Joseph O'Kelly (1804-1856)

The origin of the O'Kellys in France is the immigration of Joseph Michael Kelly (sic!), born 7 June 1804 in Dublin. His parents' names were Thomas Kelly and Catherine Byrne. While there are no details about when and where in Ireland they were born, we know that Catherine died in Dublin on 27 February 1814. And since Thomas lived in London when his son married in 1826, probably he and his children moved there some time after Catherine's death.


Arrival in France

Around 1823 Joseph arrived as a music teacher in Boulogne-sur-mer. On 15 November 1826 he married in this town, his wife being Marie Anne Désirée Duval, born in the neighbouring town of Desvres. Kelly registered his profession as 'professeur de musique' when their four sons were born in short succession: Joseph Toussaint on 29 January 1828, Louis Auguste on 13 July 1829, Charles Frédéric on 17 November 1830, and George Alexandre on 12 October 1831. Three of them were to become involved in musical life in Paris, while only Charles Frédéric pursued a different career.


At this time, Boulogne-sur-mer was a major port for travellers and emigrants from Ireland and Britain. For many years the town had a Hibernian Hotel, a Hotel Byron, and similar places which testify to the considerable influx of English-speaking people. In 1827 Franz Liszt stayed at the Hibernian Hotel when he returned from his second concert tour of England and gave a performance at the hotel. Although this is of course speculative, I wouldn't be surprised if Joseph Kelly would have been in the audience. Undoubtedly, he was the first piano teacher of his sons, at least of Joseph junior, since the son already had more prominent teachers as a teenager.


Move to Paris, and a composition

Around 1835 the family moved to Paris. The earliest evidence for this move is Joseph Kelly's only known composition, a work called Les Boulonaises - Contredanses pour le piano avec accompagnement de violon et de basse (ad lib) by one 'J. Kelly', published in late 1835 by the Paris publisher Tabereau. That this 'J.' Kelly is indeed our emigrant from Ireland is clear from the dedication which is to 'Mademoiselle Henriette Gobert' - this is the then 14-year-old Henriette who was later to marry Joseph junior. She was born in Saint Cloud just outside Paris, so it is highly unlikely that they met in Boulogne. She will have been a Paris piano pupil of Joseph Kelly sr. 


In a file in the Archives Nationales there is a letter by Joseph, dated 14 May 1838 in which he complains that he shall join the Garde Nationale. So he asks for the unusual document of a certificate of 'non-naturalisation', maintaining he was a 'British subject'. There is no final decision in the file, but the mayor of the (old) 2nd arrondissement of Paris and the Prefect of the Département de la Seine recommended that his application should be granted.


In the records of the Collège des Irlandais in Paris there appears a ‘Mr. Kelly’ who payed five quarterly sums of 175 francs each for the period December 1837 through February 1839. Although there is no first name, and although Joseph Kelly had more than one son to cater for, it is not unlikely that this person is again 'our' Kelly and that these fifteen months may have been part of the education for the first-born son. Finally, there was a fifth son, born in Paris ten years after the last one born in Boulogne. This is Gustave Alfred O'Kelly, born in September 1841.


Kelly's composition is a set of five country dances entitled Pantalon, Été, Poule, Trénis, and Finale. As usual for country dances they are in either 2/4 or 6/8 time, very lively and not too difficult to play for an average pianist. It is likely that he wrote more than this one composition, but nothing else appears to have survived.


Paris - and the name change to O'Kelly

Kelly lived initially at 4 rue Papillon (old 2nd arrondissement) and later at 72 rue du Faubourg Poissonnière (old 3rd arr.) which would resemble the 9th and 10th arrondissements today. It was a lively quarter close to Montmartre which boasted several small publishing houses, theatres, and was close to the Conservatoire and the Opéra Comique. The street and its vicinity was to be the home for several members of the O'Kelly family for the next decades. For some reason yet unknown he died prematurely, aged 52, on 28 October 1856. As far as I know, he never officially changed his name to O'Kelly as his sons did in 1859. But on his death certificate he is called O'Kelly, and later his sons gave their father's name as O'Kelly in all family-related official documents.


Middle name and possible relation to Michael Kelly

I deducted the middle name Michael from the death registries of his son Joseph (1885) and his widow Marie (1889) where he is called 'Joseph Michel O'Kelly'. As the French name Michel certainly was not given to him in Dublin in 1804, I take it as merely the French version of Michael. Incidentally, this made me think whether our O'Kellys were related to the famous Irish singer and composer Michael Kelly (1762-1826), especially since this Michael Kelly also had a father named Thomas and a brother named Joseph who later lived in London. But this Joseph can't be the same, as he must have been at least 20 years older. But there is a possibility, that one of the other 13 brothers and sisters of Michael Kelly was called Thomas - the Thomas who became the father of the Joseph described here. But altogether it must be conceded that this connection is a little far fetched before more research has been completed.