Kelly: surname meaning, origin, and popularity, explained

Kelly is a prevalent surname throughout Ireland. In fact, it currently ranks as the second most popular surname after Murphy.

We’re here to find out where the name actually originates, what it means, and why it is so popular.

Like many surnames with origins in Ireland, Kelly comes with an interesting history. So, let’s delve into the Kelly surname meaning, origin, and popularity, explained.

Kelly – where does it come from?

The Irish surname Kelly is among the most popular in Ireland.
Credit: Fáilte Ireland

Kelly, pronounced ‘kel-ee’, is a surname or family name of Irish origin. It comes from the Irish surname O’Ceallaigh. The O’Ceallaighs were a division of a native Irish clan located in the counties of Galway, Meath, Wicklow, Antrim, and Sligo.

The most prominent of these were the O’Kellys of Ui Maine (Hy Many). This was one of the oldest and biggest kingdoms in Ireland, located in Connacht. Specifically, where mid-Galway and South Roscommon would be today.

These areas are sometimes even referred to as ‘O’Kelly’s Country’. The name of the clan is considered to come from Teigh Mor O’Ceallaigh, the 36th King of Uí Maine, who died at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.

The Gaelic prefix ‘O’ would have been dropped in the name, like many Irish names, in the 1600s when British rule became more prevalent. Thus, bringing with it the anglicised version of the family name, Kelly.

Also, although originating in Ireland, there is a notable branch of Kelly’s in Devon, England. The Kellys of Kelly in Devon have held their manor there dating back as far as the reign of Henry II in 1154.

Kelly – what does it mean?

Kelly is a popular Irish surname.
Credit: Flickr / @zbrendon

The original Irish version of the name, O’Ceallaigh, means ‘descendant of Ceallach’. In surnames of Irish origin, the ‘O’ means ‘descendant of’, while Ceallach is the ancient Irish given name. Essentially in English, ‘descendant of Kelly’. 

As there are so many variants of the name, including Kellie, Kelley, O’Kelly, and O’Kelley, to name a few, there are a few different meanings of the name itself.

It can loosely be said to mean ‘descendant of war’, which derives from the ancient Irish version, O’Ceallaigh. It originates from the personal name, Ceallach, which means ‘bright-headed’ or ‘troublesome’. However, it is now understood to mean ‘frequenting churches’.

With mass emigration due to famine, war, and other economic factors throughout the years, it is no surprise that the popularity of the Kelly surname spread throughout the world.

You can check public records, such as census records and emigration records, to discover more about the Irish surname around the world.

Famous Kelly’s – you’re bound to recognise a few

Grace Kelly is one of the most famous people with this name.
Credit: Flickr / Laura Loveday

The Kelly surname is very popular both internally and outside of Ireland. Like many Irish surnames, Kelly has its roots all over the world. Particular areas of popularity outside of Ireland include Jersey, Australia, England, Canada, and the United States.

Being one of the most popular Irish surnames, it is no surprise that the name has lent itself to some seriously famous faces across the globe. Let’s have a look at some of the most famous Kellys.

Grace Kelly

We don’t know about you, but Oscar-winning, legendary American actress Grace Kelly is the first Kelly to pop into our heads when thinking of the popular surname of Irish origin.

Film star Grace Kelly gets her name from Irish family history on her father John Kelly’s side. His parents emigrated out of Ireland from County Mayo, and the rest is history.

To this day, many remember the American actress for her incredible acting skills, beauty, and, pardon the pun, her grace.

Luke Kelly

Luke Kelly was an incredible Irish musician most famous for starting the band The Dubliners in 1962.

He is a folk hero and legend in Irish music, known best for his very distinctive singing voice and the political messages in his music.

Even though he passed away in 1984, his legend continues to inspire musicians today. Thus, he is one of the most famous people with this name.

Gene Kelly

Gene Kelly was an American singer, actor, dancer, and choreographer.
Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

Gene Kelly was an American singer, actor, dancer, and choreographer born in Pittsburgh to parents with Irish heritage on both sides.

He is perhaps most well-known for directing, choreographing, and starring in the hit romantic comedy film from 1952, Singin’ in the Rain.

Jack Kelly

John Augustus Kelly Jr, known professionally as Jack Kelly, was an American actor most famous for portraying the character Bart Maverick in the TV series Maverick that ran from 1957 to 1962.

He played alongside some huge actors like James Garner and Roger Moore.

So, there you go. The Kelly surname meaning, origin, and popularity, explained. How many Kellys do you know?

Notable mentions

Brian Kelly is one of the most famous people with this Irish surname.
Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

Francis Kelly: Francis Kelly is an Irish actor most famous for playing the role of Father Jack in the hit Irish TV show Father Ted. In Ireland, he is one of the most famous people with this name.

John J. O’Kelly: John Joseph O’Kelly was an Irish politician and author who served as President of Sinn Féin from 1926 to 1931.

Michael Kelly: Michael Kelly Jr. is an American actor. He is probably best known for playing the role of Doug Stamper in the political thriller series House of Cards.

Brian Kelly: Brian Kelly was an actor born in Detroit, Michigan, United States. He was known for his role as Porter Ricks in the NBC television series Flipper. 

Michael Kelly (another one!): Michael Kelly is another one of the famous people with this name. He was an American politician born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States.

Mary Kelly: Mary Pat Kelly is an award-winning author and filmmaker from Chicago, Illinois, United States. She is one of the most famous people with this name.

Kelly family crest and motto: The symbols in the Kelly crest include a spear, a tower, lions, chains, and a crown. The Kelly clan motto, Turris Fortis Mihi Deus, translates to God is my tower of strength.

FAQS about the Kelly surname

Where is the Kelly family from?

The surname Kelly derives from The O’Ceallaighs, who were a division of a native Irish clan located in the counties of Galway, Meath, Wicklow, Antrim, and Sligo.

Is Kelly an Irish surname?

The family name Kelly is a surname of Irish origin.

How common is the last name Kelly in Ireland?

Kelly is the second most popular surname in the Republic of Ireland. In fact, it is the most popular family name in Northern Ireland.

Indeed, Kelly is one of the most stereotypical Irish surnames.

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