The ancient families of Kelly rank as the
second most numerous in Ireland, Murphy being
the most numerous. The re-use of the prefixes
O and Mac have widely occurred with this name to
the extent that as many as 1 in 20 born in modern
times now use either of these prefixes. It
must be remembered that after the Gaelic order was
destroyed most Irish names were crudely anglicized
with the Mac and O prefix being dropped. After the
Gaelic revival of the late nineteenth century the
pointed re-use of these prefixes was successful to
widely varying degrees across the many hundreds of
Although the most important sept of Kelly was that of Ui Maine the name actually originated independently in a number of different locations in Ireland.
* O'Kelly of Ui Maine
(Counties Galway and Roscommon)
* O'Kelly of Breagh (in County Meath)
* O'Kelly of Cinel Eachrach
(Counties Antrim and Derry)
* O'Kelly of Leix (County Laoise)
* Kelly of Templeboy (Sligo)
* Kelly of Wicklow
* MacKelly of Connaught Province
The ancestor of these independent septs was Ceallach from which the Gaelic form of the name is derived, O'Ceallaigh. Ceallach is a first name that is likely translated as meaning 'strife'. The Kellys of Kilkenny are from O'Caollaidhe however, which is also been anglicized as Kealy and Queally.
The most prominent of all of these septs was O'Kelly of Ui Maine (also called Hy Many). The ancient documents 'The Annals of the Four Masters' make many references to these families. Four of the sept were Bishops of Clonfert. In 1518 the O'Kellys were named by Galway Corporation as one of the 'dangerous septs'.
History is replete with famous bearers of the name. Father Malachy Kelly (died in 1684) founded the Irish College in Paris. Dennis O'Kelly (1720-1787) was part owner of the famous racehorse 'Eclipse' and became a colonel. James O'Kelly (1845-1916) was a war correspondent of renown. The playwright Seamus O'Kelly (1881-1918) supported Parnell when he became an M.P. William Kelly (1811-188) was an inventor who created a method of converting pig iron directly into inexpensive steel. Colonel Patrick Kelly (1822-1864) was the commander of the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg. Ned Kelly( 1854-1880) was the famous Australian bushranger who defied the authorities. Grace Kelly (1928-1982) was the famous Hollywood actress who became Princess of Monaco. Gene Kelly (1912-1996), was the Academy Award-winning American dancer, actor and singer. Sean T. O'Kelly (1882-1966) was the second President of Ireland.
The name Kelly has been dispersed to every corner of the globe and in modern times is of particular prominence in both Australia and America.
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