The Irishness of a Princess: Exploring Grace Kelly’s Irish Heritage

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When I published my article on Grace Kelly and Jean Simmons’s Olympic champion fathers last February, I discovered an interest in doing that kind of genealogy research. However, it implies a lot of time and organization. Via that article, we learned that Grace Kelly had German ancestors (via her mother, Margaret Majer) and Irish ones (via her father, John B. Kelly Sr.). As we recently celebrated St. Patrick, I thought it would be a good occasion to explore the subject of Grace’s Irish heritage. I was initially supposed to publish that article on St. Patrick’s Day, but the research took more time than I would have thought. But, better late than never!

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A Brief History of the Irish Immigration in the 19th Century

Grace, like her father, was born in Philadelphia, a place of importance for the Irish immigration heritage and the name Kelly. It is, however, a complex history, which is the result of various waves of Irish immigration to North America. While the first waves of Irish immigration in the United States began as soon as during the Colonial Era1, the waves that occurred during the 19th Century are the ones of interest for this article.

During the second half of the 19th Century, an important number of Irish people moved from Ireland to establish themselves in the United States or Canada. The causes were diverse, but the most important was perhaps The Great Famine, also known as The BlightThe Irish Potato Famine and The Great Hunger. The crisis lasted more or less between 1845 and 1852.2 The potato crisis had different causes, the best-known being the late blight or potato blight disease caused by a microorganism called Phytophthora infestans.3 Consequently, potato consumption became impossible.4 That caused major problems since potatoes were then consisted the staple food in the Irish alimentation.5 It is important to mention that the Great Famine was also the result of Great Britain’s control over Ireland, which encouraged social, economic and political injustices towards the Irish.6 The disease’s consequences were disastrous, resulting in the death of 500 000 to 1 M people in Ireland. Irish persons indeed became malnourished, victims of Cholera epidemics and, overall, lived in misery.7 Another consequence of The Blight was, of course, the decision of millions of Irish people to migrate towards the New Continent in hopes of better living conditions.  That was, however, not the only reason for their departure. We can also name the tensions between the Irish and British people.8

As a result, around two million Irishmen and Irishwomen left their land between 1845 and 1855.9 In the United States, Irish immigrants mostly established themselves in New York, Boston, Philadelphia10 and even Chicago. However, despite escaping the famine, Irish people had to face more challenges. One of them was to travel in dreadful and insalubrious conditions.11 The migration ships were called coffin ships12, and we understand why as the chances of not surviving the trip were considerable… Then, another challenge was for them to be accepted in their new land. Unfortunately, Americans did not properly welcome the Irish. Those had to face stereotypes, mostly anti-Irish and anti-Catholic stereotypes, discrimination and prevalent racism.13 In Philadelphia, Grace Kelly’s hometown, The Irish Memorial opened to the public in 2003 and was installed at the corner of Front and Chestnut Streets. The monument is there to pay tribute to the millions of Irish people who died because of the Great Hunger and those who started a new life in the USA, leaving everything behind them.14

Grace Kelly’s Irish Grandparents

Concerning Grace Kelly more directly, it is her paternal grandparents, John Kelly and Mary Ann Costello. They moved from Ireland in the second half of the 19th Century. The date of Mary Ann Costello’s migration is known as 1867.15 As for John Kelly’s date of migration, it is more or less clear. Indeed, some sources indicate 1867, 1868 or 1869, while others write 1887. I’ve tried to find more precise results on some Irish immigration databases. Still, most of them cost money, and the free ones’ results were not very conclusive. However, 68 or 69 is more probable as Kelly and Costello married after their migration, once they were in the United States. Moreover, most of their children were born before 1887.16 Also, some sources call Grace Kelly’s grandfather John Henry Kelly while other sources call him John Peter Kelly. Even Grace Kelly’s granddaughter’s Jazmin Grace Grimaldi, in a recent Instagram post published on St. Patrick’s Day, calls her great grandfather John Peter Kelly and gives his date of immigration as 1887.17 It’s kind of hard to follow to be honest. Since Grace Kelly herself never knew her paternal grandparents, I feel the answer will never be totally clear. The official records I saw on some website do indeed list his name as John Henry Kelly, but maybe John Henry Kelly is someone completely different who is not Grace Kelly’s grandfather. Moreover, on some of the Kellys’ official records, John B. Kelly Sr. (Grace Kelly’s father) and his sibling’s father is only listed as John Kelly, instead of John Henry Kelly or John Peter Kelly. On Elizabeth Kelly’s death certificate, however, it is written John H. Kelly. Did he change his middle name at one point in his life?? Anyway, for the sake of not making a mistake, I will simply name him John Kelly for the rest of the article and keep in mind that he travelled from Ireland to the United States in the second half of the 19th Century. 

