Ponsonby, John (1713–87), politician, was born on 29 March 1713, the second son of Brabazon Ponsonby (qv) (1679–1758), 2nd Viscount Duncannon and 1st earl of Bessborough, and Sarah Colvill (née Margetson; d. 1733). He was admitted to TCD on 6 April 1730, but there is no evidence that he graduated. Like his older brother, William (qv) (1704–93), later 2nd earl of Bessborough, John lived in the shadow of his father, an able and exceptionally ambitious man, who successfully cast off his earlier tory affiliations following the Hanoverian succession.
Brabazon Ponsonby's expectations focused initially on his son and heir William, whom he brought into the house of commons in 1725 for the borough of Newtownards, Co. Down. He had gained a foothold in that borough, which was far removed from his own property at Bessborough, Co. Kilkenny, through his marriage in 1703 to Sarah Colvill, and he built up a commanding interest as representative of the borough between 1705 and 1714, which he was able, famously, to maintain though ownership of the soil passed in 1744 to the Stewarts of Castlereagh. Brabazon, meantime, used the foothold of the estate at Bishopscourt, Co. Kildare, which he had also secured through marriage, as a platform to pursue his political ambitions in that county, which he represented in the Irish parliament from 1715 until 1724, when he succeeded his father as Viscount Duncannon. He achieved a further noteworthy electoral triumph when he secured his son William's return for Co. Kilkenny in 1727.
Duncannon hoped that this would be a springboard to greater achievements, but he had little opportunity to advance his ambitions until the late 1730s when, following the appointment of William Cavendish (qv), 3rd duke of Devonshire, to the lord lieutenancy of Ireland (1737–44), Duncannon and Devonshire forged a strong personal and political bond that proved highly advantageous to the Ponsonbys. In the first place, Duncannon cemented a dynastic relationship with the house of Cavendish by marrying his eldest sons, William and John, respectively to Caroline and Elizabeth Cavendish in 1739 and 1743, which gave the Ponsonbys considerable influence over the Devonshire parliamentary boroughs. Secondly, he purchased the seignory of Inchiquin, Co. Cork, from Devonshire, which he made over to John on his marriage; this encouraged John to challenge Henry Boyle (qv), the leading political figure in the Irish parliament, in his own heartland. Thirdly, in 1739 Brabazon secured the prestigious office of first commissioner of the revenue, which gave him unrivalled access to one of the main sources of patronage in the kingdom, and he was raised in the peerage to the rank of earl. Bessborough, as he now became, anticipated that his eldest son, William (styled Lord Duncannon from 1739), would be the primary beneficiary of this dramatic improvement in the fortunes of the Ponsonby family. Duncannon's appointment in 1741 to act as Devonshire's chief secretary certainly augured well, but though he served in this capacity for four years it was soon apparent that he did not possess the requisite qualities. His decision to make his home thereafter in England effectively concluded his Irish political career and paved the way for his brother John, to whom Bessborough transferred his considerable political ambitions.
John Ponsonby's career in politics began with his election in 1739 to represent the borough of Newtownards, Co. Down. Two years later, in 1741, he was appointed secretary to the revenue commissioners, and on 6 August 1744, he succeeded his father as first commissioner of the revenue. It was a meteoric rise by any standards; it precipitated Ponsonby to the forefront of domestic Irish politics and, as his father intended, into a position to succeed Henry Boyle as the leading undertaker, if suggestions that Boyle no longer possessed the appetite for power that had enabled him to dominate the Irish commons since 1733 were realised. The widely shared expectation, articulated with increased frequency in the early 1750s, was that when Boyle retired the contest for the key position of speaker of the Irish house of commons would be between Ponsonby and Sir Arthur Gore. Ponsonby eagerly awaited the opportunity, and in the meantime continued to advance his prospects of victory by forging a relationship with the primate, Archbishop George Stone (qv), who believed that it was crucial for the security of British government in Ireland that there be an alternative to Boyle. Both Stone and Ponsonby were encouraged by the appointment in 1750 of the duke of Dorset (qv) and Lord George Sackville (qv) to head the Irish executive, and political instability increased as a result. Reports in 1751 that Ponsonby was actively canvassing support among MPs to become Boyle's successor were denied, but the ‘bitter legacy’ (Magennis, 66) of a hotly contested by-election for Cork city the same year, in which the Boyle and Ponsonby interests offered rival candidates, could not be glossed over. Boyle prevailed then and during what Ponsonby conceded was a difficult 1751–2 session, but the trust and cooperation that had been one of the most striking features of the meetings of the Irish parliament over the preceding two decades had gone forever.
