Kelly, John (1773–98), insurgent leader, was born at Killann, Co. Wexford, eldest among six children of John Kelly (1737?–1797), shopkeeper and prosperous farmer, of Kilbranish, and his wife Mary (née Redmond (c.1743–1803) of Killann. He was a first cousin of Fr Mogue Kearns (qv), whose mother was his paternal aunt. Though the family were catholic, his father had served as a churchwarden and cess collector at St Ann's protestant church in Killann. Kelly may therefore have attended the only school in the village, a protestant one. On 29 September 1782 his father and Thomas Cloney (qv), evidently well thought of by Caesar Colcough (qv) of nearby Duffry Hall, were elected freemen of the borough of Enniscorthy which Colclough owned. It is not clear when Kelly and Cloney became friends, but they were of an age, and from neighbouring parishes. Kelly probably played hurling, as it was popular in the region and enjoyed the patronage of the Colcloughs.
As with others who rapidly became local colonels and captains in the spring of 1798, evidence on Kelly's life is fragmentary. Until 1796, and the visit of Lord Edward FitzGerald (qv) to the Killann region in March 1797, there had been little United Irish recruitment there. Thus it was with much consternation that Colcough, a tolerant and liberal landlord, learned of a drive among his own tenants. Kelly himself had been up to Dublin and sworn in sometime before 15 June 1797, when Colclough wrote to the chief secretary, Thomas Pelham (qv), that Kelly was ‘of the better sort and a well conducted man, one who could have considerable influence’. Colclough made him take the oath of allegiance and lodge a surety of £200, and did not inform Kelly's father, who was ill. Kelly, who had already sworn one local man in, thanked Colclough in a letter dated 17 June; his father died on 20 September 1797 and was buried in the family plot at Killann church.
No further reliable archives shed light on Kelly's leadership of the barony of Bantry, save for various rebellion narratives which are often biased or contradictory. According to local tradition, he drilled his men by night in a coach house, or the family shop. He emerged as a major catalyst in the swift and broad mobilisation of 26 May which followed news of the midland rising. Marching through the Leap, where he assembled his unit, which included Cloney, James Devereux, and Michael Furlong of Templescoby, he led his Bantry–Scarawalsh battalion to join the rebels camped on Vinegar Hill outside Enniscorthy on 29 May. There Kelly was taken into the expanded leadership circle as a colonel, and though his men were uninitiated in combat, they successfully took on a column of the Meath militia and Royal Artillery from their position on the Forth mountain, seizing arms and howitzers. On 4 June, Kelly, Beauchamp Bagenal Harvey (qv), Cloney, and John Colclough (qv), took as their headquarters Talbot Hall on Corbet Hill, overlooking New Ross. Under Harvey's nominal command, New Ross was to be attacked simultaneously in three strategic points. However, Kelly, either disregarding Harvey's strategy, or unable to hold back his battalion of about 500 men from the baronies of Bargy, Forth, Shelmalier, and Bantry, led a preemptive assault on the south-east corner of the town at Three Bullet Gate. After breaching it, they swiftly charged downhill through the winding streets of the town towards the bridge, taking the nearby barracks and its store of weapons. Whether Kelly genuinely had the military talent to ‘become the Hoche of Ireland’, as Miles Byrne (qv) would later claim, will never be known, as his thigh was shattered and he was replaced by Cloney (Byrne, i, 76).
Brought to Wexford, possibly to his sister's home, he was unable to move and dangerously ill. There he was visited by his betrothed, Mary Doyle. When Gen. Lake (qv) took the town, a thorough search was conducted for concealed rebels and Kelly was brought to Wexford gaol. His whereabouts may have been revealed by an Orange Yeoman sergeant named Whitney, whose evidence helped convict Kelly. Kelly had earlier provided him with a safe conduct as rebels were threatening to pike him, and Whitney produced the document as proof of his leadership at the court martial. He was tried and convicted, probably on 28 June, transported on a car, and hanged from an ornamental arch on Wexford bridge. According to most accounts, some graphic and gruesome in detail, Kelly's headless trunk, ‘after the accustomed indignities’ (Hay, 242), was thrown into the water, and his head impaled on a spike over the courthouse after having been kicked about under his sister's window. It is said that she had it secretly removed, bringing it to Killann to be interred in the family grave. His mother lived on through these tragic events and died 9 December 1803.
His memory and legend live on through P. J. McCall's (qv) ballad, ‘Kelly the boy from Killane’ (the spelling commonly used by local historians). Inspired by traditional ballad sheets, it portrays Kelly as a ‘giant with gold curling hair’, standing seven feet tall. His forcing of ‘the gateway of Ross’, is enshrined in Irish collective memory in the lines ‘Foremost of all in the grim gap of death was Kelly, the boy from Killane’. The metaphor of his braving the bearna bhaoil (gap of danger, or death) is tellingly replicated in the Irish national anthem.