Both John and Mary Ann were from Mayo County in Ireland. John Kelly’s birth date is also not entirely clear as his grave (he was buried in Westminster Cemetery in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania) indicates 1850, while his death certificate indicates 1852.18 The various Internet sources indicate his birthdate as 1848, although they display both images of the grave and his death certificate. The website Finds a Grave lists a J.P. Kelly born in 1857, the date given by Jazmin Grace in her post, in their database. However, according to the website (which is not necessarily a reliable source), that J.P. Kelly was born in Colorado.19 The website Ancestry lists a John Peter Kelly born in 1857 in Philadelphia, but, once again, this is obviously not Grace Kelly’s grandfather.20 Of course, there’s probably more than just one John Peter Kelly… As for Mary Ann Costello, the Kelly grave in Westminster Cemetary indicates her birthdate as 1852, while her death certificate indicates 1853.21

The reason for John Kelly and Mary Ann Costello’s migration towards North America was mostly to escape the difficult living conditions in Ireland. Indeed, although the potato crisis itself was over by the time they moved to the States, the disaster had long-time repercussions and encouraged the migration of many Irish people in the decades to follow.22 It goes without saying, being an Irish in Ireland was not easy. Interestingly, between 1845 and 1852, half of the Irish people who migrated were either from Connaught and Munster and, more precisely, from the counties of Galway, Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon and Mayo where Grace Kelly’s grandparents were from.23

Before going to America, John Kelly lived on a farm with his family. The ancestral home, known as Kelly homestead, in Drimurla near Newport, was situated next to Leg of Mutton Lake.24 Their way of life was a modest one. John B. Kelly Sr. explained to a journalist, in 1956, that his uncle “Pat” was the only one lucky enough to get an education. He later became the Dean of Dublin University.25 Although John Kelly didn’t get the same opportunity as his brother, he was gifted with a considerable memory, a trait that Grace Kelly inherited.26 As she became an actress, that was quite useful for her to learn her lines. When John Kelly immigrated to the United States, it was under the most difficult conditions in the boat’s third class section.27 The Kellys from Ireland were indeed not what John B. Kelly Sr. and his family eventually became: the wealthy Kelly of Philadelphia. John B. Kelly initially walked in his father’s footsteps by becoming a bricklayer who initially lived modestly. Eventually, it is his bricklaying company that brought him fortune.28

When John Henry Kelly arrived in the United States, he initially began his new life in Rutland, Vermont, where he married Mary Ann Costello. He first worked as a labourer on railroads. He then moved to Philadelphia with his family, where he worked at Dobson’s Carpet Mills next to the Falls of Schuylkill.29 Among their children, Patrick, Annie, John, and Charles were born in Rutland. Mary, George, Elisabeth, John and Grace were born in Philadelphia. Finally, Walter was born in Mineville in New York State.30

John Kelly and Mary Ann Costello’s marriage license

Unfortunately, it seems that Grace Kelly’s historians didn’t really explore more in-depth the story of Mary Ann Costello. Aside from her birthplace, birth date and immigration date, not a lot is known about her. However, Wendy Leigh does reveal some interesting information about the person she was. She is described as being that vivacious and intelligent woman who loved reading and who could cite by heart scenes from Shakespeare plays.31 Grace, later in her life, also shared an interest in the British playwright as she occasionally gave Shakespeare recitals.32

Eventually, Kelly, an Irish name, found an important place in Philadelphia’s history due to some of the notorious members of this family. John B. Kelly didn’t only own a successful bricklaying company but also ran for mayor in 1935.33 He and his son John B. Kelly Jr. were also both Olympic sculling champions. Grace Kelly became both a movie and a princely icon. Her uncle Walter C. Kelly became a vaudevillian actor, while her uncle, George Kelly, became a successful playwright. It is important to mention that Kelly Drive, which runs along Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, was named in honour of John B. Kelly Jr. However, it is John Kelly Sr. statue that we can observe next to the river.34

Grace Kelly Travels to Mayo County, Ireland

Grace Kelly integrated her Irish heritage quite early in her life and, as we suspect, became proud of it. Indeed, at age seven, she took part in Irish dance classes and attended weekly mass, faithful to her Irish-Catholic origins. Later in her life, she travelled to Ireland on three occasions. When it was revealed that she was to marry Prince Rainier III of Monaco, it provoked excitation among the Kellys from West Mayo. The Kellys from Drummin, Croagh Patrick and Drimurla were quick to ask for their royalty rights. Genealogy record researches executed by the then editor of The Mayo News, Gerard Bracken, confirmed that Kelly’s grandfather was born in Mayo County. As a result, Grace and Rainier made their first visit to Mayo County in 1961. Accompanied by Caroline and Albert (Stephanie wasn’t born), they embarked on a busy trip to Ireland, where they met many important Irish state people and visited various places. However, the highlight of their trip was when they visited the Kelly ancestor home, a three-roomed cottage, where her grandfather was born and raised. In 1961, it was own by Ellen Mulchrone, known by the locals as Widow Mulchrone. She carefully prepared the house to welcome the royal party. That included house reparations, baking griddle cakes and polishing the glassware and good China to make the house as appealing as possible.35 If Grace Kelly was proud of her heritage, the Kellys from Mayo County were also proud of her. During that trip, Grace wore a green Givenchy dress, which is now displayed at Newbridge Silverware Museum of Style Icons in Newbridge, Ireland.36

