House of Hanover to the British and Irish thrones, he was sworn a privy councillor. He repaid this trust by actively supporting the Dublin Castle administration, and he was the beneficiary of subsequent rewards when he was raised to the peerage as Baron Bessborough in 1721. Eighteen months later, he became Viscount Duncannon. With an annual income estimated at £2,000 in the mid-1710s, it was apparent by the time of William’s death in 1724 that the Ponsonbys were firmly established among the leading Protestant families of County Kilkenny. His eldest son Brabazon was to build on this achievement.
3. Forging a powerful political connection
Brabazon Ponsonby (1659-1758) entered parliament as MP for the borough of Newtownards in 1705. A talented and exceptionally ambitious man, he was enabled to secure his election for the borough as a result of an advantageous marriage, to Sarah Colvill. Still more indicatively, he contrived in his capacity as MP for Newtownards, which he represented personally to 1714, to establish a commanding interest in the constituency that he was able, famously, to maintain though ownership of the soil passed in 1744 to the Stewarts of Castlereagh. He, meanwhile, secured his election to the Irish parliament in 1715 for the constituency of County Kildare. These were significant achievements, but they would have counted for little if Brabazon had not also contrived during the early years of the Hanoverian succession to cast off his earlier Tory affiliations and to reposition him within the ranks of the country’s largest Whig connexion, which was commanded by William Conolly. Encouraged by Conolly’s example, by the example of his father who had briefly controlled the County Kilkenny borough of Inistioge, and by his own achievement in bringing Newtownards under his command to establish his own connexion, he built this initially around his brother, Henry Ponsonby, who represented Fethard, County Wexford during the reign of George I (1714-27). However, it was not until he took his seat in the House of Lords as Viscount Duncannon, following his father’s death in 1724, and the coming of age a year later of his eldest son William (1704-93), whose election he oversaw first for Newtownards (1725-27) and, subsequently, for County Kilkenny (1727-58), that it emerged that Duncannon was determined to establish the Ponsonbys as one of the leading families in Ireland. If order to achieve this ambition, he had to increase the wealth, influence and standing of the family.
With this goal in mind, Duncannon expanded his estate by purchasing some 10,000 acres in County Carlow to add to the 17,000 acres he already possessed in County Kilkenny, and the 2,000 acres he had obtained by his marriage to Sarah Colvill at Bishopscourt, County Kildare. This placed him securely among the major landowners of the country, and conscious that he required a new residence in keeping with his extended acreage, he replaced the seventeenth-century residence constructed by his grandfather with a large ‘handsome house of hewn limestone’, which he decorated with Kilkenny marble and a ‘valuable collection’ of continental art (Document 3). Parallel with this, Duncannon contrived to enhance his electoral profile by advantageous marriage. He married three of his daughters to local eminences which served to draw the families of Fownes, Morres and Burtons, and their electoral interests firmly into his sphere of influence, and successive members of these families were stalwarts of the expanding Ponsonby connection for decades to come. However, it was the marriage in 1739 and 1743 of his sons William and John to Caroline and Elizabeth Cavendish, the daughters of William Cavendish, 3rd Duke of Devonshire, who was lord lieutenant of Ireland between 1737 and 1745, that was key to the transformation of the Ponsonbys from just another ambitious family into a major connexion. This dynastic link provided the Ponsonbys with an entrée into the Devonshire boroughs in Counties Cork and Waterford that was to prove electorally valuable, though Duncannon had previously signalled his intention to take the challenge to Boyle in his County Cork heartland in 1738 when he purchased the seignory of Inchiquin from Devonshire, and vested it in his son John. The rise of the Ponsonbys seemed irresistible at his moment, and it was further assisted in 1739 when Duncannon’s appointment to the powerful office of first commissioner of the revenue gave him unrivalled access to one of the main sources of patronage in the kingdom. His elevation in the same year in the peerage to the rank of earl enhanced his profile still further.
