The O'Kelly family

By Axel Klein, Ph.D

Left: A Joseph O'Kelly composition dedicated to Viscount O'Neill de Tyrone

There is probably no better example of the integration of Irish musicians into French society than that of the O’Kelly family in the 19th and early 20th century. Yet, they are totally forgotten today in both France and Ireland.

Four generations of the O’Kelly family were active in music circles in France covering roughly 100 years between the 1820s and the 1920s. The original immigrant into France was the pianist and teacher Joseph Kelly (not ‘O’Kelly’) (Dublin, 1804-Paris 1856). He arrived around 1823 in Boulogne-sur-Mer, having previously spent a few years in London with his father. He married a Frenchwoman in November 1826 and had four sons, born between 1828 and 1831, three of whom became notable musicians. The young family moved to Paris, probably in 1835, initially living at 4, rue Papillon (9th arrondissement) and from around 1841 on just around the corner at 72, rue du Faubourg Poissonnière (10th arrondissement), sharing the same building as the German poet Heinrich Heine for a few years. One composition by Joseph Kelly survives in the music division of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), a set of five country dances arranged for piano, violin and double bass called Les Boulonaises, perhaps inspired by music Kelly heard in Boulogne. It’s pretty, unpretentious music, written to entertain rather than to be performed on a stage.

A file still preserved in the Archives Nationales documents Kelly’s attempt in May 1838 to avoid being conscripted into the Garde Nationale by trying to obtain a certificate of ‘non-naturalisation’. He argues that as a British subject he cannot be forced to join this much-derided militia and considers it strange that he has to prove a ‘non-fact’ rather than the Garde having to prove that he is French. A few years after Kelly’s premature death at age 52, his sons went back to Boulogne to have the name on their birth certificates changed from Kelly to O’Kelly. This was an unusual step to take, and one that is possibly linked to the family’s strong sense of Irish identity (an identity made all the more appealing by the fact that, as foreigners, it meant the Kelly/O’Kelly’s could not be drafted into the French army).

70-72 rue du Fbg. Poissonière
The best-known member of the family was Joseph’s eldest son, also called Joseph (Boulogne-sur-Mer, 1828-Paris, 1885), who composed 10 operas, three large cantatas for choir and orchestra and numerous pieces for piano and songs, as well as a few pieces of chamber music such as a Piano Trio (1858). Some 230 of Joseph O’Kelly’s compositions were published. His teachers included Fromental Halévy for composition and fellow Irishman George Alexander Osborne (friend of another Irish composer in Paris, Michael William Balfe) on the piano. According to contemporary reviews of his music, he was regarded as a competent and talented composer, but not as a modernist. Of his operas, the one which received the greatest public attention (because it was performed at the Opéra Comique in the rue Favart (2nd arrondissement)) was also the one which was the most criticised: La Zingarella (1879). But his greatest success was his last one, La Barbière improvisée (1882), performed more than 30 times at the Bouffes Parisiens in rue Monsigny (2nd arrondissement) in 1884. Joseph was a member of the ‘Anciens Irlandais’ group of emigrant Irish in Paris, presided over by John Patrick Leonard, and wrote a number of pieces of Irish interest such as Air irlandais for piano and a cantata for the O’Connell Centenary in Dublin in 1875. Despite receiving a number of public honours, including becoming a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur in 1881 (on John Leonard's recommendation), and despite the fact that the famous French composer Camille Saint-Saens played organ at his funeral mass in 1885, Joseph O'Kelly was quickly forgotten after his death at age 57, probably because his conservative style was out of step with the prevailing musical trends in Paris. Joseph O’Kelly was buried in Passy cemetery (16th arrondissement) in 1885, but the plot was re-allocated in 2000.

Joseph’s brother Auguste O’Kelly (Boulogne-sur-Mer, 1829-Paris, 1900) is mainly remembered for his music publishing business, called the ‘Magasin de Musique du Conservatoire’, which was active between 1872 and 1888 at 11, rue du Faubourg Poissonnière (9th arrondissement), just around the corner from the Paris Conservatory in rue du Conservatoire. He published about 1,500 pieces of music, mostly piano music and songs, but also short opera scores, chamber music and some educational treatises. The grave of Auguste and other members of the O’Kelly family is still visible in the Père Lachaise cemetery (20th arrondissement).

 O'Kelly family grave in Père Lachaise cemetery
Another brother, George O’Kelly (Boulogne-sur-Mer, 1831-Asnières-sur-Seine, 1914), spent the years 1851 to 1881 in Boulogne-sur-Mer, where an Irish opera of his was performed in 1878 called Le Lutin de Galway. While newspaper articles of the time refer to orchestral scores by him, he, too, mainly wrote piano music and songs, although George was far less prolific than his brother Joseph. Returning to Paris, he mainly lived at 47 rue des Acacias (17th arrondissement). Increasing age (and rents) drove George out of the city and he died in the suburb of Asnières-sur-Seine.

The third generation of O’Kelly musicians included Henri O’Kelly (Paris, 1859-Cannes, 1938), a son of Joseph’s, and Gustave O’Kelly (Paris, 1872-Paris, 1937), a son of Auguste’s, who was a piano maker with a large shop at 93, rue Richelieu (2nd arrondissement). Henri was a very talented pianist, winning prizes at the Conservatoire, but he earned his daily bread as organist and choirmaster at the Paris churches of St-Germain-l’Auxerrois (1st arrondissement) in 1881-1900 and St-Vincent-de-Paul (10th arrondissement) in 1900-1918. He, too, published a few small-scale compositions around 1900 before he concentrated on performing French church music. For his services, he, like his father before him, was awarded the distinction of becoming a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur in 1931. Henri lived almost all his life at 70, rue du Faubourg Poissonnière.

The fourth generation of musicians in the O’Kelly family consisted of Henri’s son, also called Henri (Paris, 1881-Mériel, Val d’Oise,1922), a double bass player who was a member of the orchestra of the Opéra Comique and of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire. He was the editor (and part composer) of a collection of music for bass clef instruments published in Paris in 1920. Henri junior was, in fact, the only O’Kelly musician who took our French nationality, for which he was thanked by being seriously wounded in World War I and dying early. Remaining Irish in Paris did have its benefits.


Select Bibliography

Axel Klein: O’Kelly – An Irish Musical Family in Nineteenth-Century France (2014),
available at: