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Symbolic Strength, Silver Lions, and Shoot-outs with Mick Jagger in the Bush: The History and Meaning of the Kelly Name

Symbolic Strength, Silver Lions, and Shoot-outs with Mick Jagger in the Bush: The History and Meaning of the Kelly Name

Stuart Marley |

Second only to Murphy in the canon of most common Irish last names, the name Kelly has traveled far and wide around the world, attached to Hollywood stars and notorious outlaws alike.

But what do we know about the history of the Kelly name? What does the Kelly coat of arms say about the Kelly clan? And who are the most famous bearers of one of old Ireland’s most famous family names?

Let’s find out!

The Kelly name in America

Some of the earliest immigrants to the New World — well over a century before the forefathers gave the world the United States of America — bore the name Kelly.

There are records of Kellys in America going as far back as Virginia in 1635, where land was registered to a Brian Kelly, and Massachusetts in 1641, where Abel Kelly was present in Salem. 

In Philadelphia, meanwhile, the hundred years after 1770 brought a veritable A to almost Z of Kellys, with Albert and Anthony Kelly laying down roots in the City of Brotherly Love alongside the likes of Timothy, Thomas and William, not to mention the long and wide family trees that have extended from there over the past two centuries.

Part of that Philly family tree might be seen in the roaring success of the sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which follows the cast of family and friends behind Paddy’s Pub, the Irish dive bar on the south side of the city whose janitor and co-owner is Charlie Kelly. With a 16th season having been screened in 2023, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is now the longest running live action comedy series in US TV history.

The History of the Kelly Name

There is some suggestion that the origins of the modern name Kelly can be traced all the way back to the earliest centuries of the Common Era and to the so-called “Three Collas”.

According to ancient Irish legends, the Three Collas were Colla Uais, Colla Fo Chrí and Colla Menn, three sons of Eochaid Doimlén who lived somewhere around 300 AD.

This would give the Collas royal heritage, for their grandfather would have been Cormac mac Airt, the ancient High King of Ireland. However, we can’t be sure whether the modern name Kelly — and its Gaelic Irish translation O Ceallaigh, literally meaning “son of Ceallaigh” — is actually a derivative of the old Collas.

What we do know for sure is that by the turn of the first millennium, Kelly or O Ceallaigh was firmly established as one of the most powerful clans in Ireland. Several different Kelly, O’Kelly or Ó Ceallaigh families held sway in several parts of Ireland, including south county Dublin, Galway in the west and parts of modern day Tyrone in the north. 

Tadhg Mór Ó Ceallaigh, from the Galway clan, went to war as one of the main allies of Brian Boru, the High King of Ireland. Both Tadhg Mór and Brian Boru himself were killed in the famous Battle of Clontarf in 1014, perhaps the first true battle between the indigenous Irish and those who aligned with overseas interlopers: the victors at Clontarf being the Norse-Irish alliance including the King of Dublin, Sigtrygg Silkbeard; the King of Leinster, Máel Mórda mac Murchada; and marauding Viking armies led by Sigurd of Orkney and Brodir of Mann.

That defeat notwithstanding, the Kelly / O Ceallaigh name remained prominent throughout Ireland for the next millennium and, by the middle of the 19th century, with emigration forced on a million Irish men, women and children by the Great Famine, it was soon an increasingly common name around the world too.

The Kelly Coat of Arms

Starting in England somewhere around the year 1200, when knights began to paint elaborate crests on their helmets and armor, the tradition now known as “heraldry” is a vital part of the history of all family names emanating from Britain and Ireland.

The coat of arms or emblem of the Kelly family stands as a striking work of art in its own right.

There are a number of different variations, but all of them include a representation of two lions, a castle and a gold chain on a deep blue background, all carrying extensive symbolic meanings.

The blue background carries a strong resonance of loyalty, truth, strength and fortitude, meanings doubly underlined by the two argent or silver lions on either side of the crest, standing proudly on their hind legs, tall and ready to fight.

Bound together by a circle of gold chains, these noble beasts are nothing if not more powerful representations of bravery, authority and power.

In the middle is a triple-turreted silver tower, another symbol of strength and power.

Below the crest is the Latin motto, "Turris Fortis Mihi Deus," which can be translated as "God is My Strong Tower”, adding further divine eminence, faith and godliness to the Kelly family name.

Taking each element individually, the message is strong enough, but combined together — lions, castle, gold chains and deep blue above a divine motto — the effect is unmistakable. This is a family name which carries great power, strength, nobility and honor.

Image via


Hollywood’s Famous Kellys

In the 1950s, there were perhaps no bigger stars in Hollywood than the — unrelated — pair of Gene Kelly and Grace Kelly.

More than 40 years after his last film role, Gene remains an icon of the silver screen, having grabbed for himself a lasting appeal that transcends generations and finds new audiences and new fans every time Me and My Gal, Anchors Aweigh or Singin’ in the Rain appears on the television screen. 

Perhaps what truly endeared Gene Kelly to his audiences was the joy and passion he brought to the job of performing. 

Kelly’s performances brought an unprecedented blend of charisma, charm and athletic energy that was all his own. He revolutionized the art of dance in cinema, introducing innovative techniques that are still admired today.

