It’s unlikely that he really matched up the seven foot giant described in the song.
However, from what little is known, it seems clear that he was a brave and determined fighter, if not always as disciplined as his senior officers might have liked.
There is very little information about John Kelly, who is celebrated in the song, Kelly the boy From Killane. He certainly played a significant role in the 1798 Irish Rebellion in Wexford.
Kelly and the Battle of Three Rocks
By the end of May in 1798, the rebels in Wexford had secured a number of small but significant victories at places like The Harrow and Oulart Hill.
The county’s main town, Wexford, was still under British control but the officers defending it were sufficiently worried by the rebels that they called for reinforcements to be sent from the coastal garrison of Duncannon.
Kelly and a band of rebels ambushed some of these reinforcements at a place called Three Rocks on the edge of the Forth Mountains.
The rebels won and captured British weaponry
The British were taken completely by surprise and the battle was over within half an hour.
About 70 British militiamen were killed and the rebels were able to seize valuable weaponry including artillery.
However, the main significance of the attack was that no reinforcements reached the British troops who were defending Wexford. The garrison then surrendered as the rebels advanced on the town.
Kelly and the Battle of New Ross
Fresh from their success at Three Rocks, Wexford and elsewhere in the county, the rebels pressed on to take Ross which would enable them to cross over the River Barrow and bring the fight to other parts of Ireland.
Bagenal Harvey was in overall control of the attack but Kelly was put in command of an advance guard of about 500 men.
The rebels approached the town with a force of about 10,000 men. Harvey sent a messenger called Matt Furlong to give the British an opportunity to surrender and prevent further bloodshed.