Interesting Kellys

The Rt. Hon. Thomas Kelly.(1723 - 1809)

Prime Serjeant and 2nd Justice of the Common Pleas.


Some time after 1767 Thomas Kelly, a recently appointed King’s Counsel, was leasing approximately 400 acres from Henry Bowen, a Welshman of some diminishing fortune. The Bowen's, previously abOwen, were from the Gower peninsula of Glanmorganshire in south Wales. They had come to Ireland before Cromwell, this particular part of the family settling in Queen’s county where they built Ballyadams castle. A John Thomas Bowen was Constable of the castle in 1549.   Another part of the Bowen family later traveled with Cromwell and settled around the Mallow area of Cork.   Henry Bowen's financial situation was soon to increase substantially, to the tune of £6000.00 sterling,  a small fortune in those days (€ 750,000.00 in todays money). The holding was equidistant from Athy in Kildare and Stradbally in the Queens county. It was then known as Derrinroe (the red oak) and was later to become Kellyville.


Local Laois folklore has it that Kelly was leasing the land from Mr. Bowen and that he had made substantial improvements to the holding by way of better land husbandry and drainage.   This could well have been the start of the Kellyville Lakes, which exist to this day and were later to become “duck decoys”. As a result of this improvement Derrinroe had increased in value.  Our good Mr. Bowen, who wanted the land back, could not afford to compensate Kelly for the work done, so a deal was struck on the 23rd February, 1777, and the holding became the home of the Kelly family for the next 78 years, staying in their direct ownership till about 1855.


Thomas, or The Right Honourable, as he was to become later, was the third son of a family of seven - John, Ulick, Tom himself, James, Oliver, and sisters Jane and Anne Honora.   They were born to a Catholic gentleman by the name of Edmund O’ Kelly of Fidane, with Thomas, arriving in the year 1723.

The old O’Kelly house in Fidane, which is within a few hundred yards of the site of the original O’Kelly castle, is today the residence and in the good hands  of a Mr. Finnegan and his family. In my view it should be recognised as one of the historic houses of Ireland.


Thomas Kelly was 54 when he bought Derrinroe. As a judge of the Common Pleas he sometimes covered the Connaught circuit. It is thought he spent some time in the West Indies where he practiced. The Law Society of Jamaica have been unable to help me on this one.


Whereas the judge’s father is recorded as Catholic, the judge himself must have turned some time before he entered Mid Temple on 24th November 1747 at the age of 23. The Penal laws were in place in Ireland at the time and the professions were closed to catholics. The story goes that his brother Oliver, who was a catholic Bishop, pleaded with him not to change his religion and, in doing so, offered him presents of gold and silver.   Thomas refused the offer and Oliver, on returning to his carriage, found his inducements had, to put it politely, disappeared. Whereupon a very annoyed Oliver put a hex on the place. This is a local Laois story and I don’t think it will stand up.


Over a long and distinguished career and a  full and active life Thomas achieved very high legal, political and social acclaim.   He held many positions;

1747 —— Bailiff of Kildare, Enters Mid Temple 24th Nov.

1753 —— Called to the Irish Bar, 28th May.      

1768 —— Bencher of the Honourable Society of King’s Inns

1782 —— Prime Serjeant

1783 —— MP. Elected member for Portarlington.

                 Became Justice of Common Pleas.

                Was then admitted to the Privy counsel.

1784 —— Company of Undertakers of the Grand Canal,

                  and also became 3rd Justice of The Common Pleas.

1793 —— Free merchant of Cork city, 1st September 1793.

1794 —— 2nd justice of the Common Pleas, at the age of 70.

1795 —— Commissioner of Accounts

1796 —— Commissioner of Appeals

1797 —— Free merchant of Dublin City.               


The judge was a sharp featured man with a sense of roguery about him. He was noted for his easy sense of humour. He was fluent in his native tongue, which he preferred to use, and spoke with a broad brogue. A contemporary of of his,  Master of the Rolls, Justice Curran used to say “he had the brogue in his shoulders” On his retirement some of his judgements were questioned and found to be unsound. When challenged on a particular issue by  nationalistic minded Justice Johnson, also of the Common Pleas, who also had an estate in Queens County, Kelly replied as follows.

 “So, Mr Johnson, said the judge, looking archly, shifting his seat somewhat, and shrugging up his right shoulder, ‘

“So! because I decided wrong twice, Mr Johnson, you have me do so a third? No, no, Johnson! You must excuse me. I decide the other way this bout"– I'm quoting Jonah Barrington (1760-1834).

 He retired on 2nd May 1801* because of Government policy (The Act of Union) saying "he should consider it rather a disgrace than an honour to wear the Prime Serjeant's gown under a ministry which resisted the rights of his country!” See Notes

It is said that when going to a serious case his wife would gather some local children to the door and say “we wont leave any orphans after today”. The judge was reputed to be a fair and kindly man who never sentenced any man to be hanged. Henry Grattan is quoted as saying “he was one of the most honourable and humane judges I ever saw upon the Irish bench was the late Justice Kelly of the Common Pleas”.

 It’s not surprising the Rt Hon was a man of such character, just look at his linage. The “Right Honourable” was 41st from Máine Mór, at one time chief of Uí Máine, or Hy Many, to use the anglicised version.


