Richard Ponsonby was the third son of William, created Baron Ponsonby 1806 and great grandson of the 1st Earl of Bessborough. He was born in Kildare on the 5th October 1772 and was educated at Trinity College, Dublin where he graduated B.A. 1794, M.A. 1816. Having been ordained in March 1795, he became a prebendary of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin (Tipper) 1795-1801; Vicar of Mothell and Fews (Lismore)1817-1828; Precentor of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin 1806-1806-1817; Rector of Cleenish (Clogher) 1810-1813; Rector of Carnew (Ferns) 1813-1821; Vicar of Tallow (Lismore)1817-1828; Dean of St. Patrick's, Dublin 1817-1828. In March 1828 Richard Ponsonby was consecrated Bishop of Killaloe and Kilfernora. He was translated to Derry in September 1831.
The nineteenth century witnessed the gradual political mobilization of the Roman Catholic populace in Ireland. Their leader Daniel O'Connell, having achieved Catholic emancipation in 1829, continued in the 1830s to demand further reforms from the English government. During the episcopate of Richard Ponsonby the established church represented a significant target for those who felt its privileged position in Ireland was an anachronism. This was felt not only by members of the Roman Catholic Church, whom O'Connell heavily relied upon for support, but also by those who held strongly utilitarian line over a church which had more archbishops, bishops, deans and chapters and parochial clergy than was necessary for its existence. Pressure was therefore brought to bear, and the result was the Irish Church Temporalities Act of 1833. Ten sees, which included the archbishoprics of Cashel and Tuam, were to be abolished and the revenues of the remaining twelve were to be reduced and indeed taxed. In particular, Derry was united with the diocese of Raphoe on the death of Bishop Bissett (Bishop of Raphoe) in September 1834 with a now reduced revenue. The savings were to be solely for ecclesiastical purposes. While this produced a somewhat leaner Church of Ireland, it failed to satisfy the aspirations of its opponents. In this case it acted as a prelude to more sweeping changes later in the century.
The bishop, who resided for a large part of his episcopate at Boom Hall on the outskirts of Derry, was not noted for any discernible desire to improve the spiritual life of his diocese. That is to say he did not reflect the growing demand within the Church of Ireland which called for a higher standard of conduct amongst its clergy. To support this view, one of his relatives, Major-General Sir John Ponsonby, supplied an unflattering account of the prelate:
Richard Ponsonby was a man of talent, handsome, of courtly manners, but lazy in business. In 1804 he married his cousin Frances, the daughter of the Right. Hon. John Staples, a beautiful woman, but reported to be the worst housekeeper in Dublin. He had but one vice, a passion for gambling, and not withstanding his deanery and afterwards his bishopric worth then £14, 000 a year, he was always needy and dunned by creditors.