John Kelly the boy from Killane is now one of the most celebrated names from the 1798 Irish Rebellion. However, little was known of him until the Irish songwriter P J McCall wrote the song that bears his name and made him famous.
And although McCall’s song sounds as though it came right out of the heat of battle in 1798, it wasn’t written until 1911 – more than a hundred years later.
McCall was fascinated by Irish history and also wrote that other great rebel song, Boolavogue. He wrote it in 1898 to mark the centenary of the 1798 rebellion.
Kelly the Boy from Killane is very cleverly written and begins with the urgency of a news bulletin as the singer demands
“What’s the news, what’s the news…”
Straightaway we feel the excitement and anxiety experienced at that time with people trying to keep up with a rapidly changing situation during the rebellion.
At the start of the song the news is good because the rebel troops are preparing to march the next morning, and the best news of all is that they will be led by Kelly the boy from Killane.
We know that John Kelly was from a prosperous merchant family but there are few historical references to him. This allows McCall to use a little poetic licence in describing him.
For example, Kelly is portrayed as a giant with gold curling hair. He is over seven feet tall if the song is to be believed, and he looks like a king in command as he rides ahead of his troops.
It’s likely that this is not to be taken literally but rather that McCall is trying to portray a charismatic wartime leader.
The song retains the feel of a news report in the third verse as we learn that rebels have taken Enniscorthy and Wexford.
The narrative then changes to what is about to happen the next day as the rebels prepare to cross the River Barrow at Ross.
We hear that the overall leader will be Bagenal Harvey but even so it is Kelly who attracts the most praise as the “foremost of all in the grim gap of death”. This description seems to be quite accurate because when the rebels stormed Ross, Kelly was indeed at the head of the fighting.
The final verse changes from contemporary news report to a history lesson as we learn that the rebels were defeated at Ross after being betrayed by traitors and slaves.
The song ends with a call to honour the rebels who had died “for the cause of long downtrodden man”.
And the greatest roll of honour is preserved for the dauntless Kelly, “Leinster’s own darling and pride”.
Picture of P J McCall taken from Glory O! Glory O! The Life of P J Mccall by Liam Gaul (used with permission).