Kelly Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Kelly Surname Meaning

Kelly is an Irish origin given name and surname.  Etymologically, it originated as a patronymic surname, with the prefix Ó and the suffix Ceallach (“strife”, or “contention”), the Old Gaelic clan name of Ó Ceallaigh which was anglicized as O’Kelly.   Kelly has been adapted to mean “brave warrior” in many English-speaking armies and as “warrior princess” in American popular culture.

Kelly Surname Resources on The Internet

Kelly Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland, Isle of Man and from England (Devon)
  • to England, Scotland, America, Australia and New Zealand

Ireland.  There are said to be possibly ten different Kelly septs in Ireland and unsurprisingly Kelly is, after Murphy, the second most common name in Ireland. Generally the “O” was dropped from O’Kelly during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Kelly Septs.  The main O”Kellys have been the Ui Maine O’Kellys in mid Galway and south Roscommon in the western province of Connacht.  Their forebear is considered to be Teigh Mor O’Ceallaigh who died at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. The 14th century Book of Ui Maine charted their pedigree. There were 39 O’Ceallaighs in all until the last King of Ui Maine in the 16th century. Their successors, the O’Kellys of Gallagh, are recognized as the overall O’Kelly chiefs.

There were also the O’Kellys of Breagh in Meath, dispersed at the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion, and other Kelly families originating in Laois, Sligo, and Cork plus the Kellys from Loughinsholin in county Derry.  The murder of Fergus O’Kelly of Laois in the 16th century was followed by the loss of their estates to the Fitzgeralds.

The Kellys in Antrim and Down in east Ulster may either be those at Clannaboye of Irish origin or Scots Kellys from SW Scotland who had arrived during the Ulster plantation.  Indeed in county Down these Scots Kellys probably outnumbered the Irish Kellys

Overall, the largest number of Kellys in Ireland has been in Galway, followed by Meath, Leix and Derry.

Isle of Man.  Kelly, from MacCaellaigh or MacKelly, is the most common surname on the Isle of Man. The MacKelly name first appeared in 1429 and John McKelly, first recorded in 1511, was the forebear of the Kellys of Ballabrew.

The Kelly spelling came in the 17th century. John Kelly, born at Peel in 1699, was from an old Manx family. Dr. John Kelly, born in Braddan in 1750, was the author of the well-used Manx Grammar which came out in 1780.  Has Anyone Seen Kelly? was a popular music hall song from the early 1900’s.   

England. Kellys here can be of English or Irish origin.

English.  The Kelly name in England can derive from the place-name Kelli in Devon, reflected as the Welsh/Cornish celli (“grove”) in public records dating as far back as 1194 when Nicholas de Kelly held a manor there. Kelly House near Lifton has been inhabited by Kellys since the 1500’s and probably much earlier.  Benedictus Kelly was a Royal Navy officer from Devon who fought in the Napoleonic wars.

Irish.  However, most Kellys in England are of Irish origin. One of the earliest was Denis O’Kelly who departed Ireland for London in the 1750’s. He started out there as a billiard-marker and ended up a colonel and part-owner of the famous Derby winner Eclipse

Festus Kelly came to London from Galway around 1800.  His son Frederick, who worked for the Post Office, put his name to Kelly’s Directory, the Victorian trade directory.

Scotland. The Kelly name in Scotland may derive from the place-name Kelly near Arbroath in Angus, reflected as the Gaelic coille (“wood” or “grove”), in public records dating as far back as 1373.  There was also another grouping of Kellys, originally McKelly, in Galloway and Wigtonshire, a number of whom crossed over to Ireland at the time of the Ulster plantation.

As in England, more Kellys in Scotland are of Irish origin, such as the Kelly family associated with Glasgow Celtic football club:

  • from James Kelly who captained them in 1892
  • to Bob Kelly who was its Chairman from 1947 to 1971
  • and to Michael Kelly who was Provost of Glasgow in the 1980’s.

America.  John Kelly from Devon came to the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1640 and settled in Newbury.  His descendant Moses Kelley moved to New Hampshire in the 1770’s and was the high sheriff of Hillsborough county for thirty years.  “His appearance in court was imposing, dressed as he was in a scarlet coat, white vest, buff-colored breeches and white top boots.  He also wore a cocked hat and a gold hilted sword.”

