Kelly Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Kelly 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. 
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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.

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
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 Sligo, Cork, and Laois plus the Kellys from
Loughinsholin in county Derry.

The Kellys in Antrim and Down in east Ulster may
either be the Cinel Eachrach of Irish origin or Scots Kellys from
Galloway who arrived during the Ulster plantations.

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
which came out in 1780

Has Anyone Seen Kelly?
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!”

England. 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. 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.

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, from Galloway. As in England, most Kellys in Scotland are of
Irish origin.

One of the first Kelly arrivals in America was Giles
Kelly who departed Laios (then Leix) in 1677 for Maryland in 1677.
His descendants became Protestant and settled
in Brunswick county, Virginia. William Kelly, also Protestant,
came to Virginia in 1746. His descendants were the O’Kelleys.

Eugene Kelly arrived in 1830. He was from the
distinguished old Galway family
of Mullaghmore which, however, had been dispossessed of most of its property in 1680. Starting with little, he
prospered as a merchant banker and was a strong supporter of the Irish nationalist cause.

John Kelly, an Irish immigrant 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 George a Pulitzer Prize winner. Grace Kelly, the
film star who became Princess of Monaco, was Jack’s daughter

The Kelly and Kelley spelling are found in America.

Australia. 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. His son was the famous Australian bushranger Ned Kelly who was executed after a shoot-out at Glenrowan in 1880.


Kelly 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
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.

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.

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. 

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.



Select Kelly Names

  • Michael Kelly, an Irish actor and theatrical manager, 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.

Select 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.


Select 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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