The O'Kellys of Breagh

Comment by Rick O'Kelley:  I copied this page from Rootsweb because I was not able to comment on it and I was afraid it would disappear.  I tried to contact the Don Kelly but was unable to make contact.

Original Page -----

The O'Kellys of Breagh or Breiga and pronouced "brey", were lords of Breagh. They controlled a large part of Province Meath ( later Counties Meath and WestMeath.) from north of Dublin to the borders of Ulster. Four families, The O'Harts, O'Regans, O'Connollys and O'Kellys were "Four Tribes of Tara," the coronation seat of ancient Irish kings.

The Annals of Clonmacnois note that this family was descended from Ciolla-da-Chrioch, a prince of the royal House of Heremon in the 4th century. Therefore, they were related by blood to The O'Kelly Clan of UiMaine, just over the border in Connaught. 

From the 4th century it seems the two O'Kelly Clans lived peaceably as neighbors side by side, however, it seems they did not always fight as a family or as a Clan. Indications are that the O'Kelly Clan of Breagh / Leinstermen were more closely aligned with the Vikings at Dublin. I know of no evidence that they fought for the Vikings at Clontarf, but it seems  they did not honor the call to arms by Ard Ri, Brian Boru, as did O'Kellys of Ui Maine. 

Rick O'Kelley Comment 2024 - I have a Y-DNA 500 DNA test of a descendent of Fesus O'Kelly of Hy-Many compared to my own and we are NOT closely related.  One has to go back to England about 4500 years to find the R-DF13 grandfather that we share.

 I read the Annals of Clonmacnois and I was unable to find a single incident where the O'Kelleys of Bregia and O'Kelly of Hy-Many cooperated on anything and in the Annals there are often battles between the many tribes of Bregia and the Danes so I am sure there was deep hatred. 

What is correct is the O'Kelley of Bregia were of the "Four Tribes of Tara" descendents of 141st Irish Monarch Aed Slaine and the High Kings of Ireland had to come from one of these four tribes.  Brian Boru was not of Royal Blood, he could not become High King of Ireland as long as these Four Tribes existed so Boru married a Dane, and used the Danes to defeat one Irish Chief after another.  The Annals say that Boru and his Danish Army came to Brega in 993 and "Slew them all" which I suspect it means he killed all the Princes of Bregia who were next in line to become the High King so I am certain Boru was hated by the tribes of Bregia.  Boru returned to Munster and then in 996 returned with his army and force the High King to yield and he proclaimed himself "Emperor of Ireland", he took the High Kings hostages, allowed the High King to live and administer his army as long as they did Boru's bidding.  The Annals indicate the Boru's Danes became restless and sent word to their kin outside Ireland and they all met at Clontarf where Boru got his head split with a battle ax and the old High King once again became the High King of Ireland.  Bregia wasn't at Clontarf because Boru killed all their princes but the High King who descended from Aed Slaine and was from Bregia was there for a time then withdrew.  Teige O'Kelly of Hy-Many was there apparently fighting beside Boru's Danish army but the Annals say the the O'Neills of Ulster and most of the tribes of Connacht were not there so I have no clue if the Hy-Many actually came to fight for Brian Boru and the Irish born Danes that were loyal to Boru.   

Lastly, my Y-DNA match to Hy-Many 4500 years ago makes it impossible for the Hy-Many and Bregia to descend from Ciolla-da-Chrioch.  I think the 3 Colas were likely a myth. 

My family left Ireland for Virginia in 1690 and my family tradition stories claim we descend from the High Kings of Ireland and we were prominent in Meath so I have no doubt that we are the O'Kelley of Bregia. 

My grandmother told the story often in the 60s to her grandchildren that the reason we spell our name with the double e is because we are the "Old Irish O'Kelleys" and living in the east coming into daily contact with the English since the invasion it is true that before the printing press resulted in the removal of the extra "e"s' and other letters not needed after all O'Kelley and O'Kelly sound exactly the same so for profit saving labor and pages, the printing press streamlined the spellings but my family stubbornly keep the double e spelling.  my Y-DNA matches and family tradition stories handed down for centuries cause me to believe these are my family

See Annals of Clonmacnois, 500 to 1500AD a broad and deep rendition of Ireland history.