Bessborough, as Duncannon now became, fully anticipated that his eldest son William, on whom he focussed his ambitions, would lead the fast expanding Ponsonby connexion in the House of Commons. William’s appointment in 1741as Devonshire’s chief secretary certainly meant that he was well placed to assume this responsibility and to take full advantage of the dramatic recent improvement in the fortunes of the Ponsonby family by expanding the dynastic connection that was built on ‘friendship’ into the political sphere (Document 4). Lord Duncannon, which was William’s courtesy title, wielded considerable influence during the four years that he served as chief secretary, but it was soon apparent that he did not possess the requisite drive to lead a successful parliamentary interest. Encouraged by his wife, Lady Caroline, who found Ireland dull and rural Kilkenny disagreeable, he opted out of Irish politics in the late 1740s and took up residence in England (Document 5). His decision to forsake Bessborough house and become an absentee was not in the family’s Irish interest, for though Duncannon joined with the influential Devonshire connexion at Westminster, politics took second place in his life thereafter to aesthetic pursuits.
Duncannon’s refusal to lead the Ponsonby connection in the Irish House of Commons dealt the vaunting ambition of the Earl of Bessborough a blow. However, he transferred them directly to his second son John (1713-87), who was already an established figure in Irish politics. First elected to the House of Commons as MP for Newtownards in 1739, John Ponsonby was appointed secretary to the revenue commissioners in 1741, and he succeeded his father as first commissioner of the revenue three years later. It was a meteoric rise by any standards; and, in the absence of his brother, it precipitated Ponsonby into pole position to succeed Henry Boyle, then the dominant presence, as the leading undertaker, or manager, in the House of Commons. Ponsonby eagerly awaited the opportunity, and contrived during the late 1740s to enhance his prospects by forging a relationship with the English-born primate, Archbishop George Stone, who shared the conclusion of some English officials in Ireland that Boyle’s influence in the House of Commons was at the expense of the Irish executive, and that it was vital for the security of British government in Ireland that Boyle was replaced and Dublin Castle’s power augmented (Document 6).The prospect of this happening was enhanced by the appointment in 1750 of a new lord lieutenant, the Duke of Dorset, and a new chief secretary, Lord George Sackville, to head the Irish executive. This prompted a still more intense jockeying for position in the early 1750s, and though the Ponsonbys fared second best in most of these they determined in advance of the 1753-4 session to intensify the struggle. Spurred on by Sackville and Stone, Ponsonby summoned ‘every man’ in his now extensive connexion to attend in order to make it clear that the administration had the numbers to govern without Boyle and his allies, but their plan came to grief when their inability in December 1753 to secure approval for a money bill to which Boyle was opposed precipitated a major political crisis —the Money Bill dispute.
Bessborough, Primate Stone and Duke of Dorset were confident initially that Boyle had over-stepped the mark by taking this pre-emptive action, and that the way was clear for John Ponsonby to step into Boyle’s shoes (Document 6).. The dismissal of Boyle and a number of his allies from office was encouraging initially, but the British government was disinclined to take any action that might make a difficult situation still worse. Moreover, Patriot sentiment in Ireland, which had received a palpable boost as a result of the dispute, was hostile to Dorset, Stone and the Ponsonbys, and as the crisis deepened, so too did the government’s eagerness to reach a compromise that would offer something to all sides except Stone, who was pushed out into the cold. This did not appeal strongly to the Ponsonbys, but since the settlement that was concluded in 1756 met Boyle’s terms for resigning as speaker of the House of Commons, they had no reasonable grounds for objection. Encouraged to compromise by the Duke of Devonshire (Document 4), they emerged from the crisis in strong position and in occupation of the critical position of speaker of the House of Commons, as John Ponsonby was elected Boyle’s successor without opposition.
4. Speaker John Ponsonby
As first commissioner of the revenue and speaker of the House of Commons, John Ponsonby was the most powerful Irish politician. His predecessors in this position – William Conolly and Henry Boyle – had used the influence this had brought them both to rewards their friends, family and supporters and to facilitate the ratification of legislation, consistent with the maintenance of a harmonious Anglo-Irish connection, deemed desirable by Irish Protestants. John Ponsonby aspired to do likewise, but the death of the Earl of Bessborough in 1758 deprived him, and the Ponsonby connexion, of their real leader and exposed, what those close to him already knew, his many limitations. Though John Ponsonby was neither as ‘dull’, ‘foolish’ nor as unskilled in the arts of leadership as his many critics alleged (Documents 7, 8), his uncertainty as to the balance he should strike between working with the Irish administration and responding to the demands of public opinion ensured that he got off to a rocky start as speaker and chief undertaker in the House of Commons. His unease was compounded by a faltering performance in the Speaker’s chair, which meant that he sometimes required assistance from the floor (Document 8). However, he was adept at deploying patronage, even if his tendency to promise more than was available earned him the unflattering nickname ‘Jack Promise’, personally honourable (Document 8), and adept at reading Irish public opinion, though many of his contemporaries in politics deemed his inclination to respond to Irish public opinion objectionable. In truth, as his opposition to the proposal advanced in the 1760s to limit the duration of the Irish parliament to eight years emphasises, Ponsonby drew the line at change that would damage or diminish his ability to sustain the Ponsonby political interest. He was enabled thereby to ensure that the combination of family, friends and supporters on which he depended retained its coherence, and that he retained the position as the main undertaker unchallenged until the appointment of George, Lord Townshend as lord lieutenant in 1767.
