Conolly, Thomas (1738?–1803), landowner and politician, was born probably in 1738, the only surviving son of William James Conolly (d. 1754), MP for Ballyshannon and owner of Castletown, Celbridge, Co. Kildare, and estates in Donegal, Londonderry, Meath and at least five other Irish counties, as well as a property in Staffordshire, England. Conolly's mother was Lady Anne (née Wentworth) (1713–97), daughter of the 1st earl of Strafford (of the second creation). Thomas Conolly's great-uncle was William Conolly (qv), known as ‘Speaker’ Conolly. After an education at Westminster School (from 1750 to 1754) and at the Académie de Genève (1755), and a grand tour (he was in Rome by 1758), he married, on 30 December 1758, Louisa Augusta Lennox, third daughter of the 2nd duke of Richmond (1701–50). Aged only 15, she brought him a dowry of £10,000 and, as Lady Louisa Conolly (qv), proved a most amiable wife. In 1758, four years after succeeding his father, he owned Irish estates with an annual value of over £16,000, but also had inherited debts of £36,000. When he and Lady Louisa settled at Castletown in October 1759, he was considered one of the richest commoners in Ireland. He was also very well connected through his seven sisters and his wife. Lady Louisa's older sister Emilia Mary was married to the 1st duke of Leinster (qv), who lived nearby at Carton.
Conolly had political careers in both the British and the Irish houses of commons, being MP for Malmesbury (1759–68), which was in the gift of his father-in-law, and for Chichester (1768–80), as well as MP for County Londonderry (1761–1800). At Westminster he spoke only occasionally and then usually on Irish affairs. After 1768 he was a Rockingham whig. As he was the owner of estates around Limavady, Muff, and Bellaghy, his election for County Londonderry in October 1761 was unopposed. In the Irish house of commons he was respected for his social position, honesty and affability, but he was only an adequate parliamentarian.
In 1762 Conolly became a member of the Irish privy council. Many minor, quasi-honorary offices were granted to him. Until 1789 he held office as a lord of the treasury and a commissioner of trade. During the years 1776–80, when the 2nd earl of Buckinghamshire (qv), his sister Caroline's husband, was lord lieutenant of Ireland, he was close to Dublin Castle. Even when active in the Volunteer movement in the early 1780s, he remained on good terms with the administration, but opposed the commercial propositions in 1785. The regency crisis of 1788–9 brought him into prominence among the opposition and he was a founder of the Irish Whig Club in 1790. Like other Irish whigs in the 1790s, Conolly favoured parliamentary reform and catholic relief, albeit cautiously, for he was fundamentally conservative.
At the formation of the militia in 1793, he was appointed colonel of both the Londonderry and the Kildare regiments. In February 1797 he appealed for the catholics directly to the prince of Wales, and in the same year he resigned from the Kildare militia in protest against the military action taken in Ulster by General Gerard Lake (qv). In 1798 Conolly was inactive, having relatives on both the rebel and the government sides; from then on he was in low spirits on account of the insurgency and a family dispute arising from the death of his mother, who had always intervened in all his affairs, in March 1797. Under the influence, probably, of Lord Castlereagh (qv), son-in-law of his sister Caroline, he supported the proposed union between Ireland and Great Britain. In May 1800, some months before it became effective, he gave up his seat. As a politician he was by all accounts inconsistent – Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv) thought him ‘a strange rambling fool’ (Writings, i, 274), but he was well regarded by many contemporaries as a man of principle and the leading Irish commoner in politics.
As squire of Celbridge, ‘Tom’ Conolly followed foxhounds, bred and raced thoroughbreds, entertained hospitably, and was generally regarded with affection and respect. His preference for the life of a country gentleman and his decency and kind-heartedness are evident in his membership of the Kildare knot of the Friendly Brothers of St Patrick, a club formed not merely for conviviality but for the discouragement of duelling. He died at Castletown on 27 April 1803 and was buried nearby.
Just as he was reckoned the richest commoner in Ireland – he owned land in ten counties and in 1799 had an income of about £27,000 – his house was reckoned the finest: he spent £25,000 on improvements. His only child being a son by a mistress, his property passed to his widow, to whom he had always left the management of his domestic affairs, and after her death in 1821, to his grand-nephew Edward Michael Pakenham (1786–1848), grandson of his second sister, Harriet Staples, and son of Sir Thomas Pakenham. On inheriting, Edward Pakenham assumed the name Conolly. Thomas Conolly owed his political position to the possessions amassed by his great-uncle and to his connections by birth and marriage. ‘His ideas of politics’, wrote Sir Jonah Barrington (qv), ‘were limited and confused’ (Barrington, Rise and fall). Squire Conolly, as he was called, was happy to remain a country gentleman.