Irish Surname Series: The Kelly Clan

Irish Surname Series: The Kelly Clan

Posted by Julia Brodsky on 27th Jan 2020

Kelly is an anglicization of the Irish name O’Ceallaigh, which means “descendent of Ceallach” or “warrior.” Ceallach is a personal name that has been thought to signify “bright-headed” or “white-headed.” The Irish word for churchyard, cill, implies that the name may also mean “frequenting churches.”

It is one of the most prevalent surnames in Ireland, and there were at least seven distinct clans with some variation on the Kelly surname in many different Irish counties. One of the most prominent were the O’Kellys of Ui Maine (or Hy Many) in Galway and south Roscommon. The 14th century O’Kelly chieftain was recognized as a generous patron of the arts, and circa 1351, he is said to have invited all the poets and musicians in his domain to celebrate Christmas with him, which inspired the phrase “O’Kelly’s welcome.” It is possible that this was the same chieftain who commissioned an authentic genealogy of the clan, which exists to this day and outlines the O’Kelly pedigree from its earliest times.

Emigration made the Kelly surname a common one in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Many estimate that there are now more Kellys in the United States than there are in Ireland, and there are no fewer than 695 Kellys on the muster roll of the American Revolutionary Army. One of the most distinguished of these is Major John Kelly, who destroyed the bridge at Stonybrook to aid the American Army’s retreat from Trenton.

Outlaw Ned Kelly (1854–1880) was the son of an Irish convict in Victoria, a tiny state in southeastern Australia. When his impoverished family fell victim to continued police persecution, Kelly involved himself with outlaw and horse-robbing gangs in the Australian bush, eventually forming his own gang and shooting dead three policemen. He and his associates eluded capture for two years, as many sympathized with his resistance to the British government and his protection of the rural poor. Kelly was eventually arrested, and despite massive support and public appeals, hanged to death in Melbourne at the age of 25. Today, many still revere him as a folk hero and symbol of rebellion against the British Empire, while others consider him little more than a thief and murderer undeserving of his veneration. Whatever the opinion, Kelly is the subject of more biographies than any other Australian, including a highly dramatized 2003 eponymous biopic starring Heath Ledger. Journalist Martin Flanagan wrote: “What makes Ned a legend is not that everyone sees him the same—it’s that everyone sees him.”

Better known by his nickname, “King,” was Michael Joseph Kelly (1857–1894), an American baseball player who worked as an outfielder, catcher, and manager in his career, which spanned many different teams and cities (he even had a brief run on vaudeville!). In 1886, the Chicago White Stockings (we get why they updated the name) sold Kelly to the Boston Beaneaters (maybe this is a name Boston should resurrect) for $10,000, a then unheard-of amount of money (roughly $250,000 today). King Kelly was famous for his bending and rewriting of baseball’s rules, and in 1945, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Though the surname Kelly is certainly more prevalent today than O’Kelly, it is a common enough name here and in Ireland. Séan Thomas O’Kelly (1882–1966) was the second Taoiseach of Ireland, serving from 1945–1959. He was a student of Padraig Pearse, a close personal friend of Éamon de Valera, a key participant in the Easter Rising, and a founding member of both Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil. Despite being lauded by the Irish Times as a “model president,” he was famed for his tactlessness—after a 1949 visit to the Vatican City, he broke a strict taboo by publicly stating the pope’s view of communism, a misstep that lost him being awarded the papal Order of Christ.

Like O’Kelly, Kelley is another variation on the surname. One fascinating member of the Kelley clan is Honora Kelley (1854–1938), an American serial killer better known by the name Jane Toppan (her adoptive surname). Toppan was a nurse in the Boston area who is famous today for killing an estimated 31 people, the majority of whom were her patients. She confessed to a desire to see the inner workings of the soul through the eyes of her dying victims, and often devised experiments with morphine and atropine to see how the drugs affected her patients’ nervous systems. Despite her murderous tendencies, she was well liked by her coworkers, which earned her the nickname “Jolly Jane.”

Another Kelley woman is on the right side of history, however—wage abolitionist and social reformer Florence Kelley was born in 1859 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She earned degrees from Cornell University and Northwestern University School of Law (she was denied entry to University of Pennsylvania’s law degree on the basis of her sex), and helped create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Kelley, who passed away in 1932, was an active campaigner for an established minimum wage, eight-hour workdays, and children’s rights, and her writings on these subjects are still widely respected and referenced today.