Archival footages of Grace Kelly’s visit in 1961

Grace and Rainier’s second visit to her ancestral land occurred in October 1976 after Grace purchased the family homestead in Mayo County and 35 acres of land. She took the occasion to visit Widow Mulchrone, who then lived in the MacBride Home for the Elderly. Their last visit, in 1979, had for objective to observe architectural plans for a holiday home in Drimurla, which was to be designed by Simon Kelly. Unfortunately, Grace’s death in 1982 put a brutal end to the holiday home project. Many attempts during the decades following her passing were made to restore the old homestead, but nothing was concretized.37 A 2011 article on Independent.ie reveals that the cottage is now not more than ” a heap of stones”.38 When Grace Kelly passed away, people from Newport sent a bouquet of wildflowers to Monaco for the funeral.39 A tender gesture that marked their appreciation for the princess. 

Grace Kelly arrives in Ireland in 1976
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These were, however not the only trips Grace did to Ireland. For example, some images available on Getty Images also reveal us that she was there in 1965 and in 1973 as well.

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Posthumous Tributes to Grace Kelly’s Irish Heritage

Two years after Grace Kelly’s passing, in 1984, Prince Rainier opened the Princess Grace Irish Library in Monaco to honour her Irish heritage.40 There, we can find her collection of Irish books, her sheet music, a scrapbook with news clippings, floral napkins designed by Grace, and some of her personal furniture. The New York Time classifies the library as one of the top places to visit in Monaco.41

When Grace visited Ireland, she stayed in The Gresham Hotel on O’Connell Street in Dublin. The hotel, proud to have received such an honourable guest, re-baptised the suite The Grace Kelly Suite in her honour.42

On his side, Grace Kelly’s son, Prince Albert of Monaco, is a regular visitor to Ireland. In 2011, he celebrated the 50th anniversary of his mother official trip to Ireland (the one in 1961). On the same occasion, a fellowship named in honour of Grace Kelly was created at Trinity College in Dublin.43

Prince Albert II of Monaco and hiss wife Charlene of Monaco visit Ireland in 2011

In 2012, a Grace Kelly film festival took place in Mayo County to commemorate the 30th anniversary of her death. The celebration included a Grace Kelly look-alike contest, a vintage afternoon tea, cocktails, movie quizzes, and Grace Kelly films screenings.44

Finally, another of Grace descendants who followed her footsteps to Ireland was her granddaughter Jazmine Grace Grimaldi whom we previously mentioned. She went to Newport after attending her cousin’s Louis Ducret’s royal wedding in Monaco. There, she visited her Irish family and took the occasion to stay at the same place Grace Kelly did during her first trip.45 That particular trip took place in 2019, but it was not her only time in Ireland. 

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The story of Grace Kelly’s Irish heritage is a fascinating but complex one. Unfortunately, we are still left with a lot of un-answered answers. However, I hope this article would have given you a good previous of Grace Kelly’s Irish family history.

See you!


Notes:

[1] Stephan Thernstrom, Harvard Encyclopedia of America Ethnic Groups (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 1980), 528. Internet Archive

[2] History.com, “Irish Potato Famine,” Accessed March 19, 2021, https://www.history.com/topics/immigration/irish-potato-famine.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Guide Irlande, “L’émigration irlandaise vers les États-Unis,” Accessed March 19, 2021, https://www.guide-irlande.com/culture/emigration-irlandaise-etats-unis/.

[5] Radio-Canada, “La grande famine en Irlande au 19e siècle, une catastrophe meutrière,” Accessed March 19, 2021, https://ici.radio-canada.ca/premiere/emissions/aujourd-hui-l-histoire/segments/entrevue/55133/grande-famine-irlande-19e-siecle-grande-bretagne-laurent-colantonio.

[6] Re-Imagining Migration, “Historical Context: Irish Immigrants in the 19th Century,” Accessed March 19, 2021, https://reimaginingmigration.org/historical-context-irish-immigrants-in-the-19th-century/.

[7] Guide Irlande, “L’émigration irlandaise”.