In an ever-changing, increasingly uncertain and — dare we say it, increasingly cynical — world, Gene Kelly’s appeal lies as much as anything in his ability to truly transport viewers to a place of pure joy and optimism. Surely nobody who has ever witnessed some of his classic setpieces, such as the rain scene from Singin’ In the Rain, will ever truly forget it.

Many a man was made to blush by Grace Kelly’s alluring beauty, and when she married Prince Rainier III of Monaco in 1956, her status as a true princess was only confirming what a lot of people already knew.

Unrelated to Gene, it is perhaps surprising now that Grace Kelly never appeared in a movie alongside her namesake. 

After all, both were active at the same time and Grace also starred in one of Hollywood’s most lauded musical productions in High Society alongside Frank Sinatra, and she appeared alongside Bing Crosby too in The Country Girl, a role for which she received the Oscar for Best Actress. 

Image credit: Laura Loveday / Flickr Creative Commons

 Apart from her royal marriage — she was known as Princess Grace of Monaco for the last 26 years of her life — she is perhaps best remembered now for her work with the great director Alfred Hitchcock, appearing in his classic movies Rear Window, Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief in 1954 and 1955.

Her royal marriage at the age of 27 might have been a great blessing to Prince Rainier, but it was also a great loss to cinema: Grace Kelly retired from acting immediately after the wedding, contributing just the narration for a couple of documentaries before her tragic death, at the age of just 52, following a car crash in 1982.

Princess Grace, former actress Grace Kelly, with actor Gene Kelly in Paris, France, 1981.
image source: Grace and Family / Tumblr

Also in Hollywood, albeit more recently, the Kelly name starred in a memorable scene from the Leonardo di Caprio hit Catch Me If You Can in 2002. Playing a swindler and con-man, di Caprio wooed the daughter of attorney Roger Strong, played by Martin Sheen, and a slightly awkward family singalong takes place to the song “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?”

That song includes the lyrics…

“So his hair is red and his eyes are blue
And he’s Irish through and through
Has anybody here seen Kelly?
Kelly from the Emerald Isle!”


…although this version, as befitting the growing presence of the Irish in America, is different in one big way from the original written in the early days of the 20th century. In that song, Kelly wasn’t from Ireland at all, but was “Kelly from the Isle of Man”.

The Famous Kelly Outlaws

While it should cast no shade on modern day Kellys around the world, it is notable that two of history’s most famous outlaws, one on either side of the world, bore the Kelly name.

First, in Victoria, Australia, rose the notorious Kelly Gang, led by Edward “Ned” Kelly, whose father had been convicted of petty crime back in Ireland and transported to Australia in the 1850s.

Ned was branded an outlaw by Victoria after his part in an ambush which led to the deaths of three policeman, but he became something of a folk hero to downtrodden Australians, a status which only grew after the so-called “Jerilderie Letter”, an 8000-word manifesto which outlined the corruption of the police and called for justice for poor families.

This gave him the reputation of a modern day Robin Hood, and that legend only grew with his arrest, trial and execution, after a long siege and shoot-out with police in the small town of Glenrowan. Kelly was eventually sentenced to death by hanging, supposedly responding to the customary “May God have mercy on your soul” uttered by Judge Redmond Barry with the historic reply, “I will go a little further than that, and say I will see you there where I go.” 

Judge Barry would die less than two weeks after Ned’s hanging.

Almost 150 years after his execution, the Ned Kelly legend endures. It has been the subject of much literature and film, notably the Booker Prize-winning True History of the Kelly Gang by esteemed Australian novelist Peter Carey in 2000 and a movie Ned Kelly, starring another Australian icon who would die a premature death, Heath Ledger, in 2003.

An acclaimed movie version of Carey’s novel arrived in 2020 but perhaps the strangest film adaptation came in 1970, when Mick Jagger of Rolling Stones fame was cast in the title role in a film which also brought into existence a memorable soundtrack performed by one of the kings of country music, Waylon Jennings.

Fifty years after Ned Kelly’s execution, meanwhile, arose the American legend of George “Machine Gun” Kelly, who through a couple of quirks of history became one of the USA’s most famous criminals.

After a short time in prison for bootlegging — these were Prohibition times — Kelly, from Memphis, Tennessee, had a chance meeting with the woman who would have a major influence on the rest of his days.

He became the fourth husband of career criminal Kathryn Thorne, and although he would soon find himself behind bars again, and would never again taste freedom, he still fared a bit better than Thorne’s third husband, who she was suspected of murdering but whose purported suicide note seems to have been taken at face value by the authorities.

Kelly got the nickname “Machine Gun” because of his attachment to the Thompson automatic weapon, then quite a new arrival on the American military (and criminal) scene.

The Kellys saw an opportunity in kidnapping wealthy people for ransom — this was around the same time the abduction of Charles Lindbergh’s baby became the crime of the century — and their kidnapping of Charles Urschel in 1933 proved to be a historic moment in American legal history.

The case against the Kellys became the first major criminal case solved by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, and also the first trial to be captured on film.

Kelly’s conviction saw him sent to the prison on Alcatraz, where he is said to have been a model prisoner until his death from a heart attack 21 years later at the age of 54.

George “Machine Gun” Kelly Image from Wikipedia


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