This story of the O'Kellys of Breagh was required reading for Irish history in my mother's high school class.

Her grandfather Pruitt told her that this story circulated around the campfires during the American Civil War.

The story started against the backdrop of an Irish uprising in 1798. Renegade British soldiers north of Dublin shot anyone suspected of disloyalty. 

Most of the military action was south of Dublin and many people were killed  or captured and later hanged, not as combatants, but for running and hiding from the soldiers. The British judges hanged them for evading authority.

Timewise this story was an outgrowth of the uprising of 1798, after 1800, but before 1860. Near the end of the book the O'Kellys and others were heavily armed with Colt repeating  pistols. These revolvers were not available until after 1844, about the start of the potato famine.

The geographical setting for this story was north of Dublin up near Drogheda, ( see Dundalk on map), on the main British road between Dublin and Belfast.

Poem by PJ McCall, 1861-1919

1. At Boolavogue, as the sun was setting
O'er the bright May meadows of Shelmalier,
A rebel hand set the heather blazing
And brought the neighbours from far and near.
Then Father Murphy, from old Kilcormack,
Spurred up the rocks with a warning cry;
"Arm! Arm!" he cried, "for I've come to lead you,
For Ireland's freedom we fight or die."

2. He led us on 'gainst the coming soldiers,
And the cowardly Yeomen we put to flight;
'Twas at the Harrow the boys of Wexford
Showed Bookey's Regiment how men could fight
. Look out for hirelings, King George of England,
Search ev'ry kingdom where breathes a slave,
For Father Murphy of the County Wexford
Sweeps o'er the land like a mighty wave.

3. We took Camolin and Enniscorthy,
And Wexford storming drove out our foes;
‘Twas at Sliabh Coillte our pikes were reeking
With the crimson stream of the beaten Yeos.
At Tubberneering and Ballyellis
Full many a Hessian lay in his gore;
Ah, Father Murphy, had aid come over
The green flag floated from shore to shore!

4. At Vinegar Hill, o'er the pleasant Slaney,
Our heroes vainly stood back to back,
And the Yeos at Tullow took Father Murphy
And burned his body upon the rack.
God grant you glory, brave Father Murphy
And open heaven to all your men;
The cause that called you may call tomorrow
In another fight for the Green again.

NOTE: After the uprising was put down at battle of Vinegar Hill, Father Murphy and many other people, rebel and innocent alike, were hanged by British judges.


The O'Kellys O'The Deep Woods

The O'Kellys O'The Woods were most likely remnants of the ancient O'Kelly Clann of Breagh, Leinstermen loyal to the Kings of Meath who were later dispossessed of their lands when Cromwell conquered Ireland and changed native ownership of land forever.

This O'Kelly family kept the ancient spelling of their name, and two fold; for keeping their Celtic name and, as Catholics, prohibited British penal laws from ownership of good land, livestock, or of a horse of substantial value. So they had to make a living for their families the best way they could.

This was a rather large Clan it seems because they lived in Provinces Leinster, Meath and Connaught, and they had kinfolks in Counties Kildare, Meath, Louth, Monaghan, Cavan, Longford, Offaly, Westmeath and Laois, who would hide them from the British.

Rick O'Kelley Comment 2024 - my Y-DNA suggest that the O'Kelley of Bregia was greatly reduced, and I suspect that Brian Boru is the person who did most of the reduction but of course the Normans played a part.  To learn more read my DNA page.

They lived in the woods along the main roads of Ireland land, but this story focuses on the main road from Dublin to Belfast.

Removed from their lands by Cromwell in the mid 17th century, these O'Kellys settled in  woods where they were not easily seen, cleared land for crops and built houses out of the wood,  well hidden from view from any road. They raised cattle along the grassy borders of the woods, and at fair time they herded their livestock to the fair where they sold them. By keeping a low profile they avoided undo British suspicion. 

During the uprising of 1798, several of the fathers and grandfathers of the clan were hung unjustly by a British judge. This despite the fact that the O'Kelly family lived well north of the military actions which occured primarily south of Dublin in County Wexford.

