Conolly, William (1662–1729), politician and speaker of the Irish house of commons, was born in Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal, eldest son of Patrick and Jane Conolly.
Family background and early career The family background is obscure, Patrick Conolly traditionally being reputed to have been a publican or blacksmith, but the documentary evidence shows Patrick Conolly leasing a substantial portion of Lord Folliott's estate at Ballyshannon, including the manorial mill, suggesting he was the estate miller, a position of some importance. Certainly both Conolly and his father were attainted by the Jacobite parliament of 1689, and their estates earmarked for forfeiture. William Conolly studied law in Dublin, qualified as an attorney, and was attached to the court of common pleas in 1685. In November 1688, he was one of the Dublin based protestants who fled the city, going first to Chester, and then on to London, where he acted as clerk to a committee of ‘the gentlemen of Ireland’ who were lobbying the English parliament to intervene in Ireland. Upon his return to Ireland, he secured a number of useful legal briefs and other agencies, building on the contacts he had made in London. He became legal agent to Londonderry Corporation in 1691, while also acting for James Butler (qv), 2nd duke of Ormond, and Capt, James Hamilton (qv), later 6th earl of Abercorn. He acted as the latter's deputy in the alnage office as well as managing his Dublin properties. Conolly was also one of the Irish Society's lawyers, in their long running dispute with the bishop of Derry.
Marriage In 1694 Conolly married Katherine (Katherine Conyngham (qv)), daughter of Sir Albert Conyngham (qv) and sister of Henry Conyngham of Mount Charles, Co. Donegal. His marriage allied him to the most important political families in west Ulster, and Conolly used Katherine's dowry of £2,300 to invest in forfeited Jacobite estates. The couple had no children, although Conolly was rumoured to have fathered the son of a Mrs Dellamare. The boy died, aged eight, of smallpox in 1727 (PRO, C 110/46/528).
Conolly laid the foundation for his future fortune by speculating in and acting as an agent for the sale of forfeited Jacobite estates in the 1690s. These activities were not uncontroversial, and he was singled out for special attention during the pamphlet debate over the Act of Resumption (1700), partly because of his emergence as a leader of the campaign of ‘protestant purchasers’ against the act, but also because of allegations made against him over his dealings in confiscated estates. He was the largest purchaser of forfeited estates in the period 1699–1703, acquiring also 20,000 acres spread over five counties, spending just over £7,000.
Member of parliament The purchase of the manor of Limavady from the Philips family in 1697 gave him a basis for his electoral interest in Co. Londonderry. MP for Donegal borough (1692–3, 1695–9), he represented Co. Londonderry from 1703 to his death. He came to national prominence as one of the leaders of the Irish whig party during the intense party conflict of the reign of Queen Anne, acting in close cooperation with the whig leader, Alan Brodrick (qv). Appointed (1709) as a revenue commissioner by the whig viceroy Thomas, earl of Wharton (qv) (and allegedly paying Wharton £3,000 for the post), Conolly was dismissed on the return of the tory duke of Ormond as lord lieutenant (1710) and removed from the privy council the following year. After the accession of George I, he was restored to his places on the privy council and revenue board, and quickly established himself as ‘first’ revenue commissioner, dominating the proceedings and patronage of the revenue service till his death.
Speaker and undertaker In late 1714 Conolly reluctantly agreed to act as speaker of the house of commons, being elected unanimously at the first meeting of the new parliament (12 November 1715). Thereafter Conolly gradually established himself as the dominant figure in the management of the Irish house of commons, forming close relationships with the duke of Grafton (qv) (lord justice, 1715–16) and the joint chief secretaries, Charles Delafaye (1677–1762) and Martin Bladen (qv). He was appointed a lord justice in February 1717, a position to which he was regularly reappointed until his death. From late 1715 Conolly's relationship with Alan Brodrick, lord chancellor 1714–25, rapidly deteriorated as they competed for the position of chief manager (or ‘undertaker’) of the government's parliamentary business. The appointment of Brodrick's ally, the duke of Bolton (qv), as viceroy (1717) saw Conolly's fortunes temporarily decline. Realising the futility of opposition to the government, Conolly continued to support the court in parliament, confounding rumours that he might raise difficulties in the commons over the government's supply. Fearing exclusion from the commission of lords justices, Conolly declared: ‘I am easy when I have this parliament discharged my duty and that I defy my enemies to tax me in any one instance that I have not gone in (with all my friends) for his majesty's service and the ease of his administration, though perhaps I had not that treatment that might be expected’ (TNA (PRO), SP 63/375/208–9).
Conolly's reward for refraining from opposition came when Bolton was instructed by the ministry in London to appoint Conolly as a lord justice on the lord lieutenant's departure for England. The reappointment was primarily due to Conolly's close relationship with the earl of Sunderland. By the time that Bolton returned to Ireland (1719) Brodrick (now Viscount Midleton) had quarrelled with the lord lieutenant and Sunderland over the latter's peerage bill. The rift between Midleton and Bolton gave Conolly the opportunity to resume his position as chief undertaker, a position confirmed when his ally, the duke of Grafton, returned to Ireland as viceroy (1720). Conolly's influence was probably at its height during Grafton's viceroyalty, the speaker being described in 1723 as ‘prime minister’ by Bishop Timothy Godwin (d. 1729) of Kilmore. It is perhaps not a coincidence, that Conolly began building his great house at Castletown during this period. However, Conolly's most difficult moment also came during these years when parliamentary and popular opposition to ‘Wood's halfpence’ rendered impracticable the normal operation of politics. During the dispute (1722–5), caused by the granting of a patent to coin copper halfpence for Ireland, Conolly was compelled to join the opposition in order to retain his political credibility in Ireland. As he explained to Delafaye, ‘when you consider me as speaker of the house of commons you will agree that there is no safety for me to do or act otherwise than in conjunction with the lords justices, for the whole rest of the nation are against those halfpence’ (TNA (PRO), SP 63/384/42). His dilemma was not appreciated in England, and his failure to defend the patent angered Robert Walpole, who complained that Grafton's ‘friend Conolly . . . has been so very cunning, that he has acted a part, that almost excuses what the Brodericks have done’ (Coxe, Walpole, ii, 285–6). It was even rumoured that Conolly and Midleton made a pact in order to protect each other from future retribution by the government. Such an agreement is unlikely given the intense rivalry between the two men at this time, a rivalry exacerbated by a disputed by-election in Co. Westmeath (1723). On this occasion the catholic background of Conolly's family was used to his disadvantage when, in a ballad sung by Midleton's followers, the speaker was satirised as ‘Sir Owen McHugh’ (Eighteenth-Century Ire., iv (1989), 7–30).
