KELLY Surname Meaning and Family History

The Irish surname Kelly means "descendant of war."
Getty / mikkelwilliam

The Kelly surname, along with common variants Kelley and Kellie, has a number of possible origins. Most commonly it loosely means "descendant of war," from the ancient Irish name "O'Ceallaigh." The Gaelic prefix "O" indicates "male descendant of", plus the personal byname "Ceallach" meaning "strife" or "contention." The name may also mean "bright-headed."

Kelly is the 2nd most common surname in Ireland and the 69th most popular surname in the United States.

Surname Origin: Irish

Alternate Surname Spellings: KELLEY, KELLIE, O'KELLY, O'KELLEY, KELLI

Famous People with the Kelly Surname

  • Gene Kelly - legendary American film actor and dancer
  • Ellsworth Kelly - one of America's great 20th-century artists 
  • Grace Kelly - popular American film actress of the 1950s; married to Prince Rainier III of Monaco
  • Ned Kelly - Australian outlaw; leader of the 19th-century Kelly gang
  • Machine Gun Kelly - American bootlegger, bank robber, and kidnapper
  • Chris Kelly - America rapper; one half of the rap duo Kris Kross, best known for their 1992 song "Jump."

Where the Kelly Surname Is Most Common

The Kelly surname is the 836th most common surname in the world, according to surname distribution data from Forebears. The name is most prevalent in Ireland, where it ranks as the 2nd most common last name, and is also very common in Northern Ireland (1st), Isle of Man (2nd), Jersey (19th), Australia (17th), Scotland (45th), Canada (60th), England (62nd), the United States (66th) and New Zealand (68th).

WorldNames PublicProfiler also shows the Kelly surname as by far most commonly found in Ireland. It is a common name across the country, with the greatest numbers in the Midlands and West regions.

Genealogy Resources for the Surname KELLY

  • 100 Most Common U.S. Surnames & Their Meanings: Smith, Johnson, Williams, Jones, Brown... Are you one of the millions of Americans sporting one of these top 100 common last names from the 2000 census?
  • Kelly Family Crest - It's Not What You Think: Contrary to what you may hear, there is no such thing as a Kelly family crest or coat of arms for the Kelly surname. Coats of arms are granted to individuals, not families, and may rightfully be used only by the uninterrupted male-line descendants of the person to whom the coat of arms was originally granted.
  • KELLEY/KELLY/O’KELLY Surname DNA Study: Individuals with the Kelly surname, and variants such as Kelley, Kellay, Calley, O'Kelly, and O'Kelley, are invited to join the Y-DNA project to incorporate DNA testing with traditional genealogy research to identify various Kelly family lines.
  • KELLY Family Genealogy Forum: This free message board is focused on descendants of Kelly ancestors around the world. Search the forum for posts about your Kelly ancestors, or join the forum and post your own queries. 
  • FamilySearch - KELLY Genealogy: Explore over 8.3 million results from digitized historical records and lineage-linked family trees related to the Kelly surname on this free website hosted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
  • KELLY Surname Mailing List: Free mailing list for researchers of the Kelly surname and its variations includes subscription details and searchable archives of past messages.
  • GeneaNet - Kelly Records: GeneaNet includes archival records, family trees, and other resources for individuals with the Kelly surname, with a concentration on records and families from France and other European countries.
  • The Kelly Genealogy and Family Tree Page: Browse genealogy records and links to genealogical and historical records for individuals with the Kelly surname from the website of Genealogy Today.
  • Kelly Surname: Explore over 13 million digitized records and database entries, including census records, passenger lists, military records, land deeds, probates, wills and other records for the Kelly surname on the subscription-based website,


  • Cottle, Basil. Penguin Dictionary of Surnames. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1967.
  • Dorward, David. Scottish Surnames. Collins Celtic (Pocket edition), 1998.
  • Fucilla, Joseph. Our Italian Surnames. Genealogical Publishing Company, 2003.
  • Hanks, Patrick, and Flavia Hodges. A Dictionary of Surnames. Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Hanks, Patrick. Dictionary of American Family Names. Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Reaney, P.H. A Dictionary of English Surnames. Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Smith, Elsdon C. American Surnames. Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997.

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Your Citation
Powell, Kimberly. "KELLY Surname Meaning and Family History." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Powell, Kimberly. (2020, August 27). KELLY Surname Meaning and Family History. Retrieved from Powell, Kimberly. "KELLY Surname Meaning and Family History." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).