Kelly, Hugh (1739–77), writer and dramatist, was born at Killarney, Co. Kerry, son of Ferdinand Kelly, a gentleman who lost his estate. At an early age he moved to Dublin (where his father purchased a tavern), and after a perfunctory education was apprenticed to a stay-maker. In 1760 Kelly moved to London, where he worked as a stay-maker, and then as a clerk, before trying his hand at journalism. In quick succession he became editor of the Court Magazine, the Ladies' Museum, and finally the Public Ledger. A polemicist for hire, he wrote many political pamphlets, including one defending William Pitt the elder. In 1766 he published anonymously a satirical poem, Thespis, which mocked the performers at Drury Lane, except for those whom he liked, and David Garrick, whose support he needed. The following year he published a number of works: The babbler was an anonymous collection of his essays, while Louisa Mildmay, or memoirs of a magdalen, was a popular novel. Repenting of his earlier viciousness, he published a second edition of Thespis in 1767, which diluted what he described as the ‘ruffian cruelty’ of the previous year. He also published influential theatrical criticisms of the Covent Garden performers.
Deciding to try his luck as a dramatist, he wrote a play, ‘False delicacy’ (1768), which he showed to Garrick for approval, and staged to popular acclaim at Drury Lane. Samuel Johnson, of whom Kelly was in awe, dismissed the effort as ‘totally void of character’. Indeed, when Kelly first met Johnson he received a curt response when he excused himself to leave; Johnson told him not to worry as he had forgotten that he was even in the room. Despite Johnson's criticisms, ‘False delicacy’ was a huge success at the box office, hurting ‘A good natur'd man’ by Oliver Goldsmith (qv), which opened at Covent Garden a few days later. The two Irishmen had been on good terms, but the theatrical rivalry put an end to this, especially because of Goldsmith's suspicion that his opening had been delayed deliberately to help Kelly. Goldsmith was quoted disparaging his countryman's effort, causing a breach, and the final rupture occurred when Kelly responded to some generous praise from his rival with the put-down: ‘I cannot thank you because I cannot believe you’.
Kelly's second play, ‘A word to the wise’ (1770), fell victim to political controversy: widespread suspicion that the writer was receiving a pension from Lord North, in return for defending unpopular measures, prompted rioting at the premiere and subsequent performances. The play was soon withdrawn, and Kelly wrote a tragedy, ‘Clementina’ (1771), that was produced anonymously and achieved only mediocre success. In 1773, however, he staged his work, ‘A school for wives’, under another writer's name to avoid further political controversy. Goldsmith's death (1774) affected him greatly, and he was one of only six or seven people who attended the funeral, where he was seen weeping. Later that year he staged ‘The romance of an hour’, again anonymously.
Kelly's last play was ‘The man of reason’ (1776), but by now his writing talents were in serious decline and the work was not well received. Increasingly disillusioned with the theatrical world, he retired from writing to pursue a legal career. Having entered Middle Temple in 1768, he was called to the bar (1773), but failed to build a successful practice. Succumbing to drink, debt, and illness, he died 3 February 1777 in Gough Square, Fleet St.
He married (1761) a seamstress – ‘merely for love’, as he said himself – and they had at least five children. A benefit was organised for his widow Elizabeth and family, who were left in financial difficulty by his death. This was held at Covent Garden 29 May 1777. ‘A word to the wise’ was restaged, with a preface by Johnson, who apparently had come to develop a friendship for the writer, if not a deep appreciation of his talents.