Kelly originally appeared in Gaelic as O Ceallaigh or Mac Ceallaigh. These names denote descendants of Ceallach. This personal name may be derived from the word ceallach, which means strife.
The Kelly family is said to descend from the ancient line of Heremon, brother of Heber, and son of King Milesius of Spain. After the brothers conquered Ireland in 1699 BC, they went to war against one another. Heber was slain and Heremon became sole ruler of the island. It is said that Malachi II, the last absolute ruler of Ireland, is numbered among the descendants of Heremon.
There was little need for people to go by two names in ancient Ireland because of the small population and difficulty of travel. However, by the 11th century the country's numbers had grown to such a point that people began to adopt surnames to distinguish themselves from one another.
The oldest form of Irish surnames are patronymic names; such as Kelly. These surnames are formed by adding the prefix Mc, meaning son of, to the name of a father, or the prefix O, meaning grandson of, to that of a grandfather or an earlier male ancestor of the initial bearer. Irish hereditary surnames derived from locations, nicknames, and professions use these same prefixes.
Many spelling variations of the surname Kelly can be found in the archives. One reason for these variations is that ancient scribes and church officials recorded names as they were pronounced, often resulting in a single person being recorded under several different spellings. The different spellings that were found include O'Kelly, Keley, Kelie, Kelley, Kellie, Kelly, Kely, Kielley, Kilikeyy, O'Kely, O'Kelley, Killikeyy and O'Keley.
After the British takeover of Ireland in the early 17th century, the Irish were forced to Anglicize their names by simplifying the spellings and removing distinctly Irish prefixes like Mc and O. The translations of Gaelic names and places that were recorded often bore little resemblance to the original versions, resulting in inaccuracies that still exist today. Established in 1892, the Gaelic League was a patriotic organization that began a trend of reinstating removed surname prefixes. The original versions of the names were often lost, though, and many prefixes and spellings were improperly restored. The substitution of O in the place of Mc was probably the most common of these errors.
The many resources used in the search for the origin of the name included baptismal and parish records, ancient land grants, the Four Masters, and books by O'Hart, McLysaght, and O'Brien. The earliest record of the name Kelly was found in at least seven places in Ireland. The most prominent sept were the O'Kellys of the Ui Maine, who covered the east of county Galway and the south of county Roscommon. This sept was extremely prominent in the earlier history of Ireland, producing many ecclesiastics, poets and soldiers. An attempt to recognize all their achievements in any limited manner would be futile. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that this sept was among those proscribed by the Corporation of Galway in 1518, as one of the dangerous Irish septs. It is commonly believed that they were the progenitors of all modern-day Kellys. However, this is untrue. Until they were scattered by the Anglo-Norman Conquest, the O'Kellys of Breagh (County Meath) were equal in influence to the Ui Maine Kellys. The Kellys of Ulster descend from the O'Kelly sept of Antrim and Derry, who belonged to the Cinel Eachrach. The O'Kellys of the midlands were one of the "Seven Septs of Leix", and were still powerful in 1543. The Kellys of northern Connacht are mostly of the Templeboy sept of county Sligo. In Dublin, Kellys may well descend from any of the above septs, or from a North Wicklow sept of the name.
Kelly is the second most common Irish surname, with around 50,000 people bearing the surname.
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