The replacement of Grafton by John, 2nd Baron Carteret (qv), at the height of the Wood's halfpence dispute once more threatened Conolly's position as chief undertaker, since Carteret was a long-standing ally of the Brodrick family. The new viceroy's investigations into the state of Irish public finances led to widespread, and unfounded, rumours that Conolly had been embezzling public funds and would soon be dismissed. Carteret responded to the almost universal opposition to Wood's patent by attempting to dispense with the services of an undertaker, a decision that eventually led to the resignation of Midleton as lord chancellor in April 1725. Even after Midleton's resignation and the withdrawal of Wood's patent, Carteret maintained his distance from Conolly. After a disastrous start to the parliamentary session of 1725, however, Carteret was eventually forced to seek the speaker's help in managing the house of commons. Several weeks into the session the archbishop of Armagh, Hugh Boulter (qv), informed the ministry that ‘the management of that affair is put into the hands of the speaker and the rest of his majesty's hearty friends’ (Boulter letters, i, 39–40). Thereafter Conolly and Carteret maintained a reasonably stable relationship. Indeed the viceroy's closeness to Conolly occasionally led to disputes between Carteret and Boulter, the self-proclaimed leader of the ‘English interest’ in Ireland.
Last years The resignation of Midleton removed from office Conolly's only serious rival for the position of chief undertaker, and the speaker's dominant position in parliament was unchallenged till his death in 1729. Conolly was re-elected as speaker of the house of commons in the first session of George II's parliament and continued to serve until he collapsed in the commons (26 September 1729). He was eventually persuaded to resign the speaker's chair on 13 October, and he died at his house in Capel St., Dublin, on 30 October. He was buried in Celbridge following a spectacular public funeral, which saw the beginnings of the custom of mourners wearing linen scarves to promote the Irish linen industry.
Wealth and interest For most of the period 1715–29 Conolly was recognised as the government's most trusted parliamentary manager. His occupation of the posts of speaker of the house of commons, chief revenue commissioner, and lord justice gave him unrivalled control over parliamentary affairs, the patronage of the revenue service, and direct access to the highest levels of government. His great landed interest, family connections and private income (£17,000 p.a. at his death) also allowed him to develop the greatest electoral interest in this period, encompassing up to eight parliamentary seats in the northwest, further strengthening his political position. Conolly was the first of the great undertakers who dominated Irish politics for the bulk of the eighteenth century. The position of chief undertaker, first established by Conolly, was to be further developed and enhanced by his eventual successor, Henry Boyle (qv). The extent of Conolly's power and influence was demonstrated by the fact that his wife continued to be consulted about political and patronage affairs after his death.
Assessment Although the description of Conolly by his great rival Midleton as a ‘flattering sycophant’ (Midleton MSS, iv, f. 180) may contain more than a grain of truth, it does the speaker an injustice. Conolly remained in office for so long because he realised that to be successful as an undertaker a man needed the support of the government, and that to try to hold the court to ransom was a futile exercise. In stark contrast to Midleton, Conolly managed to remain on reasonable terms with whoever was in power. While having close connections with the Townshend–Walpole faction at Westminster, Conolly also maintained a good relationship with the earl of Sunderland, a connection that protected the speaker's position during Bolton's viceroyalty. When Conolly was appointed a lord justice by Bolton, Lord Brodrick (as he then was) complained that he was ‘a happy man who by wishing well to and acting for one set of men renders or keeps himself gracious with the other’ (Midleton MSS, iv, ff 92–4).
Conolly is an excellent example of a man who took advantage of the relatively open nature of the Irish elite in the early eighteenth century. Within three decades, a man of relatively humble origins had become perhaps the wealthiest in Ireland, certainly the most powerful politician, and had established one of the greatest of the Anglo-Irish dynasties. The physical manifestation of the spectacular success of Conolly's business and political career, and his most important legacy, is the great house which he had built at Castletown, Co. Kildare, one of the finest surviving Georgian country houses in Ireland. Conolly also played a crucial role in the building of the new houses of parliament in College Green, designed by his architectural protégé Edward Lovett Pearce (qv), who had worked at Castletown.
Conolly's correspondence and estate papers (Castletown papers) are in the Irish Architectural Archive, although there are further papers in the PRONI and the NLI. The state papers (Ireland) series in the TNA (PRO), London, also contains many letters from, and a smaller number to, him. A portrait by Charles Jervas (qv) can be seen at Castletown. His widow also erected a rather fine funerary monument, by Thomas Carter (d. 1756), to Conolly in Celbridge. Katherine Conolly survived her husband by twenty-three years, dying in 1752. The Conolly estates were inherited by Conolly's nephew, also William (1706–54).