Ponsonby’s initial response to rumours emanating from England that ministers were as no longer content that the lord lieutenant of Ireland should delegate the responsibility for ensuring a Commons majority to parliamentary undertakers and, in his absence, for governing Ireland to lords justices was to conclude that nothing would change. So when Lord Townshend arrived, Ponsonby and the leaders of a number of other political connexions that thought likewise sought, as was now established practice, to dictate the terms upon which they would serve the Irish administration. This failed, and in an attempt to demonstrate to the Lord Lieutenant that he could not govern Ireland on this basis, Ponsonby ensured the House of Commons rejected Townshend’s favourite measure to augment the army in 1768. It was a severe misjudgement for which he was to pay heavily, for not alone did Townshend oversee the enactment of an Octennial Act (1768), that complicated the task of maintaining a stable political connexion, the lord lieutenant determined to take up residence in Ireland for the duration of his appointment, thereby negating the primary reason for the undertaker system.
Faced with such a resolute opponent, a wise politician would have sought to compromise. However, Ponsonby opted for confrontation by ensuring the rejection in 1769 of a money bill that provided the administration with the funds required to pay for the government of Ireland. Townshend responded in kind; he dismissed Ponsonby as first commissioner of the revenue in 1770, which was one of his main sources of power, and when Ponsonby further misjudged the mood of MPs in 1771 and impulsively resigned the speakership rather than present the lord lieutenant with an address, Townshend seized the opportunity to ensure the election of a less objectionable figure (Document 9).
This was a disastrous outcome for John Ponsonby and his extensive family interest, as it meant that the influence the family had carefully built up over several generations, and which was crucial to his ability to sustain a dominant political connection, had been much diminished at a stroke. The impact of Ponsonby’s misjudgement was compounded by the defection of some of his erstwhile supporters, though the ‘cousinhood’, as the Ponsonby connection was widely termed because so many of its members were related, remained largely intact and was capable during the 1770s and 1780s of returned as many as 20 MPs. This ensured that no administration could ignore the Ponsonbys, but it was also insufficient to allow John Ponsonby regain the office he most coveted – the speakership of the House of Commons – though he contrived unsuccessfully to do so in 1776. Regarded with barely concealed contempt by Castle insiders (Document 8) and with suspicion by Patriots, he increasingly left the business of managing the connexion to his sons, William Brabazon (1744-1806) and George (1755-1817). He died in 1787.
5. Embracing Whig politics
William Brabazon inherited his father’s obsession with regaining the speakership of the Irish Commons. He canvassed support on two occasions (1785 and 1790) but the legacy of distrust attached to the Ponsonbys arising out of their undertaker days ensured he was unsuccessful. Described memorably by one informed contemporary as ‘a better sportsman than a parliamentarian’, he did not neglect his parliamentary duties or his responsibilities as leader of the Ponsonby connection, but he was content to allow his more capable younger brother, George, take over from him. It was George who was responsible for re-orientating the Ponsonbys and their connection away from the rather stale, if not financially unrewarding, politics of faction in which they remained fixed during the 1770s and 1780s to the more ideological political agenda implicit in their identification with the emerging Whig party.
The Ponsonbys first opportunity to embrace the politics of party followed the appointment of the Whig Duke of Portland as lord lieutenant of Ireland in 1782. Convinced that the Ponsonbys would, in his words, provide the basis for ‘a real Whig party in Ireland’, he encouraged George, with whom he was on closest terms, to embrace the role then and in 1783, but George Ponsonby’s willingness was not shared by his father or by a majority of MPs in the connexion at that time. However, when the Ponsonbys joined unsuccessfully with the British Whigs in 1788-9 in an attempt to make George, Prince of Wales regent in response to the ‘madness’ of George III, they reacted to their dismissal from the offices they had accrued since the late 1770s for opposing the Irish administration during the Regency crisis by becoming founding members of an Irish Whig Club.