Encouraged by Chief Secretary Sackville, Ponsonby went to great lengths to summon ‘every man’ (King's business, 61) in advance of the 1753–4 session. Their object was to demonstrate that the administration was no longer dependent on Boyle and his allies, but their plan came to grief when Boyle refused to approve a money bill which accepted that the revenue surplus in the Irish exchequer could be allocated only with the crown's prior consent; Boyle's action resulted in the loss of the measure and precipitated the ‘money bill dispute’. Ponsonby welcomed this initially, not least because it hastened the dismissal of Boyle and some of his closest allies from office, but as the crisis deepened and the resolve of the British government to stand by Dorset, Sackville, and Stone weakened, his expectations of victory diminished. He had some grounds for confidence arising out of the appointment of Lord Hartington (qv), the heir to the Devonshire title, to the lord lieutenancy of Ireland in 1755, but Ponsonby's failure in a number of contested elections that were widely interpreted as ‘a trial of strength for the succession to the [speaker's] chair’ (King's business, 126) was discouraging. However, when Boyle finally admitted his days as speaker were over and agreed terms with the Irish administration early in 1756, Ponsonby was the only credible alternative and he was elected speaker unopposed.
As first commissioner of the revenue and speaker of the house of commons, John Ponsonby was ideally placed to emulate William Conolly (qv) and Henry Boyle as the commanding presence – or undertaker – in the Irish parliament. This was his expectation, and the expectation of his family, but others were less convinced. They pointed to his political as well as his personal limitations, which caused one acute observer of men to describe him memorably as ‘a mighty dull, as well as a very empty foolish fellow’ (Leinster correspondence, ii, 36). Based on his capacity for political misjudgement and his faltering performance in the speaker's chair, which was characterised by a regular need for assistance in adjudicating on thorny procedural and other points in the house of commons, such portrayals were well justified. They certainly contributed to the decision of the duke of Bedford (qv) on his appointment as lord lieutenant in 1757 to follow a ‘policy of impartiality’ (Burns, ii, 230), which meant that Ponsonby, who as speaker had a legitimate expectation of the confidence of the lord lieutenant, found himself out in the cold. Unwilling to acquiesce in this and, in the judgement of some, contrary to ‘his honour and real interest’ (King's business, 173), Ponsonby entered into a pact with the discredited primate, Archbishop Stone, and forsook open opposition only in 1758 when Bedford acceded to a new arrangement that assured the speaker of a direct input into the business of government.
Few believed that the speaker's new powers would endure, as the low assessments of Ponsonby's skills as a manager encouraged some to forecast that the Ponsonby party ‘must fall necessarily in a year or two’ (Leinster correspondence, ii, 17) once the earl of Bessborough was no longer alive to hold it together; but when Bessborough died in 1758 this proved not to be so. Ponsonby was adept at deploying patronage to ensure that his friends and supporters remained loyal. Moreover, he was alert to the tide of Irish opinions, and his intervention in December 1759 to calm the crowd responsible for anti-union rioting, and his stand in the winter of 1760–61, when he declined to assent to the transmission of a money bill prepared by the Irish privy council, served him well electorally. Such actions little impressed those within the political elite who expected Ponsonby to behave as Henry Boyle or William Conolly had done, but the increased politicisation of the public, the emergence of a vocal patriot interest, and the unwillingness of Dublin Castle any longer to depend on one undertaker indicated that times had changed irrevocably. There were clear and distinct limits to Ponsonby's populism. His strong opposition during the 1760s to legislation aimed at limiting the duration of parliament provides the most salient indicator, but they are more amply manifest in his failure to respond with sufficient flexibility to the challenge offered by the prospect of resident lords lieutenant.
