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Early life


John Kelly was from the townland of Rehy West near Kilbaha in West Clare. His music was indicative of the West Clare style of playing. He came from a family steeped in musical tradition. His grandmother was brought up in Scattery Island on the Shannon Estuary.

John was born in 1912, and lived with his parents, siblings and his fathers parents in a house that is still owned by the Kelly family to this day. There were 8 children in John’s family, 2 of whom died sadly in childhood.

Find out about John’s family and homelife from the audio recordings below.

Details: John is located on the back row, the 5th boy in from the left hand side. His neighbour, Pat Dan Lynch is located the second boy fro the left hand side. National School photo Location: Carrigaholt National School. Date: Circa 1920.

Credit: With thanks to Caoimhín MacAoidh.


Details: John’s siblings, L-R: Mary, Nora, Micho & Teresa Kelly. Date: 1929/30.

Credit: Personal collection of John’s niece, Elizabeth Maguire. 

Details: John’s parents, Elizabeth Kelly (neé Keane) and Michael Kelly. 

Credit: John Kelly Junior’s personal collection

Details: John’s mother Eliza outside of his home house in Rehy, West Clare. 

Credit: Personal collection of John’s niece, Elizabeth Maguire. 

Details: John’s home house in Rehy, West Clare. 

Credit: Personal collection of John Kelly Senior.


John introducing himself

“Hello. I, John Kelly of Rehy, Cross, Kilballyowen, Kilkee, was born in the second decade of this century and I lived with my parents, Micheal Kelly and Eliza Kelly (and) my brothers and sisters, which there was eight in the family, three brothers and five girls. My grand­father and grandmother sere in the house at the same time. They lived to be very old; my grandfather was eighty-two or three and my grandmother was eighty-seven.

Well, we were farming stock and we aid took a part, like, to work at the farm. And I went to school in Cross and Master Crowley was the teacher there, and his wife. And I had a craze for music all the time since I was a boy because my mother used to play the concertina and my uncle Tom was a concertina playere and I was imbued with a love for Irish music since I remember – since I was two years … two or three years. That time music was a passion among the people. The people were simple kind of people and they hadn’t much recreation. They had no access to the outside world and music and dancing would play a big part in their life.”

Location: John Kelly Senior’s house, Capel Street in Dublin.

Credit: John Kelly Junior interview with his father, 1979.


John talking about his early life in Clare

“I went to school when I was seven years and my first teacher was Johnny Maher from Rinevella. He was a fluent Irish speaker and he was a poet. He composed a great song about the ‘Jane of Cardigan’ a ship that struck on the Croppa (?) Rock in Rehy, Rinevella Bay. And the song was got afterwards in the ‘States. His son brought it out there. And Paddy BL (0 Broin)’s hands and we typed it out here and ‘tie in the house someplace. It’s a pity we weren’t handled by a good teacher. Like, we’all had a smatterin’ of Irish. The lads that were about four years older then me, or five or six, they were fluent Irish speakers, some of them, you know, in Rehy. Every man in Rehy of my father’s group was a fluent Irish speaker and they spoke (Irish) outside the chapel gate on Sundays and the Rosary used be recited in Irish in the chapel. When certain meit’d come around there’d be no English at all spoken because they knew that the man, the newcomer, maybe like a man by the name of Seamus a’ /Mail (unclear). Seamus used go to the forge and he’d a big horse. He used go down to Tommo Haugh’s forge and my father’d meet him and, ah, there’d be reels of Irish comin’ in over the ditch.

‘Twas lovely to hear ’em. But they spoke so fast and so gutteral that it was Greek to us, you see. They never left us get under the kernel of it at all. But then we learned Irish … Johnny Maher got too old then, you see, and he retired and a man by the name of Marcus Dowling came and he was from East Clare. He hadn’t a focal. But when it became compulsory to have Irish in the curriculum he done a crash course like all them teachers. But he was no bloody good at it, you know.

He done his beet, like, but ’twas all book Irish. He had no blas or anything, like. We learned a good lot of Irish songs. He was a musical man, he used to play the fiddle a bit and sing and he had good things … but …Anybody that was good at the Irish and anybody that he felt would be a candidate for college or anything he put them in a special desk and then the others didn’t get much … he didn’t put much heed on the others. And down along at the end of the school they couldn’t read or write at all* at all. Never did. They used to call it “The Rowdies Corner”. The Strand lads was there and they were wild I know. Some of them didn’t bother much about learning at all. No matter how you’d hammer it in to them it was no good to them anyway.  Twas great sport.

Our schooldays they were good and they were bad like everybody else’s schooldays. My father used to keep me inside (out of school?) for a month. I was the eldest boy of the family. I was the fourth of the family but I was the eldest of the boys anyway. Of course my older brother died when he was very young. He was older than me but I call him “my small brother”. It’s complicated there but you won’t need that part of the information anyway.

He (Dowling) was very devoted to us, mind you, in his own way. And do you know what he done? He brought us back (after class) for two or three winters to study algebra and Euclid and mensuration and all them kind of things. And we all went to school from about the first of November till about the first of February. And we had great times; football matches and … We was big fellas that time and he was delighted with us and we learned an awful lot. And I knew very well that I could make the grade that time ’cause I’d an interest in it and my brain was more developed when I was young. Ah, but it didn’t happen. My father had no ambitions for puttin’ me away (through higher education?) and so I stayed the way I was.”

Location: John Kelly Senior’s house, Capel Street in Dublin.

Credit: John Kelly Junior interview with his father, 1979.


Music in his early years - Learning the concertina from his uncle Tom

Details: Philip King interview John Kelly. Producer: Julian Vignoles. Location: The Four Seasons Pub, Bolton Street, Dublin. Date: 17th February 1984.

Credit:  ‘The Green Groves’ radio programme, RTÉ Radio 2. Repeated by Peter Browne on his show ‘The Turning Wave’.


John talking about his Mother & Grandmother & then playing Elizabeth Kelly’s Delight

Details: John Kelly talking about his Mother and Grandmother. Location: Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare. Date: 1974. Collector: Séamus MacMathúna.

Credit: © Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. Séamus MacMathúna Sound Collection Link.

Life & Family in Clare Musical Context

Early life