Gray, Sir John (1816–75), newspaper proprietor and politician, was born 13 July 1816, the third son in the family of six sons and four daughters of John Gray (d. 1856), a farmer and excise officer of Claremorris, Co. Mayo, and his wife, Elizabeth or Eliza, only child of George Wilson (d. 1822), a local innkeeper, brewer, and merchant. John Gray the elder was born at Ballybay, Co. Monaghan, whence his father, Moses (d. 1825), a farmer, moved in 1788 to Turlough, Co. Mayo, a new settlement of presbyterians. The second son, Moses Wilson Gray (qv) (1813–75), was an assistant poor-law commissioner in Ireland and a promoter of Irish resettlement in America before he emigrated to Australia in 1854 with Charles Gavan Duffy (qv). A daughter, Margaret Henrietta (d. 1873), married William McCullagh Torrens (qv).
John Gray studied medicine at Glasgow University and after graduating (1839) practised for a while in Dublin at a hospital in North Cumberland Street. In 1841, with his brother Wilson and George Atkinson (qv), he purchased the Dublin catholic daily newspaper the Freeman's Journal. Gray became political editor and in 1852 sole owner. The two Gray brothers put the Freeman firmly behind the campaign of Daniel O'Connell (qv) for repeal of the union. John Gray was with O'Connell at ‘monster meetings’ at Roscommon, Clifden, Loughrea, Mallow, Tara, and Mullaghmast, and consequently was arrested with him and five others in mid-October 1843 and tried on charges of treasonable conspiracy (15 January to 10 February 1844). Sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment on 30 May 1844, Gray was held in great comfort in Richmond Bridewell and released on 4 September after a successful appeal to the house of lords.
After O'Connell's death Gray became involved in tenant-right agitation, stood unsuccessfully as a parliamentary candidate for Co. Monaghan (1852) – his father was implausibly said to have been a United Irishman at Ballybay – but was elected to a seat on Dublin city council (1852). An improver, he had much to do with the establishment of a fire brigade and of a new cattle market on North Circular Road. As chairman of the corporation's waterworks committee (1853–75), his greatest achievement was the construction of the Vartry water scheme (1862–9), which did much to reduce the death rate in Dublin. At a ceremony marking the diversion of the Vartry river from its original course, Gray was knighted by the viceroy (30 June 1863). He declined, however, to accept election as lord mayor (1868).
At the same time he had continued his interest in national politics. He was an active member of the National Association of Ireland, formed in 1864 on the initiative of the catholic archbishop of Dublin, Paul Cullen (qv), to promote catholic interests, the most important of which was disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. It attracted few catholic laymen and Gray, nominally at least a protestant, was a strange bedfellow of Cullen, whose mouthpiece he became in parliament after being elected (unopposed) as member for Kilkenny City (July 1865), which seat he held without opposition until his death. In the agitation for church disestablishment Gray was ‘unremittent both in debate and in private lobbying’ and ‘undoubtedly, with Cardinal Manning, the principal influence in persuading Gladstone to take up the issue’ (Thornley, 25). After the passage of the Irish Church Act 1869, which disestablished the episcopal church, Gray took up again the issue of land reform (1869–70). But he opposed Gladstone's 1870 land bill as inadequate, and led a farmers’ deputation against it, unsuccessfully moving an important amendment at its third reading, and finally voting against it (February–March 1870). On the home rule issue Gray was for long apathetic: he declined to join Isaac Butt's (qv) Home Government Association, out of deference to the catholic bishops, who were suspicious of it; he opposed a home rule pledge being imposed on Irish liberal candidates at the elections held in 1874, but was counted among the fifty-nine supposed home rulers returned and in the new parliament moved towards the militant home rulers led by Joseph Biggar (qv).
Sir John Gray died 10 April 1875 at Bath. (Moses Wilson Gray had died six days previously in New Zealand, where he had been a district justice since 1864 after eight years in Victoria as a barrister and agrarian reformer.) The funeral procession, which travelled from Sir John's home in Rathmines, Charleville House (later the St Louis Convent), to Glasnevin cemetery, was a mile and a half long. Although Gray had made a parliamentary career out of obsequiousness to the catholic hierarchy, he had been brought up a protestant (apparently in the established church) – the Times obituarist stated that he had as a young man contemplated an ecclesiastical career – and so prayers were read by a Church of Ireland clergyman, William George Carroll of St Bride's, Dublin. Cullen commented drily: ‘he did the Catholics great services but, though he did a great deal to pull down the Protestant church, he had the misfortune to die a Protestant’ (Larkin). A statue of Gray, in white Sicilian marble by Thomas Farrell (qv), was unveiled by the catholic archbishop of Tuam, John MacHale (qv), in Lower Sackville Street, Dublin, on 24 June 1879. Gray married (1839) Mary Anna Dwyer, only daughter of James Dwyer of Limerick, and with her had, besides two daughters, four sons, John Wilson (1840–72), a barrister, Edmund Dwyer (qv) (1845–88), George, and William.