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Kelly – several different origins throughout Ireland

Kelly is the second most popular surname in Ireland and, due to emigration over the last 200 years, there are more Kellys in both the US and the UK than there are in Ireland.

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It means ‘bright headed’ or ‘red headed’ and is in the top 100 lists in America for both surnames and first names.

The name has many different origins and today’s Kellys could have descended from a number of different clans or septs. There were separate O’Kelly septs in Antrim, Wicklow, South Roscommon, Meath, Sligo, Derry and Laois. There was also the McKelly sept from East Connaght.

God is my tower of strength

History of the Irish name Kelly. Image copyright Ireland CallingThe name may have English origins and could be named after a place called Kelli in Devonshire.

It could also be Scottish and named after the Lands of Kelly (or Coille) which were a Scottish territory near Arbroath.

It is rare for Kellys to reinstate the Gaelic prefixes. However one famous O’Kelly is Sean T. O’Kelly who was President of Ireland for 15 years after World War Two.

The motto on the Kelly coat of arms is ‘Turris fortis mibi Deus’ which means ‘God is my tower of strength’.

Video of the story of the Kelly name

Descended from an Irish Chieftain

Many were descended from the O’Kellys who in turn came from the O Ceallaighs. O Ceallaigh means ‘descended from Ceallach’ an ancient Irish Chieftain. The name Ceallach meant ‘war’ or ‘strife’ or ‘contention’ so perhaps the Chieftain was destined to be a warrior. However, he was also a cultured man and was a patron of the arts.

Ceallach’s father was Finnachta who was the chief of the Hy Many people around AD 874. The Book of Hy Many documents the earliest parts of the O’Kelly genealogy. It was the idea of William O’Kelly who was a chief of Hy Many in the 1300s. The book is now in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin.

In 1351 the chief of the O’Kellys invited all of the musicians and poets in his command to spend Christmas with him. It was this occasion that inspired the phrase ‘O’Kelly’s welcome’.

Massacre of Knockdoe

Malachy O’Kelly was a leader of an O’Kelly sect in the early 16th century. In 1504 he led his men in the Battle of Knockdoe. The battle involved all of the main families in Ireland and turned into a massacre.

Luke Kelly
Luke Kelly
The name Kelly didn’t survive as a first name in Ireland although it is popular in other countries such as The US and the UK.

Famous Kellys from around the world

There are hundreds of famous people through history with the surname Kelly. Grace Kelly was an American actress and became Princess Consort of Monaco after she married Prince Rainier III. She won an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1954 for her performance in Country Girl. Prince Rainier died in a car crash in 1982.

Luke Kelly was a singer with the famous traditional Irish band, the Dubliners.

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Gene Kelly was a multi-talented American actor/singer/dancer/film director. He is perhaps most famous for his role in the 1952 film, Singing in the Rain. In 1999, he was named in 15th place in the American Film Institute’s Greatest Male Stars of All Time list.

Kelly the boy from Killane

Kelly the Boy From Killane is a famous Irish song written by P J McCall about the 1798 Irish Rebellion. The song is about John Kelly from Killane who led rebel forces into battle.


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