The earliest Irish Kelly arrival was probably David O’Killia/Kelley from (it is thought) Galway.  He came as an indentured servant to the Sturgis family on Cape Cod in 1655.  Giles Kelly meanwhile departed Laios (then Leix) for Maryland in 1677.  His descendants became Protestant and settled in Virginia. William Kelly, also Protestant, arrived in Virginia in 1746. His descendants were the O’Kelleys.

James Kelly, Scots Irish from Belfast, was in Pennsylvania by 1770 and made his home in Indiana county.  His grandson Hamilton ran steamboats along the Allegheny river and was the first postmaster of Bethel township.

19th Century Kellys.  Robert Kelly came in 1796 from Ireland to New York where he succeeded as a merchant.   His son William did even better.  He also became a state senator and retired early to his Ellersie mansion in Rhinebeck, New York.

Eugene Kelly reached New York from Tyrone in 1832. He was descended from a distinguished old Galway family of Mullaghmore which, however, had been dispossessed of most of its property in 1680. Starting with little in America, he prospered as a merchant banker in New York and San Francisco and was a strong supporter of the Irish nationalist cause.

Other Kelly arrivals included:

  • Thomas Kelly from Antrim who first came to Philadelphia in 1838, returned to Ireland, then left again, this time for Canada where he married, and he finally settled in 1860 in Iowa where he was a butcher and later farmed.
  • Timothy Kelly from Cork who came to Pennsylvania with his family in stages in the early 1840’s.  They mostly farmed in Sullivan county.
  • Peter and Sarah Kelly from Derry who came with their family to New York in 1847, before heading west to Illinois and then Iowa.
  • Colonel Patrick Kelly from Galway who arrived in New York sometime in the 1850’s.  During the Civil War he led the famed Irish Brigade at the Battle of Gettysburg, but was killed in 1864.
  • a Kelly family from county Leitrim who started coming to America in the 1850’s.  The Kelly sons arrived first in stages, followed by their widowed father Hugh in 1863.  They farmed in Bloomington, Illinois.  Agnes Kelly wrote the story in her 1942 book The Kelly History.
  • and Bernard Kelly who came to New York as a young lad of just thirteen in 1856.

John Kelly, an Irish immigrant to Philadelphia from county Mayo in 1869, spawned a famous family:

  • one son Jack Kelly was an Olympic gold medallist in rowing three times and self-made millionaire.
  • another son was George a Pulitzer Prize winner.
  • while Grace Kelly, Jack’s daughter, was the film star who became Princess Grace of Monaco.  

Stephen Kelly meanwhile departed Galway for Chicago in the 1870’s.  His son Edward became mayor of Chicago in 1933, a post he was to hold for fourteen years.  A later Kelly of this line has been Mary Pat Kelly, a writer and film-maker.  Her novel Galway Bay is a moving depiction of the Irish immigrant experience.

The Kelly and Kelley spellings are both found in America.  Sometimes the Kelley spelling was used by those who did not wish to appear Catholic.

Australia and New Zealand. Red Kelly was transported from Tipperary to Australia in 1841 for stealing two pigs. After obtaining his release in 1848 he married and settled down in Victoria. One of his sons was the famous Australian bushranger Ned Kelly who was executed after a shoot-out at Glenrowan in 1880.  The other son Jim lived until 1946.

Maurice Kelly, born in Laois around 1785, took to the sea at the age of fifteen and never returned to Ireland.  He ended up going back and forth between Australia and New Zealand before making his home at the Wade in New Zealand around 1840.  His brother James joined him in 1862.  A real character, Maurice lived on past his hundredth birthday.

Thomas Kelly from Westmeath arrived in Sydney around 1860 and made a fortune in wool and metal broking.  One son Thomas took over the family business, another William had a career in Australian politics.

The next son. Frederick, had a more sensational life.  A champion skuller, he was a gold medallist at the 1908 Olympics.  Afterwards he made his name in London as a musical composer.  At the outbreak of war in 1914, he enlisted with the poet Rupert Brooke.  He fought at Gallipoli and survived, but was killed on the Western Front in 1916.

Kelly Surname Miscellany

The O’Kellys of Ui Maine.  Their ancestor was Máine Mór, after whom their territory in Connacht was called.  They had migrated west from the north of Ireland to a less populous area straddling the river Suck, a branch of the river Shannon.