This was a turning point in the history of the Ponsonby family. Committed from this point to the promotion of a programme of moderate reforms, the reformist reputation of the connexion was enhanced by George Ponsonby’s readiness to make his considerable legal abilities available to political defendants in a number of high profile court cases in the early 1790s (Document 10). He was less sympathetic to the example of the French Revolution, and he explicitly criticised the efforts of radical groups like the United Irishmen ‘to introduce French systems’. However, he supported Catholic relief and the admission of Catholics to the political process. His advocacy of parliamentary reform was equally significant though his attempts in 1793 and 1794 to secure the ratification of a bill ‘for the more equal representation of the people’ were unsuccessful. This notwithstanding, the Ponsonbys’ reputation as a reforming interest, and their embrace within the broad Whig Party interest was reinforced in 1794-5 by the appointment of their fellow Whig Earl Fitzwilliam as lord lieutenant of Ireland.
This was the opportunity the Ponsonbys, and others, had long awaited to put their distinctive stamp on Irish politics. But in their eagerness to insert themselves in key positions in the Irish administration and to advance a programme of reforms, the most controversial elements of which was a proposal to admit Catholics to parliament, they encouraged an impolitic policy of dismissals and was more than the government could countenance (Document 11). The dramatic recall of Fitzwilliam early in 1795 resulted in their being pushed out onto the political margins once more. Convinced that the security-focussed approach favoured by a majority of those in power and by the numerically preponderant conservatives in the Commons was ideologically unsound as well as politically inappropriate in that it encouraged rather than discouraged radicalism, the Ponsonbys joined their fellow Whigs in Britain and Ireland in withdrawing from parliament in protest at the failure to pursue a more constructive approach in 1797.
The Ponsonbys’ absence from parliament proved brief. George Ponsonby was back in the House of Commons in time to take a distinguished part in opposing the Act of Union in 1799-1800. It was appropriate that he should pursue this line so effectively, for though the Ponsonby connexion had lost some of its organisational coherence in the ideologically highly charged atmosphere of the 1790s, the abolition of the Irish parliament effectively spelled its end as a political force. The outcome was not so negative for the leading members of the Ponsonby family. With extensive connections in the upper reaches of British society borne out of personal contact and the extensive network of the second Earl of Bessborough, the expectation was that William Brabazon and George would shift their political focus from Dublin to London. Neither man had any difficulty in obtaining a seat at Westminster, and in common with other opponents of the Act of Union ideologically attached to the British Whigs, they adapted easily to the imperial legislature. The Whigs accepted them without reserve, and were instrumental in securing a British peerage—Baron Ponsonby—for William Brabazon when he retired from active politics in 1806. George meanwhile flourished in the Whigs ranks. He served, without distinction, as Lord Chancellor of Ireland in 1806-07, and he assumed the leadership of the Whig Party for some time thereafter. He was not an especially effective leader, parliamentary performer or political strategist, but his continued prominence till his death in 1817 was emblematical of a family for whom political engagement was a logical corollary of their aristocratic status.
Over a period of more than a century and a half from when Colonel John Ponsonby took his seat in the Irish House of Commons in 1661, the Ponsonbys were not just a presence but also a prominent presence in Irish political life. It is ironical that throughout this time they never quite seemed to achieve the degree of influence to which they aspired, but this was an experience they shared with most interests. In their case, it was due in no small part to the personal limitations as well as political misjudgements of family members over several generations. These are most readily identifiable with respect of Speaker Ponsonby and his son George, but they are no less true of their elder brothers, while the Tory inclinations of the first Earl of Bessborough, who may reasonably be regarded as the architect of the family connection, demonstrates that he too was not without his capacity for misjudgement. This notwithstanding, the Ponsonbys were enabled successfully over several generations to sustain a parliamentary connexion that was the largest in the Irish parliament. They were permitted thereby to secure a substantial share of the spoils of power for themselves and their friends, to maintain a place at the centre of affairs over many decades, and to perform some service on behalf of the Protestant interest of which they were an eminent and not untypical example. Moreover, their adaptability, demonstrated by their embrace of the politics of reform, Catholic relief and the politics of party, combined with their extensive estates (Document 12), to ensure that, unlike many Irish Protestant families, whose political engagement concluded with the Act of Union, they were able to continue to play a prominent part in the much changed environment of the nineteenth century.
Dr James Kelly