Roots: The Kelly Clan

The Kelly coat of arms

By Tara Dougherty, Music Editor
December / January 2011

Kelly is one of the most common Irish names due to the fact that it originates from at least seven different and unrelated ancient clans or septs. One of the major septs is the O’Kellys of Ui Maine or Hy Many in East Galway and South Roscommon.

An authentic pedigree of this family exists from earliest times and is contained in the Book of Hy Many, which was written in the 14th century under the direction of William O’Kelly, chief of Hy Many.

The name O’Kelly is derived from the Gaelic O Ceallaigh, meaning “descended from Ceallach.” The latter is an ancient personal name. The name McKelly, which means “son of Kelly” also exists, though  it is less common.

Sean T. O’Kelly (1882-1966) was President of Ireland from 1945 to 1959. Kelly is reported to have been one of the most common Irish names appearing on early American records. On the muster rolls of the American Revolutionary Army, there are no less than 695 Kellys including Major John Kelly, who is remembered for his destruction of the bridge at Stonybrook during the American retreat from Trenton.

Another famous American Kelly was Luther “Yellowstone” Kelly (1849-1928) who, almost unintentionally, became a famous U.S. Army scout. In 1865, he enlisted in the 10th Infantry. After the war, he was ordered west to Colorado, where he learned the Sioux language and customs. After his eventual release from the Army, he became a hunter and trapper in the Yellowstone area. He subsequently rejoined the Army as a guide to General Forsythe. As chief scout to General Wilson Miles, Kelly later served in several campaigns against Sitting Bull and the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes. He also served as a guide for the Army in other areas of Colorado and, later, on an expedition to Alaska. Later in his long career, he headed a party of Marines in the Philippines and received special praise from President Roosevelt. He is buried at Kelly Mountain, Billings, Montana.

Also present with Yellowstone Kelly in the campaign against Sitting Bull was James O’Kelly (1845-1916). A war correspondent and politician, his life was no less remarkable. Born in Dublin, he joined the French Foreign Legion at age 18 and was sent to Mexico to support Emperor Maximilian. He was captured by the Mexican General Canales, but escaped and returned to France where he served as a captain in the French Army.

In 1870, O’Kelly joined the New York Herald and was sent to report on the Cuban revolt. There, he managed to penetrate the Cuban lines to interview General Caspades, President of the Republic. Captured by the Spanish, he avoided being shot as a spy only by diplomatic intervention. Following his reporting of the Sitting Bull campaign, he returned to Ireland and became a Nationalist member of the Parliament in 1880.

A controversial character in the history of the Irish in Australia was Edward “Ned” Kelly (1854-1880). A symbol of resistance to colonial rule in Australia and the son of an Irish convict, Kelly’s string of robberies and attacks on police forces and colonial institutions left him jailed and executed. He remains an iconic symbol of the resistance to British rule down under.

In the sporting field, Michael “King” Kelly (1857-1894) was a great baseball player of his era. He made his name with the Chicago White-Stockings. In 1887, he was sold to Boston for the then record price of $10,000, earning him the nickname “the $10,000 Beauty.”

Grace Kelly (1929-1982), the film star who became Princess of Monoco, was the granddaughter of John Kelly from County Mayo. Her father, Jack Kelly, was a self-made millionaire and also an Olympic gold medalist in rowing. Her uncle, George Kelly, was a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Also in show business was the dynamic Gene Kelly (1913-1996), star of such classics as Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris.

Creating sparks in both film and literature, Mary Pat Kelly does her clan proud by telling the tales of Ireland and Irish America. Her recent novel Galway Bay is a moving depiction of the immigrant story and her films document the lives of the Irish in politics and in the Armed Forces. Her direct line of Kellys were no strangers to politics – her ancestor was mayor of Chicago.

Another writer of the Kelly stronghold is Keith J. Kelly who writes a media column for the NY Post. He founded Kelly Gang,  which holds benefits and honors various member of the clan, including Ray Kelly is the current Commissioner of the New York City Police Department. He has served the NYPD in various capacities for 31 years.

The Kelly clan is also well-represented in our Business 100 list this year, by Fran Kelly, vice chairman of Arnold Worldwide; Robert Kelly, CEO and chairman of Bank of New York Mellon; David Kelly, chief marketing strategist at J.P. Morgan; Shaun Kelly, vice chair – operations at KPMG; and Margaret Kelly, CEO of Re/Max.

And last, but by no means least, is Coach Brian Kelly, the subject of our cover story, who has achieved a great deal of success in his career and is now raising the bar at the University of Notre Dame.

15 Responses to “Roots: The Kelly Clan”

  1. peter kelly says:

    hi,very interesting to read of all the various kellys.
    best wishes,
    peter kelly,

  2. michael kelly says:

    I was curious if the kelly(family) is related to the mccarty’s? As well, where can i find a website that lists all the irish descent by last name that’s of relation

  3. wendy kelly says:

    This is so interesting to read now i know my clans and origination thank a minions

  4. Larry kelly says:

    I have just aquired the knowledge I’m the decendant of King David and would love to here more,

  5. Vaughn Kelly says:


  6. John kelly says:

    John Kelly from Manchester, proud of my Irish heritage from Co. Carlow. Yeah

  7. LaChee Kelly says:

    I would love to know more about our family.

  8. Michelle Gerke says:

    I know nothing about my father’s family other than his father’s name is John Patrick Kelly from Union Town PA
    My grandmother, Josephine Koches is An first generation born Austrian
    From what I can gather my father was the result of an affair between John Kelly (married) and my grandmother. That is all I know
    I would love toore about my family
    .my father refused to discuss anything about that part of his life. Sine he has died I am trying to find the rest of my family

  9. Michael kelly says:

    I was told a story about 4 brothers from Ireland supposedly I just sent from those can anyone tell me anything about them one of the names with Marshall and another name was William and can anybody clear up the difference between Kelly with an e and Kelly without an e ?

    • Howard Kelly says:

      Michael > My Fathers name is also Michael >Yes, Michael Kelly of County Wexford Ireland >arrived in the U.S.A. 1956 > He & other Irishmen have explained to me that ‘Kelly’ with one ‘E’ *generally denotes ‘catholic’ and ‘Kelly’ with 2 ‘E”s *generally denotes ‘protestant’…. Have a nice day my friend 🙂

  10. Glenn S Slaughter II says:

    What does Kelly mean in gaelic and what script or font is correct 9047165668

  11. Alton says:

    Hi my name is Alton and my surname is Kelly and I would like to know about my family abrought I live in South Africa

  12. Well done my family of Kelly’s everywhere

  13. Alyce Hutton ROssi says:

    Please add to the list of famous Kellys, the recently elected new Supreme Knight, Patrick E. Kelly. As of March 1st, Patrick will serve as the 14th CEO and chairman of the Board of Directors of the worlds largest largest Catholic men’s fraternal and charitable organization.

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