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

 

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.”

Success came calling a second time with the catchy pop ballad An Angel from the album Over The Hump, which sold more than two million copies – including a few in Ireland.

The Kelly Family struck gold in the Benelux countries, Scandinavia and, above all, Germany with their music but also an image that married alternative and traditional lifestyles. Their Celtic-influenced costumes and double-decker tour bus pushed against the tide in Germany’s materialist 1990s and chimed with the growing environmental movement. Their energetic, infectiously positive performances matched an image many Germans had in their head of the large, happy Irish family.

The bohemian image was not contrived, insists Patricia Kelly (41), but a reflection of their artistic lifestyle. “I remember we got a lot of letters from people saying we brought entire families together – children, parents, grandparents. We presented an intact family in a society where one in two are divorced.”

Record deals and sold-out tours followed but the Kellys kept everything in the family, from copyright and bookings to promotion and money matters.

However, the long road to overnight success led to years of over-exposure, where bodyguards and hysterical fans were the new norm. In an ill-fated attempt to guard their privacy, the family traded in their double-decker bus and houseboat for a castle near Bonn. Instead of privacy, further negative headlines resulted as young fans camped in the woods outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of their idols.

Worse was to come when the clean-cut Kellys found themselves facing allegations of tax evasion and of pocketing money collected at concerts for Aids research.

For years their passionate German fans and mocking critics had held each other in check, but the scales began to tip against them. Der Spiegel dubbed them a “singing second-hand clothes collection”, and Die Zeit drew unflattering parallels between the Kellys and the “family” of cult leader and murderer Charles Manson. “He, too, had enough of modern America . . . toured around in a bus, made music and waited for a breakthrough,” it noted in 1996.

Though a shock for the family, Kathy admits today that some criticisms were justified. Their tax affairs were a mess but were eventually sorted, at great expense. The Aids-donation allegations, however, were found to be groundless.

By the time Daniel Kelly died in 2002 the band was showing signs of serious strain. The siblings went their separate ways and, freed from the pressures of touring, performing and living together, began to admit publicly what many had suspected for some time: that Daniel Kelly had a tyrannical, controlling streak.

The most outspoken sibling, Jimmy, criticised his father for keeping his children out of formal education in favour of a what he called a “Huckleberry Finn” childhood.He has gone gone back to his roots as a street musician – both for artistic gain and out of financial necessity.

“Though we earned a fortune as the Kelly Family in the 1990s, I had almost nothing by the end,” he said last year. “From that time I have only a table and I don’t even own that outright.”

Maite agrees that the image they projected in public was not always reflected at home, where her father imposed a mixture of strict rules and absolute freedom. “He didn’t plan it, but there was a certain isolation in the kind of life we had,” she says. “On the other hand he gave us all a grounding, none of us have needed nose operations like the Jacksons.”

Kathy, Patricia and other siblings agree their father wasn’t perfect, but say he was more free spirit than tyrant, more artist than businessman. Kathy, who managed much of the family’s business affairs in the later years, suggests this independent streak was both their strength and downfall. “We got too big too fast, we should have cut things down sooner or handed over to professional management.”

After a difficult decade the Kelly castle was sold off last year, liberating family members financially and leaving them free to pursue their own careers. Now aged between 31 and 51, they live with their own Kelly families in the US, Germany and Ireland. All who spoke to The Irish Times were forthcoming and friendly.

The Kelly family have been handed, twice over, a fate familiar to both emigrants and touring musicians; they feel at home everywhere and nowhere. And what of their much vaunted Irish connection? Maite says she feels closer to her mother’s Finnish-German roots.

“As a child, my father’s typical Irish-American nostalgia for his Irish roots annoyed me,” she said. Her older siblings say they feel closer to Ireland. Their lack of success in Ireland then means they enjoy the anonymity there now.

“I am European: I feel comfortable in France and Spain, but I have an Irish passport and that is my heritage,” says Patricia. “I can see how it gets on people’s nerves but, long before we had our success, we always said we were Irish.”

After weathering decades of success and derision, the Kelly Family have mothballed the successful Irish vagabond image, but their connection to their spiritual home remains alive – and deeply felt.


Puffy shirts and tartan: The Kelly Family on YouTube

YouTube is a treasure trove for anyone curious about the Kelly Family’s legacy. The most-watched video (15 million hits) is their biggest hit: power ballad An Angel. The video showcases the puffy shirts and the long hair aesthetic they favoured in the mid-1990s, as well as their stadium-filling appeal.

Their earliest hit, Who’ll Come With Me, is there too, an explosion of green tartan with a rare performing role for the bearded patriarch Daniel Kelly.

Another cult favourite is a young Angelo Kelly channelling Elvis in the novelty song Ain’t Gonna Pee-Pee my Bed Tonight.

As in life, the Kelly Family divide YouTube opinion. One response to Pee-Pee is: “Once you get past the polio dance and the creepy Father Time figure [Dan Kelly], this song has an incredibly focused and important message.”

For an overview of the Kelly Family oeuvre, watch Live at the Lorelei on the banks of the Rhine, at the peak of their popularity. All the big hits are here, as well as the euphoric, often hysterical fans.

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