Hatred of the British spawned a vendetta against all British authority that lasted for some sixty years when many able bodied men volunteered to fight in the American Civil War. 

NOTE: In 1801 under the "Act of Union," Britain seized Ireland as Crown property and made Ireland part of the British Empire. This infuriated the Irish who in 1811 seized upon a window of opportunity when most of the British soldiers pulled out of Ireland to fight in the American War of 1812. Defeat of the British forces by the Americans pleased Irish rebels no end. 

But between 1800 and 1860 the O'Kellys ran the British law ragged. If a fine British land lord passed through the woods, he was robbed and sent with his servants on his way. Then at night the Land Lords manor house and barns were burnt down as a warning not to evict Irish people from their land, or the next time he passed that way, he would be hanged.

The O'Kellys kept spies in Dublin and other towns to let them know when the British tax man was around, or when a VIP type was about to leave Dublin with a large escort.

Part of the O'Kelly plan included never rob a south bound carriage, just watch to see who was in it, and perhaps a plan to rob them on the way back. Secondly, they never robbed a coach or rider near their home, and they never ambushed large forces of British soldiers.

If a British tax man, judge or any British official came through, they were robbed. The tax man was summarily hanged at the edge of the woods in sight of the road. British officials might be permitted to pass, especially if their families were with them. Judges were shot  and buried deep in the woods, as though they just disappeared without a trace. Even their carriages were burned and buried, and their horses were herded to the end of the woods and turned loose. They never used British mounts because they had identifying marks.

The fancy carriages, like those with the Crown Seal on the door, were driven empty out of the woods to the north and set on fire, so the authorities couldn't tell where or if a robbery had occurred.

The O'Kellys raised grain, corn and vegetable, so they were not affected badly by the potato blight. They gave excess grain to the poor houses to help feed the starving. They lived off of the land, if they needed fresh meat, they took deer from the woods. No game Warden dared venture into the woods. 

When a Sheriff from Dublin or another town came to investigate, if he was British he was hanged at the edge of the woods in sight of the road. If he was Irish, he was considered a consort of the king and part of a conspiracy to murder Irish people. They were killed and buried with the judges deep in the woods.

During the potato famine 1844 to 1848, America sent several ships full of grain to Ireland. British warships blockaded Ireland and stopped most of the ships, made them dump their loads into the sea and return to America. 

A few ships got through the blockade with badly needed food, and those ships also carried a large number of repeating pistols ( revolvers ) and ammunition from the Colt Firearms Company in America. The guns and ammunition was smuggled to O'Kelly and other rebel groups who waged guerilla war against the British.

NOTE: Before 1850 the British soldiers in Ireland were armed with muzzle loading pistols and flintlock muskets. Weapons with rifled barrels were not used by the British and in a firefight the soldiers in Ireland were outgunned.   

Thusly heavily armed, the O'Kelly band were able to shoot the large escort of soldiers out of their saddles before they could draw their weapons. 

Occupants of carriages, depending on their level of association with the crown, or level of threat to Ireland, were either killed and buried or set afoot. Dead soldiers were loaded in  the carriage and driven out of the woods to a swamp where it was burned and sunk out of sight and the carriage and officers horses were set free. The O'Kelly never took a stolen horse or carriage onto their own land.

After each action they carefully picked up every shell casing, every evidence of ambush, British firearms were buried in the woods and no clues were left behind to lead authorities to their homes or rebel bases.

Unless supported by an army, British sheriffs, game wardens or other officials would not venture far into the woods without finding a trespasser hanged. 

It appears the O'Kellys practiced revenge well, and made a decent living too. They took back what the British had stolen from their families. and took a life for a life.  It is very interesting how they took revenge on the British, and were never captured as a group. If and uncle or cousin was arrested and thrown into jail, a written note to the sheriff and the prisoner was usually set free with an apology.

If the prisoner was not set free, they attacked the jail, killed everyone in charge and set all of the prisoners free. It was a mutual understanding based on fire power and will.


Update 2014 by Rick O'Kelley


The author of this page is said to be Don Kelly but all attempts to contact him has failed.  Source for this page is

My family line of the O'Kelley of Tara appear to have become Protestant in the 1500 during the reign of the Tudor Monarchs.