26 November 2015
On my way from Bunclody to Taghmon while I was back in Co Wexford last weekend, I stopped off in Killanne to see the grave of John Kelly, remembered in song and folklore as “Kelly, the Boy from Killanne.”
When the late Canon Norman Ruddock was the Rector of Killanne and Killegney in the 1970s, he invited me to speak in his parish during his programme for Lent 1974. I spoke on my faith, Christianity, politics and social action and Christianity. I was just 22, and it was one of the first times I spoke publicly in a Church setting.
John Kelly of Killanne was one of the rebel leaders in 1798. Like many of the leaders of the United Irishmen in Co Wexford, including Beauchamp Bagenal Harvey, the Boxwells, the Colcloughs and the Grogans, he was also an active member of the Church of Ireland.
During the 1798 bicentenary commemorations in 1998, research by the local historian Gloria Binions demonstrated that John Kelly, had been the churchwarden of Saint Anne’s, Killanne, for many years prior to the Rising.
Her research shows that the Kelly family moved from Kilbranish, on the Co Carlow side of Bunclody (then Newtownbarry), to Wheelgower, near Kiltealy, south of Bunclody, around 1770. John Kelly, who was born six years later, was the son of John Kelly, a tenant farmer and shopkeeper, and his wife Mary Redmond, who owned a pub at the crossroads in Killanne, which was bought in 1904 by the Rackard family, known in later generations for their famous Wexford county hurlers.
Kelly was a cousin of Father Mogue Kearns. As a farmer, he had no military background, nor was he a trained soldier. He fought at Enniscorthy and Vinegar Hill and was one of the leaders of the rebel victory at the Battle of Three Rocks that led to the capture of Wexford town.
Later, Kelly’s column of 800 men attacked and broke through Three Bullet Gate in New Ross and started to move into the town. After initial successes, they were beaten back by British troops and Kelly was wounded in the leg.
He was moved to Wexford to recover and hid in his sister’s house. But after the fall of Wexford on 21 June 1798 was taken from his bed, tried and sentenced to death. He was still only 22 when he was hanged on Wexford Bridge on 25 June 1798, along with seven other rebel leaders. After that, his body was decapitated, the trunk thrown into the River Slaney and his head was kicked through the streets before being set on display on a spike.
Later his sister recovered his head and brought it back to be buried in the Church of Ireland section of Saint Anne’s churchyard in Killanne. However, the monument over his grave was not erected until the centenary commemorations in 1898, and the ballad ‘Kelly the Boy from Killanne’ was written around the same time.
The inscription on the cross erected above his grave in 1898 in Saint Anne’s churchyard reads:
Erected in grateful memory
Captain JOHN KELLY
Born 1776 Executed 1798.
He was wounded whilst leading
the insurgent troops at the
battle of New Ross,
Was taken prisoner, conveyed to
Wexford and most cruelly executed
at or near the old bridge.
We revere his memory as a most
ardent and exemplary patriot who so
honourably gave his young life
for his country’s cause.
The ballad was written by Patrick Joseph McCall (1861–1919), who spent his summer holidays in mother’s home parish of Rathangan, Co Wexford.
McCall wrote the song to mark the centenary of the 1798 Rebellion, but it did not appear into print until it was published in McCall’s Irish Fireside Songs in 1911.
During the 1998 commemorations in Co Wexford, shortly after I unveiled the Scullabogue memorial in Old Ross, I was challenged about John Kelly’s membership of the Church of Ireland.
It was interesting that one of the people listening to this conversation was Sheila Cloney of Fethard-on-Sea. Her family name before she married was Kelly, and I was vindicated.
Kelly the Boy from Killanne
What’s the news, what’s the news oh my bold Shelmalier
With your long barrelled guns from the sea
Say what wind from the south brings a messenger here
With the hymn of the dawn for the free
Goodly news, goodly news do I bring youth of Forth
Goodly news shall you hear Bargy man
For the boys march at dawn from the south to the north
Led by Kelly the boy from Killanne.
Tell me who is that giant with the gold curling hair
He who rides at the head of your band
Seven feet is his height with some inches to spare
And he looks like a king in command
Ah my boys that’s the pride of the bold Shelmaliers
’Mongst greatest of hero’s a man
Fling your beavers aloft and give three ringing cheers
For John Kelly the boy from Killanne.
Enniscorthy’s in flames and old Wexford is won
And tomorrow the Barrow we will cross
On a hill o’er the town we have planted a gun
That will batter the gateway to Ross
All the Forth men and Bargy men will march o’er the heath
With brave Harvey to lead in the van
But the foremost of all in that grim gap of death
Will be Kelly the boy from Killanne.
But the gold sun of freedom grew darkened at Ross
And it set by the Slaney’s red waves
And poor Wexford stripped naked, hung high on a cross
With her heart pierced by traitors and slaves
Glory-o, glory-o to her brave sons who died
For the cause of long downtrodden man
Glory-o to Mount Leinster’s own darling and pride
Dauntless Kelly the boy from Killanne.