How Grace Kelly became an unlikely icon of Irish-American assimilation

The ascension of a Catholic Irish-American to princess paved the way for the Irish to be accepted as American ‘royalty’

A statue of Grace Kelly, the Hollywood actor who became a princess, was unveiled in Mayo recently near Drimurla, where her grandfather’s cottage still stands. This came a month after Trinity College Dublin added a bust of Abbey Theatre co-founder Lady Gregory to its Old Library. Although public women of Irish connection are finally being included in official memory and memorial, Grace Kelly’s significance to Ireland and Irish America generally remains neglected.

Kelly, awarded an Oscar for The Country Girl (1954), appeared in 11 films between 1951 and 1956. She received the title of Princess Grace of Monaco upon her marriage to Prince Rainier III of Monaco in April 1956. Grace was a cultivated woman whose deep and often publicly shared interest in Ireland and its culture led her widower to endow the Princess Grace Irish Library of Monaco in her honour. In her public life, she ably represented both her heritage and her adopted principality: Grace formally lunched with the Kennedys in May 1961, a month before making an impactful state visit to Ireland during which she called at the ancestral Kelly cottage in Drimurla.

Although Kelly had projected a patrician image during her Hollywood years, her story before her wedding follows the broad contours of the Irish-American experience of relative exclusion. Born in 1928, during her early decades certain select roles were still not accessible to Catholic Irish Americans. Moreover―and what has remained particularly unexamined―is that Kelly herself was central to the final full assimilation of her community.

John Henry Kelly, born in Drimurla in the Famine year of 1847, left for Pennsylvania 20 years later. Grace was the granddaughter of John Henry and the daughter of the handsome and athletic John B Kelly, who earned his fortune during America’s 1920s building boom. Grace was raised in a large home in a residential Philadelphia neighbourhood on the Schuylkill river banks. This waterway divided the Irish “new money” from the “society” Anglo-Protestant elite on the western bank along the so-called Main Line. The Kelly home was a fine one, as I saw with my own eyes when I delivered a talk there in December. However, to “old money” Wasp Philadelphia, the fact that it had been newly built in the late 1920s with bricks from the family’s own firm was unpalatable. Altogether, in the highly socially and racially stratified city in which Grace was born, wealth and success were not enough for those of recent immigrant background to be fully accepted into its uppermost echelon.


In order to dilute the usual associations of an Irish Catholic background, movie studios created a slightly icy but elegant persona for Kelly when she was on the rise in the early 1950s. Nevertheless, the assumption that a Philadelphia Irish Catholic girl could not quite make the cut coloured coverage: in 1955, Time magazine suggested that although publicists tagged “Miss Kelly as ‘a Main Line debutante,’” she was “neither Main Line nor a debutante, but she is the next thing to both.”

The Kennedy era tends to be the beginning point in assessments of the final full assimilation of the Irish in America, but it was Kelly who initiated the transformation

Such subtly snooty comments melted away when Kelly’s engagement to Rainier was announced in January 1956.

Their wedding in Monaco cathedral three months later was one of the largest international media events of the 1950s. It was broadcast live on television by MGM, watched by 30 million people. It is not remarked upon today, but this unambiguously Catholic spectacular came only three years after the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, also a momentous televisual event. For some of those of Irish nationalist persuasion in Ireland and the US, Kelly’s globally visible transformation to royalty was an Irish Catholic riposte to the crowning of the new British monarch at Westminster Abbey in 1953.

The ascension of a Catholic Irish-American to the status of princess paved the way for the Irish to ascend to “American royalty”, so to speak: the first Catholic Irish president was elected only four years later. The Kennedy era tends to be the beginning point in assessments of the final full assimilation of the Irish in America, but it was Kelly who initiated the transformation.

The princess’s gorgeous white bridal gown also inspired women in her ancestral country. Caitriona Clear has noted that into the early 1950s, the wedding outfit of most Irish women was a formal day dress or suit and that the white dress and veil was worn mostly by brides from elite backgrounds. It seems that the widely disseminated image of the white bridal gown of a woman of modest Irish roots made such attire approachable for ordinary women in Ireland: by 1957 the colour of wedding dresses was so taken for granted that it went unmentioned in Irish newspaper accounts. Kelly’s donation of the gown to the renowned Philadelphia Museum of Art for its permanent collection soon after her wedding suggests the sudden confidence of the Catholic Irish in a city that had long socially excluded them.

In her role as princess, Kelly wielded immense soft power as the internationally known representative of a tiny principality long overshadowed by its powerful neighbour, France. Biographer Donald Spoto suggests that the global spotlight brought by Kelly transformed Monaco: it disarmed French attempts to assert control over the principality, revitalised its economy and, through the princess’s efforts, made it a hub for cultural events. Even Kelly’s final film, after a long hiatus, Rearranged (1982), a comedy short in which she plays herself, was a disguised promotion for her beloved Monaco Flower Show. Poignantly, Rearranged remains unreleased as it was unfinished at the time of the princess’s death in a car accident in 1982.

Kelly had purchased the ancestral Drimurla cottage and the surrounding small-holding in 1976, suggesting a deep reservoir of family feeling. If the princess always remembered Drimurla, then Drimurla returned the favour: residents sent a wreath of wildflowers picked in the fields around the ancestral Kelly home to Monaco for her funeral.

Mary M Burke is the author of Race, Politics and Irish America: A Gothic History (Oxford University Press), available in Hodges Figgis and online