The O’Kellys took their name from Cealach, a descendant of Maine Mor.  They participated in the great battle of Clontarf in 1014 when Brian Boru defeated the Norsemen.  The O’Kelly, the chief of Ui Maine, was slain in the conflict.

The O’Kellys remained supreme in their territory for the next six hundred years.  History has recorded one great feast in 1351 given by William Boy O’Kelly (bui here meaning “golden haired”) at his castle at Galey on the shores of Lough Ree.  He invited all the poets, storytellers, musicians and entertainers from all over the country to his castle.  This party lasted for a month.

It was at this gathering that the famous O’Kelly poem of welcome was written.  The English translation reads as follows:

  • “A blessed, long living great, courteous welcome,
  • An affectionate, charitable, just, proper, true hearted welcome,
  • A welcome and twenty, and I add, hundreds to them,
  • Like the surge of the stream is, my welcome to you.”

The decline of the O’Kelly fortunes began in the 17th century.  The failed rising of 1641, the Cromwellian plantation following it, and the Penal Laws of the 18th century all succeeded in making paupers of the previously affluent members of the O’Kelly clan.

The O’Kellys of Breagh.  The O’Kellys of Breagh claimed an ancient heritage.  The Annals of Clonmacnois reported that this family was descended from Ciolla-da-Chrioch, a prince of the royal House of Heremon in the 4th century. They controlled a large part of Meath (later the Meath and Westmeath counties) which stretched from the north of Dublin to the borders of Ulster.

However, Cromwell’s arrival spelled trouble for these O’Kellys, as it did for other Gaelic septs.  They lost their ancient lands and, under the English penal laws, were prohibited as Catholics from the ownership of good land, livestock, or even a horse of any value.

From this once mighty clan emerged the so-called O’Kellys O’The Woods.  These O’Kellys settled in woods where they were not easily seen, cleared land for crops and built houses out of the wood, well hidden from view from any road.  They raised cattle along the grassy borders of the woods and then herded their livestock to the fair where they sold them.  By keeping a low profile they avoided undo British suspicion.

During the uprising of 1798, however, many of these O’Kellys were hanged, apparently without much due cause, by the English.

Kellys in County Down.  The Irish Kellys occupied the northern and southern parts of Clannaboye in county Down.

The Rev. James 0’Laverty in’ his probably biased 1880 work History of the Diocese of Down and Connor wrote as follows:  “The Kellys are still somewhat numerous in this district, but having been surrounded by Presbyterians, and not having had priests among them, they have abandoned the ancient creed of their race.”

Kelly House in Devon.  Kelly House, located in the village of Kelly on the Devon/Cornwall border, is reputed to have been the property of the Kelly family since approximately 1100.

Parts of the original medieval manor house and great hall are still standing, although they are obscured from view as this part of the house was significantly remodelled in Tudor and Georgian times.

Today, Kelly House continues to be inhabited by members of the Kelly family.

Manx Kellys at Ballabrew.  John McKelly was recorded as a tenant at Ballabrew in Braddanin the Isle of Man as early as 1511.  The spelling soon became Kelly and various Kellys were reported as farmers there in the next century.  John Kelly owned Ballabrew for over 60 years until his death in 1723.  The family land ownership extended to Lonan in 1761 when a later John Kelly married the heiress Isabel Brew.  The Ballabrew lands left the family when they were sold by William Kelly in 1834.

In 1843 John Kelly of this family joined the Mormon Church, sold his farm the next year, and left with his wife and family for America where he now has numerous descendants.

Has Anyone Seen Kelly?  This was a popular music hall song from the early 1900’s. The chorus went as follows:

  • “Has anybody here seen Kelly? 
  • K-E-double-L-Y. 
  • Has anybody here seen Kelly? 
  • Find him if you can! 
  • He’s as bad as old Antonio, 
  • Left me on my own-ee-o, 
  • Has anybody here seen Kelly? 
  • Kelly from the Isle of Man!”

The O’Kelleys in America.  The forebear of one O’Kelley line in America is believed to have been an Irish Protestant named William Kelly who came to Virginia in 1746 and shortly afterwards married Elizabeth Dean from the Tidewater area.