[8] Wikipedia, “Migrations irlandaises aux États-Unis,” Accessed March 19, 2021. https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Migrations_irlandaises_aux_%C3%89tats-Unis.

[9] Radio-Canada, “La grande famine”.

[10] Re-Imagining Migration, “Historical Context”.

[11] Guide Irlande, “L’émigration irlandaise”.

[12] Radio-Canada, “La grande famine”.

[13] Re-Imagining Migration, “Historical Context”.

[14] The Irish Memorial, “About,” Accessed March 19, 2021, https://www.irishmemorial.org/about/.

[15] Susan Dormady Eisenberg, “Remembering Timeless Grace Kelly,” Huffpost, December 11, 2013, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/remembering-timeless-grac_b_4260030.

[16] Find a Grave, “Mary Ann Costello Kelly,” Accessed March 19, 2021, https://fr.findagrave.com/memorial/119442708/mary-ann-kelly.

[17] Grimaldi, Jazmin Grace (@jazmingrimaldi), “Happy St. Patrick’s Day to All!,” Instagram, March 17, 2021, https://www.instagram.com/p/CMiKFSWHyHO/.

[18] Jeannette KMR, ” The Grandparents of HRH Grace Kelly John Henry Kelly and Mary Ann Costello,” Jeannette’s take on life, accessed March 19, 2021, http://jeannettestakeonlife.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-grandparents-of-hrh-grace-kelly.html.

[19] Find a Grave, “J.P. Kelly,” Accessed March 19, 2021, https://fr.findagrave.com/memorial/122568966/j.-p.-kelly.

[20] Ancestry, “John Peter “Peter” Kelly,” Accessed March 19, 2021, https://www.ancestry.ca/genealogy/records/john-peter-peter-kelly-24-cf3jwc.

[21] Find a Grave, “Mary Ann Costello”.

[22] Áine Ryan, “Fairytale Princess Grace dreamed of Mayo Roots,” The Mayo News, April 5, 2011, http://web.archive.org/web/20210310145825/https://www.mayonews.ie/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=12325%3Afairytale-princess-grace-dreamed-of-mayo-roots&catid=3%3Anews-features&Itemid=29. Internet Archive

[23] Géraldine Vaughan, “Portraits de migrants irlandais pendant la Grande Famine (1845-1852),” Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique 19, no. 2 (2014), https://doi.org/10.4000/rfcb.271. Open Edition Journals

[24] Wendy Leigh, Grace Kelly: Les Derniers Secrets, trans. Violaine de Arriba (Paris: Nouveau Monde Éditions, 2007), 22.

[25] John B. Kelly Sr. cited in Leigh, Grace Kelly, 22.

[26] Leigh, p. 23.

[27] Idib.

[28] Ibid, p. 25.

[29] Ibid. p. 23.

[30] Find A Grave.

[31] Leigh, p. 23.

[32] Ibid., p. 24.

[33] “John B. Kelly Sr, Contractor, Dies,” The New York Times, June 21, 1960. The New York Time Archives

[34] Exploring by bycicle, “Who is Kelly Drive in Philadelphia named after?,” Accessed March 19, 2021, https://exploringbybike.wordpress.com/2014/10/05/who-is-kelly-drive-in-philadelphia-named-after/.

[35] Áine Ryan, “Fairytale Princess Grace”.

[36] Christina Finn, ” 5 things that connect Grace Kelly to Ireland,” The Daily Edge, September 1st, 2012, https://www.dailyedge.ie/grace-kelly-and-ireland-543199-Sep2012/#slide-slideshow6.

[37] Áine Ryan, “Fairytale Princess Grace”.

[38] Nicola Anderson, “Prince lets guard down as he goes back to roots,” Independent.ie, April 7, 2011, https://web.archive.org/web/20210310120600/https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/prince-lets-guard-down-as-he-goes-back-to-roots-26721233.html. Internet Archive

[39] Áine Ryan, “Fairytale Princess Grace”.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Elaine Sciolino, “36 Hours in Monaco,” The New York Time, August 15, 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/18/travel/36-hours-in-monaco.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&.

[42] Christina Finn, “5 things that connect Grace Kelly to Ireland”.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Alexandra Hurtado, “Grace Kelly’s granddaughter traces her footsteps with special trip: ‘I can feel her spirit’,” Hola!, August 14, 2019, https://us.hola.com/royals/2019081427008/grace-kelly-granddaughter-jazmin-grimaldi-ireland/.

5 thoughts on “The Irishness of a Princess: Exploring Grace Kelly’s Irish Heritage

  1. A fascinating, thorough and outstanding article. A strong historical work which beautifully draws together the Irish ancestry of Grace Kelly’s family through to her own life. What stands tall is the impact that the events of history have on people and how far reaching those impacts can be. Always enjoy your work!

    Liked by 1 person

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