Keeping it Kelly
The Kelly Family’s Celtic folk-pop and vagabond image won them a cult following – and not a little derision. A decade after the band broke up, the siblings say their American, Irish and German roots make them feel at home everywhere and nowhere
The Kelly Family pictured in Galway in 1995 at the height of their fame. From left: John, Joey, Barby, Patricia, Angelo, Kathy, Jimmy, Paddy. Front: Maite Photograph: Thomas Stachelhaus
Maite Kelly, who at 33 the is second-youngest sibling and a recent winner of Germany’s equivalent of Dancing with the Stars. Photograph: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
When Kathy Kelly arrives at the Cologne hotel, across the Rhine from the city’s bombastic cathedral, the concierge greets her warmly by name.
For much of her life the 50-year-old and nine of her 12 siblings have been known collectively as the Kelly Family, an Irish-influenced folk act located somewhere between the Von Trapp Family Singers and Clannad. The band has been together in various forms since the 1970s and has sold 25 million records around Europe. Yet, unlike the Von Trapps and Clannad’s Brennan family, the Kelly Family has never achieved wider recognition in Ireland, the country they view as their spiritual home.
The Kelly Family story begins with Daniel Kelly, whose grandparents left Iniskeen, west Cork, during the Famine. In public he played the Kelly patriarch by channelling a grizzled, ageing druid aesthetic. But Kathy Kelly remembers her father as a very different man: a “clean-cut, intense, conservative Catholic”.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1930, Daniel was educated by the Jesuits and was six months from his ordination as a priest in Rome when he broke off his studies. Realising he wanted to start a family, he returned to the US to work as a maths teacher. His daughter Kathy, born in 1963, says he was simultaneously attracted to and appalled by the turbulent politics of the 1960s.
He married her mother Joanne in 1957 and, a decade later, moved with their four children to Toledo, south of Madrid, to establish himself as a successful antiques dealer. It was a privileged and protected life, Kathy remembers, with a big house, servants, music and ballet lessons.
But during one of his many business trips back to the US, the strait-laced anti-communist Daniel Kelly was infected by the counterculture of the late 1960s. He let his hair grow, his marriage ended, and he married ballet teacher Barbara-Ann Suokko, who would give him eight further children.
In 1974, the oldest siblings formed a band in Spain, The Kelly Kids, and their local performances went down so well that their father gave up the antiques business to devote himself to their career. They moved north to the Basque country in the dying days of the Franco regime and were caught up in the revival of the region’s Celtic cultural heritage – influencing the family’s musical direction for decades to come.
Their real breakthrough came on a road trip to Rome in 1976 when all their money and valuables were stolen from their van. Penniless, the family got out their instruments and played for days on the streets to enthusiastic audiences, earning enough money for the journey home. Soon they realised their home was on the road, polished up their act and began getting bookings.
The family moved to Ireland in 1977 but, living on a campsite in Tallaght, Kathy remembers the welcome as anything but warm. After an appearance on The Late Late Show, she remembers the locals telling her family: “You’re not Irish, you’re bloody Americans.”
They returned to the continent and enjoyed a commercial breakthrough in 1980, when Who’ll Come with Me? reached number one in the Netherlands and Belgium.
The early death of the second Kelly mother, Barbara, began a decade of struggling to make ends meet. “We were very poor, singing on the street, and if people hadn’t put money in the hat, we didn’t known what was next,” says Maite Kelly, who at 33 the is second-youngest sibling and a recent winner of Germany’s equivalent of Dancing with the Stars. “It is romantic to be carried by the wind but the wind can be harsh, too.”