Their son Thomas O’Kelley appeared as Thomas Killey in the 1771 militia tolls for Granville county, North Carolina.  After the War he and his descendants moved to Georgia and Arkansas.

His brother Charles died in Virginia.  But Charles’s descendants also ended up in Arkansas.  William O’Kelley was one of the original founders of the First Christian Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  There were also five other O’Kelley brothers who were to be found at various points in the South.

Bernard Kelly’s Early Life in America.  Bernard Kelly was just a lad of thirteen years when he made the trip across the Atlantic in 1856.  He was landed in New York Harbor after a tedious voyage of three months, during which time he experienced many hardships.

His means were very limited, and his knowledge of America and its ways was also meagre.  So he was obliged to work at whatever he could find to do.  He lived for the first year in New Jersey.  After that he went to Florida and Georgia, remaining in that area for the next five years.

Then he returned to New York and remained there until the start of the Civil War when he enlisted.  It was said that he was a brave soldier, always ready to do his duty, and as such gained the esteem and confidence of his officers.

He saw much of the dark side of the war. While in Virginia he was captured and sent first to Libby and then to Andersonville, remaining there until March, 1864.  Union prisoners were treated roughly there.  The death rate was said to have exceeded three hundred per day.  He miraculously escaped this terrible end, but when released was little more than a skeleton.

After the war was over he remained in the regular army for eleven years and then worked at the Ordnance Department at West Point until he had completed thirty years of service.

Jack Kelly, Sculler and Businessman.  Jack Kelly (christened John) was one of ten children born to John Henry Kelly, an Irish immigrant from county Mayo who had come to the United States in 1869.

In 1908 Jack began bricklaying in Philadelphia and he also learned to row on the Schuykill river.  By 1916 Kelly was a national champion and the best sculler in the United States.  Between then and his competitive retirement in 1924 he won every sculling title available to him, including the World Championship in both singles and doubles, the Olympics in singles and doubles, and many national titles in both boats.  He was probably the best sculler America ever produced.

In addition to his sculling, he started a brickwork contracting company in Philadelphia which was to make him a fortune.  A self-promoter, Kelly coined the slogan, “Kelly for Brickwork,” which was often seen at local construction sites.

Kelly fathered two very famous children – John Kelly Jr, another Olympic rower who became President of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and Grace Kelly, the American movie star who became Princess Grace of Monaco.

Philadelphia erected a prominent statue of Jack Kelly near the finish line of the Schuyler river course that Kelly had rowed.  It is located just off of the scenic Kelly Drive which was named for Kelly’s son Jack Jr. Every year, US Rowing bestows the Jack Kelly Award on an individual who represents the ideals that Jack Kelly exemplified, including superior achievement in rowing, service to amateur athletics and success in their chosen profession.

Kelly Names

  • Michael Kelly was one of the leading figures in British musical theater at the turn of the 19th century.
  • Ned Kelly was the 19th century Australian bushranger and folk hero.
  • John J. O’Kelly was President of Sinn Fein from 1926 to 1931.
  • Grace Kelly was the American actress later Princess Grace of Monaco.
  • Gene Kelly was the American actor and dancer most remembered for Singin’ in the Rain.
  • Sean O’Kelly served as the second President of Ireland from 1945 to 1959.

Kelly Numbers Today

  • 102,000 in the UK (most numerous in Glasgow)
  • 120,000 in America (most numerous in Florida)
  • 147,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

Kelly is the #2 ranked surname in Ireland.

Kelly and Like Surnames 

The Irish clan or sept names come through the mists of time until they were found in Irish records such as The Annals of the Four Masters.  The names were Gaelic and this Gaelic order was preserved until it was battered down by the English in the 1600’s.

Some made peace with the English.  “Wild geese” fled to fight abroad.  But most stayed and suffered, losing land and even the use of their language.  Irish names became anglicized, although sometimes in a mishmash of spellings.  Mass emigration happened after the potato famine of the 1840’s.

Some surnames – such as Kelly, Murphy and O’Connor – span all parts of Ireland.  But most will have a territorial focus in one of the four Irish provinces – Leinster, Munster, Ulster, and Connacht.

Connacht in NW Ireland covers the counties of Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim, Galway, and Roscommon.  Here are some of the Connacht surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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