Having negotiated, though not always triumphantly, the challenges offered by the succession of lords lieutenant sent to Ireland during the early and mid-1760s, Ponsonby faced his most formidable test to date with the appointment in 1767 of George, Lord Townshend (qv). Choosing unwisely to ignore the various reports and rumours suggesting that London was no longer content to have the lord lieutenant of Ireland hand over the responsibility of governing Ireland, in Thomas Waite's words, ‘to those here who are able to do it’ (King's business, 222), Ponsonby and his fellow (and subordinate) undertaker Lord Shannon (qv) and office-holders, John Hely-Hutchinson (qv) and Philip Tisdall (qv), sought to dictate the terms upon which they would serve the new lord lieutenant; when Townshend refused to meet their terms they ensured that the commons rejected his priority measure to augment the army in the spring of 1768. It was a severe misjudgement for which Ponsonby in particular was to pay heavily: not only did Townshend oversee the enactment of an octennial act (1768), which Ponsonby had long resisted and which complicated his task as the manager of a major political interest, but he was also encouraged to become resident, thereby removing one of the raisons d'être for the undertakers system.
Faced with such a direct challenge, the wisest course of action might have been to sue for compromise, but Ponsonby continued to vest his hopes in preserving existing political arrangements. He unwisely allowed the coterie of independents and patriots, for whom confrontation was instinctive, to determine the way forward, notably in November 1769, when he voted in favour of a patriot motion rejecting a privy council money bill. Townshend's response was vindictive and extremely costly for Ponsonby: he was dismissed from the revenue, and forced out of the political centre, as Townshend set about consolidating his own support base in the house of commons, which he did to some effect. Instead of adapting to the new environment, Ponsonby responded impulsively to the decision of MPs to express their approval of the king's decision in 1771 to retain Townshend in office by resigning from the speakership. When taken in tandem with his refusal in 1770 and 1771 to respond to an overture originating with Lord Charlemont urging opposition interests to concert their efforts, it is apparent that he did not have a workable strategy to meet the greatest challenge he faced in his political career.
Disillusioned by Ponsonby's deficient leadership and demoralised by the resolve shown by the lord lieutenant, many of Ponsonby's erstwhile allies chose to make their peace with the Irish administration and were enabled thereby to rescue something from the jaws of defeat. Lord Shannon, for example, who had operated in Ponsonby's shadow since the death in 1764 of his father, Henry Boyle (qv), 1st earl of Shannon, forged a long-lasting and beneficial relationship with Dublin Castle. Ponsonby, meanwhile, was torn between wishing to do likewise and persisting in opposition, with the result that he did neither to any effect. He still hankered after the speakership, but was defeated when he stood against Edmond Sexten Pery (qv) in 1776. Regarded with ill-disguised contempt by Castle insiders and with suspicion by patriots, he retained his seat for Co. Kilkenny but assumed a lower profile thereafter, as his sons William Brabazon Ponsonby (qv) and George Ponsonby (qv) took command of the family interest. Its survival since the 1750s as one of the largest interests in the Irish parliament was due in no small part to the skill with which he had performed that leadership role, which contrasted with his lack of general tactical awareness in parliament. Ponsonby died on 16 August 1787, after a long life in politics, in which he sought to realise his father's ambitions. His inability to do so was as much a reflection of the changed circumstances in which he had to operate as of his own limitations. His papers do not survive.