The O’Kelly or Kelly Family

O’Kelly or Kelly family crest

(Crest No. 117. Plate 58.)

THE O’Kelly family is descended from Milesius, King of Spain, through the line of his son Heremon.

The founder of the family was Colla da Crioch, son of Colla Vais or Huais, King of Ireland, A. D. 315.

The ancient name, Ceallaig, signifying “For War,” was derived from one of their ancestors, Ceallach, a celebrated chief in the ninth century.

The titles of the heads of this sept were Chief of Hy Many and Prince of Bregia. Their possessions were located in the present Counties of Dublin, Kildare, Roscommon and Tyrone.

The O’Kellys are a branch of the Clan Colla of Orgiall, in Ulster, and of the same descent as the Maguires, Lords of Fermanagh; the MacMahons, Lords of Monaghan; the O’Hanlons, Chiefs of Orior, and other families. In the fourth century Mani Mor, or Mani the Great, a chief of the Clan Colla, having collected his forces in Orghialla, on the borders of the present Counties of Tyrone, Monaghan and Armagh, conquered a colony of Firbolgs in Connaught, and to this territory, which was possessed by his posterity, he gave the name of Ui Mani, which has been Latinized to Hy Mania and I Mania. This territory comprised a large portion of South Connaught, in the present County of Galway, and was afterward extended beyond the River Suck to the Shannon, in the south of Roscommon. It comprised the baronies of Ballymoe, Tiaquin, Killian and Kilconnel, with a part of Clonmacnoon, in Galway, and the barony of Athlone, in Roscommon. The O’Kellys were Princes of Hy Mania, and this territory was called the O’Kellys’ country.

The O’Kellys held the office of high treasurers of Connaught. Tadhg or Tiege O’Kelly was the first of the sept to assume the surname. This Tiege, as King of Hy Mania, was one of the commanders under Brian Boru at the battle of Clontarf, where he was killed, and is therefore called Tiege Catha Brian, or Tiege who fell in the battle of Brian. The O’Kellys had castles at Aughrim, Garbally, Gallagh, Monivea, Moylough, Mullaghmore and Aghrane, now Castle Kelly, in the County of Galway, and at Athlone, Athleague, Corbeg, Galy and Skryne, in the County of Roscommon. The chiefs of the O’Kellys were inaugurated at Clontuskert, about five miles from Eyrecourt, in the County of Galway, and held their rank as Princes of Hy Mania to the reign of Elizabeth.

The O’Kellys of Bregia were Chiefs of Tuath Leighe, parts of the baronies of West Narragh and Kilkea, in the County of Kildare; they had also the district about Naas, and had their chief residence and castle at Rathascul, or the Moat of Ascul, near Athy. The territory comprising these districts was known as the O’Kellys’ country. These O’Kellys are wholly distinct from the O’Kellys of Clan Colla, who were Princes of Hy Mania, the territory above described in Galway and Roscommon.

Both branches of the O’Kellys fought resolutely against the encroachments of the English until resistance was in vain. In the reign of Elizabeth Feargus O’Kelly killed the brutal Sir Richard Bingham, Governor of Connaught, who had sought to exterminate the Catholic clergy and laity of that province. The Governor with a force of soldiers surprised O’Kelly in his house while at supper. The latter during the siege managed to effect the escape of his wife and family through a subterranean passage, and then called the Governor to a window to parley with him. After fittingly denouncing him in a few words, O’Kelly shot him and the soldier who accompanied him, thus ridding Connaught of one of the worst tyrants she ever endured. The soldiers burned the house, but O’Kelly had meantime escaped through the underground passage, and was never captured.

Hugh Kelly, born in Ireland in 1739, was a dramatist of note in his day, most of his plays being very successful. He created many enemies for himself by serving as a Government hackwriter, and Drury Lane Theater was turned into a “bear garden” for several nights by his enemies and friends on the occasion of the production of one of his plays. His friends lauded him to the skies, and the feeling of his enemies could not be more graphically expressed than by the reply of one of them on being asked if he had hissed one of Kelly’s plays: “How could I? A man can’t hiss and yawn at the same time.”

Michael Kelly, born in Dublin, 1764, was one of the most distinguished musicians and vocalists of his day. He studied in Italy, and had a highly successful career on the Continent and afterward in London. He became a favorite of Emperor Joseph the Second at Vienna, and Mozart wrote for him the part of Basilio in “Nozzi di Figaro.” He composed or adapted more than sixty pieces of music which were very popular and had a favorable influence on the public taste. Afterward he engaged in his father’s business of wine merchant, which caused Brinsley Sheridan to facetiously remark that his sign should be: “Michael Kelly, composer of wine, and importer of music.”

The O’Kellys are still very numerous in many parts of Ireland and in the United States. The late John Kelly of New York, one of the ablest and most widely known politicians of his day, was a descendant of this family. He was one of the most remarkable men in American politics, a man whose ability was universally acknowledged, whose honor even his bitterest political opponents never dared to assail, and whose integrity won for him the popular title of “Honest John Kelly.”

Among other worthy descendants of this family may be mentioned the late Eugene Kelly, the well-known banker of New York City, and Judge William H. Kelly, also of that city, an able jurist and a man of sterling worth and character.