Some other people of this very interesting line include Tadhg Mór Ó Ceallaigh, 18th Chief of Uí Máine, who died ‘fighting like a wolf dog’ at the battle of Clontarf in 1014.   It was on this occasion that the mythical creature which now embellishes the O'Kelly crest appeared from the sea.   This was a creature which would frighten anyone if they were to encounter it on a foggy night. With the head of a fox, the chest of an elephant, the mane of a horse, the forelegs of an eagle, the body and hind legs of a hound and the tail of a lion, it would put you off drink driving. However, the creature did its job and protected the body of Tadhg Mór from been mutilated, as was the custom at that time.  Interestingly, hybrid animal-like creatures exist in the mythology of other ancient cultures, e.g. Egypt. I wonder where the idea came from. In Greek mythology this kind of creature is referred to as a "chimera".


On a lighter note, in Galey castle on the shores of Galey Bay on the Shannon, near Knockcroghery, in 1351 William Buí Ó Ceallaigh, who was king of the Ó Kelly territory at the time and a descendant of Maine Mor, organised a great gathering at his castle. He was of a very hospitable disposition and the party supposedly lasted the month of December.It was at this gathering that the famous O’Kelly poem of welcome was written.

            "A blessed, long living, great, courteous welcome,

            An affectionate, charitable, just, proper, true hearted welcome,

            A welcome and twenty, and I add, hundreds to them,

            Like the surge of the stream is, my welcome to you."

Some say this is the precursor of “Céad Míle Fáilte”,  the now popular Irish welcome.


Kellyville was not the Right Honourable's only residence. He lived in a fashionable part of Dublin, albeit on the North side. His first recorded residence in Dublin was in Caple Street in 1753. Next he went to Derby Square and some time later, in 1799, to 19 Rutland Square. All were within easy reach of the Four Courts.


At the time of the Act of Union, which he opposed, he had the status of Prime Serjeant, a legal office not known in England. In Ireland the Prime Serjeant had rank and precedence over the attorney and solicitor general.  On the passing of the Act of Union, Kelly stated that he should consider it rather a disgrace than an honour to wear the Prime Serjeant's gown under a ministry which resisted the rights of his country!  He resigned and retired to  private and popular practice as a  barrister. He, in effect, gave the Harvey Smyth to the establishment.   This helped his new legal practice no end. It might not have impressed George William Frederick, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, Prince-Elector of Hanover, Duke of Brunswick, to give him his full title, otherwise known as King George III, with whom he was on personal terms. Another man with whom the judge was on very good terms was his neighbour Henry Grattan (1746-1820) Irish parliamentarian, who had a residence in Vickerstown. Grattan is quoted as saying of the judge that he was a man who possessed what very few judges in Ireland possessed, namely, a love of his country and countrymen. He added “He always had an eye to the people and their liberties.”


The Rt Hon died in his 86th year in June 1809 and was buried on the 7th in St Mary’s Church of Ireland on the corner of Mary Street and Jervis Street, Dublin.  The building is now a pub/restaurant having been deconsecrated in 1968. Unfortunately it was decided at the time that the adjoining graveyard should be turned into a People's Park and as a result all tombstones were removed and stacked in good order at the northern end of the park. The park is named  after Theobald Wolfe Tone, the Irish revolutionary, who was born nearby in 1763 and was baptised in St Mary's.



Before all this, in the year 1764 in the wintery month of January, the Rt. Hon. had married Frances Hickey, the daughter of James Hickey, mayor of Carrick-on–Suir, and of Anne Salisbury Jephson of Mallow Castle.   Miss Jephson was the second of three wives of James Hickey.   Thomas was 41, a late starter it could be said, probably because of the time he had spent in the West Indies, or maybe he had a previous marriage.

 After what seems to have been, in those days, a respectable time delay of two years the first of their nine children arrived.   Frances gave birth over the following thirteen years.  Their children included one set of twins, Francis and John, born on the 30th July 1771. Sadly, the infant Francis died. In 1773 another young Kelly boy arrived and he was also christened Francis.

Arranged marriages were the norm at the time and the judge married his daughters off well.  His fourth born, Annabella, married Sir George Pigott of Knapton, Abbeyleix, in 1794.   His youngest daughter  married Sir Richard Bligh St. George of Woodsgift, second baronet, in1799.   His last daughter  to marry was Charlotte Elizabeth who in 1802 married Thomas Cosby of Cosby Hall in Stradbally.   The Pigott and Cosby families are still in the Laois area today.

 This brings me to his sons, Edmund Gore, Thomas, John and Francis.   Little is known about them, except for Thomas.

 I hope the reader understands that this is work in progress. Information is drifting in from time to time but I don't think the overall picture of the people of Kellyville will change to any great extent.

 I have touched on the life of the Right Honourable only as of that of one of the many forgotten individuals of Ireland, even though part of the Establishment he was a very proud and proven Irishman. It’s no wonder because he  was of a proud and dynamic family, a family which had experienced many events and produced many interesting people through its long history.  The people of Kellyville were no exception.


The Irish Parliament was first established on 18th June 1264 and sat for the last time on 2nd August 1800.

The Right Honourable Thomas Kelly is recognised in Burke's peerage as the representative of the highest branch of the ancient clan O'Ceallaig of Ui Maine in the west of Ireland. Therefore any remaining line of the Kelly's of Kellyville have to be the legitimate heirs of that proud family.

According to Donovan's genealogical table Rev Thomas Kelly was line 42 from Maine More. His children would be line 43 and any surviving issue of this line would be line 44 etc. It would appear that the Kellyville line was guillotined, or to put it in another way, brush stroked from history.


People say times change - I say no to that, time passes, nothing changes, except circumstances, and I wonder what were the Kellyville circumstance.



A little more on the Rt. Hon. to follow-- and a bit on his one of his sons.

* His wife Francis Hickey of Carrick on Suir, who he had married in Dublin on Tuesday 28th May 1765, died in this year.


Cav Kelly,  April 2014