‘I don’t want to be married to someone who feels inferior to my success or because I make more money than he does’. Such were the wise words of Academy Award-winning actress Grace Kelly when she achieved the fairytale dream of marrying Monaco’s Prince Rainier in 1956. There hadn’t been an Irish woman on a throne since Grace O’Malley who was not just Grace’s namesake but also came from Mayo.
It’s a Philadelphia story. It’ a great Irish-American success story. And it’s a story that began in 1847 with the birth of Grace’s grandfather John Henry Kelly at Kidney Lake in Drimurla, near Newport, Co. Mayo. We don’t yet know what he did in Ireland but I suspect he was a handy man at rowing a currach around Clew Bay, and that he was possessed of particularly powerful shoulders. Family lore holds that he was known as ‘Strong John’ and there is a suggestion that his father was called Brian.
In 1867 the young man, described as an ‘unskilled labourer’, crossed the Atlantic and settled in Philadelphia. By his wife Mary Costello, John had six sons and four daughters, including Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright George Kelly, popular vaudeville actor Walter Kelly and Grace’s father, John Brendan Kelly, Sr. (known as Jack).
Jack was one of the most successful oarsmen in the history of rowing, winning 126 consecutive races in the single scull and becoming the first triple Olympic Gold Medal winner in the sport. Amazingly his first cousin and long-time rowing partner Paul Costello was also a triple Olympic Gold medal winner in the same sport. And given that Jack’s son Jack Kelly Jr – sometime President of the United States Olympic Committee – also won a bronze medal at the Olympics, that is seven Olympic medals for the one family, six of them gold.
Jack also excelled as a boxer and footballer. Like many a Mayo man, he made his vast fortune as a brick-layer, starting in 1908 and becoming one of a select group of East Coast millionaires. “Kelly for Brickwork” was the slogan seen at his construction sites. In 1935, he very nearly won the Mayoralty of Philadelphia for the Democrats. Grace’s mother Margaret Katherine Majer was a fashion model of German Lutheran origins.
A combination of Jack’s wealth, Margaret’s beauty and the Kelly’s civic-spirited exuberance gave Grace all the confidence and contacts she needed in Broadway and later Hollywood. A favourite of Hitchcock, she won her Oscar for her role as long-suffering housewife in ‘The Country Girl’. Her co-star was Bing Crosby whose mother Kate Harrigan was also a builder’s daughter from Ireland. Grace’s film career lasted just five years, concluding with ‘High Society’ (another Irish reunion with Bing), after which she settled down to life as Grace Grimaldi, housewife and Princess, until her tragic death in a car accident in 1982.
 Local lore holds that John Kelly was born in Drimurla townland in the civil parish of Kilmaclasser, Co. Mayo, where Grace bought the cottage. His father may have been Brian Kelly. The records for the 1830s and 1840s show Kellys living all around the parishes of Islandeady and Kilmaclasser. However, no Kelly households were recorded in the townland of Drumilra at the time of Griffith’s Valuation, although there were Kelly households in the parish of Kilmaclasser. Nor were there any households recorded in the townland of Drumilra at the time of the Tithe Applotment. Parish records hadn’t begun by time JHK was born so its unlikely that his baptismal record survives.
The civil parish of Kilmaclasser corresponds with the Roman Catholic parish of Kilmeena, the records for which date from 1858. Newport is located in the civil parish of Burrisohoole, which neighbours Kilmaclasser and corresponds with the Roman Catholic parish of Burrishoole, the registers for which only date from 1872.