Later in the 20th century, many famous Kellys made a name for themselves in show business both in America and Ireland.

Luke Kelly (1940–1984) was a singer and founding member of the band The Dubliners—they took their name from James Joyce’s short story collection of the same name. One of his most famous recordings is of the Patrick Kavanagh poem, “Ragland Road”—apparently Kavanagh heard Kelly singing in a pub and suggested he sing the poem, which the latter did, to the tune of “The Dawning of the Day,” a 17th-century air. Many consider him one of Ireland’s greatest folk singers, and he is remembered today for his distinctive style and his political activism.

Actress-turned-princess Grace Kelly (1929–1982) is likely one of the most famous Kellys of all. Born in Philadelphia to an Irish-American family, Kelly began her acting career at the age of 20, and in 1953, earned fame in the John Ford film Mogambo, alongside Ava Gardner and Clark Gable—her role earned her an Academy Award nomination. The following year she won the Academy Award for best actress for her performance in The Country Girl. Her most famous performances are likely those in High Society and Rear Window. Though she retired from acting at the age of 26 to assume her royal duties after wedding Prince Rainier of Monaco, her short career is nothing shy of illustrious; the American Film Institute listed her 13th among their 25 Greatest Female Stars of Classical Hollywood Cinema.

The Princess of Monaco wasn’t the only one of her relatives with a distinguished career, however; her father, Jack, was an Olympic gold medalist in rowing in addition to being a self-made millionaire, and her uncle, George Kelly, won the Pulitzer Prize his 1925 play, Craig’s Wife.

The man who made Hollywood musicals the classics we love today was another famous Kelly. Triple-threat Gene (1912–1996) is most famous for his starring roles in An American in Paris (1951) Singin’ in the Rain (1952)—he also co-directed and choreographed both films—but in his lengthy career he worked on nearly fifty Hollywood films as an actor, director, choreographer, and producer, revolutionizing how dance was put on film. Throughout his life, he continued to study and incorporate different dance styles into his choreography, and though his style defied categorization, he is often credited with single-handedly making ballet commercially acceptable to film audiences. He won an Honorary Academy Award for his work in An American in Paris, numerous lifetime achievement awards, and he was voted the 15th most popular actor on the American Film Institute’s millennium list.

Sculptor Oisín Kelly (1915–1981) was born as Austin Kelly in Dublin. He was an art teacher whose work focused mainly on small commissions for churches, until he gained fame in 1964 for his statue of The Children of Lir, commissioned for Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance, which opened in 1966 on the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. More public projects followed, including a statue of Irish trade union leader Jim Larkin on O’Connell Street. Even Seamus Heaney references him in a poem.

Another Kelly with a complex legacy is American journalist and editor Michael Kelly (1957–2003). He wrote and edited for the nation’s top news outlets: The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and others. He wrote extensively on the Gulf War, and his coverage and a book on the subject earned him numerous awards. Despite his commitment to journalism and reporting the truth, he did not always throw his support behind the right people or actions; he was a vocal defender of Stephen Glass, the journalist at The New Republic who fabricated many of his famous articles, and also of the invasion of Iraq, which many now believe could have benefitted somewhat from more critical press coverage. In 2003, while covering the start of the Iraq War, Iraqi soldiers opened the fire on Humvee in which he was riding, leading the vehicle to crash. Kelly was officially the first American journalist killed in action in the war.

Irish writer Maeve Kelly was born in 1930 in Ennis, County Clare. Her powerful work focuses on the women swept under the rug of Irish society, especially victims of abuse. She received a Hennessy Literary Award in 1972, and in 1978, she founded a shelter in County Limerick for battered wives. Tramp Press, a Dublin-based publishing company, reprinted Kelly’s 1990 short story collection, Orange Horses, to great critical reception in 2016, emphasizing the genius of one of Ireland’s unsung contemporary writers.

The final Kelly we’ll get to isn’t a single Kelly at all, but a whole group of Kellys, called the Kelly Gang. Founded in New York in 2000 as a charity based around people with the shared surname, the organization has raised more than one million dollars for various charities. Counted among its members are former New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly, TV host Megyn Kelly, and Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly. This year, the organization will host a benefit celebrating 15 years of Cristo Rey New York High School on March 12 in Manhattan. For more information, visit