Roots: The Kelly Gang

By Brandan Cummings
December / January 2004

Kelly comes second to Murphy as the most common surname in Ireland.

The name is popular because it originates from at least seven different and unrelated ancient clans or septs. These include O’Kelly septs from Meath, Derry, Antrim, Laois, Sligo, Wicklow, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Galway and Roscommon, and the McKelly sept from East Connaught. One of the major septs is the O’Kellys of Ui Maine, or Hy Many, a territory in East Galway and South Roscommon. O’Kelly derives from the Gaelic O Ceallaigh, meaning “descended from Ceallach.” Ceallach was the son of Finnachta, a chief of the Hy Many people around A.D. 874. Another of their chieftains, Tadgh Mór ÓCeallaigh, was killed at the famous battle of Clontarf in 1014, when Brian Boru defeated the Vikings.

Ceallach means war or contention. It is an ancient first name that is no longer used as a first name in Ireland. However, Kelly is a popular first name for women in the U.S. — an ironic reversion of the family name back to its original use. The earliest parts of the O’Kelly genealogy are contained in the Book of Hy Many, which was written in the 14th century. Its compilation was the idea of William O’Kelly, a chief of Hy Many. The book is now kept in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.

The name McKelly also exists, though far less commonly. As with many other families, the O’ or Mc has been dropped by most family members. A notable exception was Sean T. O’Kelly (1882-1966), who was President of Ireland from 1945 to 1959.

One of the most infamous members of the Kelly clan was Ned Kelly (1854-1880), the Australian outlaw. Kelly formed a group of bandits with his brother and two other men called the Kelly Gang. They committed a series of robberies from 1878 until 1880, when Kelly was captured and hanged in Melbourne. Their most notorious heist involved hijacking an entire town for three days. The standoff ended with a shootout at a pub between the police and Kelly’s men. He is vilified by some but revered as a national hero by others. His parents hailed from Counties Tipperary and Antrim.

A new Hollywood biopic of Ned Kelly, starting Australian actor Heath Ledger, is due out in early 2004. The Kelly Gang term has even made its way into today’s parlance. A group of journalists sharing the common last name of Kelly meet a couple times a year to socialize, and a New York reporter has dubbed them “the Kelly Gang.”

The Kellys have also made their mark in show business. Emmett Kelly (1898-1979) was a world famous circus clown. His character “Weary Willy” was modeled after the tramp and hobo clowning style popular at the time. During his 50-year career he wowed audiences all over including Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill, and Harry Truman. Actress Moira Kelly (1968), the daughter of Irish immigrants, is a star of film and television. She was in the hit movie The Cutting Edge and is currently starring in the WB network drama One Tree Hill.

Luke Kelly (1940-1984) was a famous Irish folk singer and a member of the group the Dubliners. He was as famous for his singing as his left-wing politics. A man of the people, his songs reflected his working-class roots. A unlikely collaboration with Phil Counter produced one of his most well known performances, “The Town I Loved So Well,” an ode to the city of Derry. Unfortunately, Luke Kelly’s life was cut short by a brain tumor in 1984.

Author Kitty Kelley (1942) is an internationally acclaimed writer whose most recent book, Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography, sold faster than any biography in publishing history. Other bestsellers by her include biographies of Frank Sinatra, Jackie Onassis and the British royal family. And in politics, “Honest” John Kelly was the first Irish Catholic head of the New York City political machine known as Tammany Hall. Today Ray Kelly is the police commissioner of New York City keeping the city safe.

In sports, Jim Kelly (1960) is a football legend. Although the Super Bowl title remained elusive for the former Buffalo Bills quarterback, he was inducted into the National Football Hall of Fame in 2002 as a true master of the game. Championship Irish cyclist Sean Kelly (1956) is another athletic Kelly, whose career highlights include winning the Tour De France’s green jersey four times and placing third in the World Championships. ♦

One Response to “Roots: The Kelly Gang”

  1. Normandie Kent says:

    My ancestor David O’Killia (Ua Ceallaigh) Was The First or Second O”Kelly in The Americas, in the Plymouth Colony. He was probably removed and banished from Ireland by Cromwell in the 1650’s, and was indentured or enslaved for 10 years, married Jane Ap Howell from Wales.

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