Kelly is second only to Murphy as the most populous Irish name, and it is therefore logical to find it often in Ireland’s songs. According to Father Woulfe’s Irish Names and Surnames, Kelly derives from Ceallac meaning Warlike, and it seems that Kelly’s lived up to that meaning not only in Ireland, but wherever they went. In the wars of the United States, the name Kelly appears frequently among those decorated for bravery. The first American hero of WWI was Colin Kelly who received the Medal of Honor; and Joseph Clarke wrote a famous poem about a trio of Irish American Heros in the Spanish American war named Kelly, Burke and Shea. Even in America’s War of Independence, the roster of Irish soldiers serving in Washington’s army was headed by Kellys – 695 of them.
The Kellys were Chiefs of Connaught where they ruled over Galway and Roscommon until the scattering of the clans from Cromwell’s time to the reign of Elizabeth I. Today, there are Kellys in every County, and one who is dear to the hearts of every Irishman is John Kelly of Killane in Co Wexford. He emerged as one of the leaders of the Rising of 1798 when, with only a small body of poorly armed men, he captured a contingent of British Militia on their way to fortify Wexford. By May 29, rebel victories had spread the rebellion throughout Co. Wexford confining British troops to a few towns now vulnerable to attack. General Fawcett, Commander of the garrison at Duncannon fort led 300 soldiers and supporting artillery to bolster the garrison at Wexford town. Making good time with no opposition, Fawcett free-quartered his troops for the night among the unhappy inhabitants of Taghmon village. At 2 AM, the slower artillery column arrived, but pressed on toward Wexford since villagers had duped the Brits with false reports of a clear road to Wexford and of the urgency of their pressing ahead. Meanwhile, Kelly and his men were waiting in ambush at a place called Three Rocks. A few rebel musket men were concealed behind the rock outcrops while hundreds of pikemen waited out of sight. Rebel spotters with flags signaled the approach of the Brits at dawn, as they marched unsuspectingly into the killing ground and met a close range volley of musket fire. That was followed by a massed pike charge into the line, giving the soldiers no chance of regrouping. The fighting left around 70 Brits dead, most of the gunners captured and two howitzers in the hands of the rebels. A few survivors fled back to Taghmon with news of the disaster. Unnerved by the annihilation of his artillery column and the prospect of attack from rebels armed with canon, Fawcett ordered a retreat. Meanwhile, General Maxwell, Commander of the Wexford garrison, led a troop of cavalry to meet the expected reinforcements. They soon met Kelly and his men bringing the captured artillery to use against Wexford and fled back to the town. The prospect of facing rebels with artillery unnerved the Brits and envoys were sent to seek terms for peace. While the rebels were involved with the peace envoys, the garrison snuck away, wreaking revenge by indiscriminately burning, raping and murdering as they fled all the way to Duncannon. The rebels took Wexford town and freed their imprisoned Commander-in-Chief, Bagenal Harvey. The rebels now were in a position to launch offensives against the few remaining British garrisons in the county.
Kelly was made a Lieutenant and was detailed by Bagenal Harvey, to bring in all available men from the barony of Bantry for an attack on New Ross. Most of the county was in Irish hands but the key to ultimate success was the town of New Ross at the vital junction of the rivers Barrow and Nore which would open the way to the western counties. The Battle for New Ross became one of the bitterest contests of the insurrection. Although superior in number, the rebel forces had no trained men to fire their captured cannon, no experienced infantry leaders, and very little expertise or ammunition for the few firearms they did possess. The fight for New Ross would be remembered as a story of pitchforks and pikes against artillery; of desperate courage against overwhelming firepower; and it all happened in the month of June.
On June 5, Lieutenant Kelly led a group of about 600 Bantrymen in the initial assault on New Ross. They stormed one of the town’s main Gates. The gate was originally known as Aldgate (old gate), but was later changed to Bewley for a local Norman family and then to Three Bullet Gate after Cromwell had fired three canon shots from there during his taking of the town in 1649. On June 5, 1798, the gate became the scene of such prolonged and fierce fighting that it received yet another name. It was ever after referred to as the Bearna Bhaiol – the Gap of Danger – by which it is still remembered to this day in the words of the modern Irish National Anthem. Repelling a cavalry charge by the Fifth Dragoons, Kelly’s pikemen breeched the gate and spilled into the town. Kelly, a massive figure of a man, became the central figure in the house-to-house fighting that raged murderously throughout the day. Then, as Crown forces were in full retreat, Kelly fell, seriously wounded, in Michael Street; he was taken to Wexford town to be treated. Without their leader, the rebel attack slackened giving the English officers the needed time to rally their fleeing troops. The fury of battle continued into evening, when the courageous but now leaderless insurgents broke off the action after 15 hours of fighting.
It was then that the slaughter began, as angry Crown troops ran down rebel stragglers without mercy. Major Vesey, commanding in place of the fallen Lord Mountjoy, wrote: No quarter was given. The soldiers were too much exasperated and could not be stopped. Dr Jordan Roche, a medical officer filed a report on the night’s activities which read: The remaining part of the evening was spent searching for and shooting the insurgents whose loss in killed was estimated at 2,806 men.
After the failure of New Ross, the Irish were forced back by English reinforcements to Wexford town and the final battle at Vinegar Hill. When Wexford town was recaptured by the British, a yeoman sergeant, whose life Kelly had spared some days before, identified the wounded patriot. Kelly was taken, brutally mistreated, and hanged on June 22 on Wexford Bridge. His body was conveyed to the river and his head trailed and kicked along the streets before being spiked. Friends recovered the head and returned it to Killane for burial. A monument was later erected on the spot. Had this courageous patriot’s name never been recorded in history’s pages, we would still know of his exploits to this day because of the rousing 19th century ballad by Patrick Joseph McCall which is still among the most popular of all our rebel songs – Kelly, the Boy From Killane.