Pop brood wins Irish hearts with old fashioned tunes

POP music has had its share of singing families, from The Jackson Five to The Osmonds, each one symbol of security and trust …

POP music has had its share of singing families, from The Jackson Five to The Osmonds, each one symbol of security and trust in a business filled with sharks and Svengalis.

The world loves a clean cut, sugary sweet family, but even Hollywood's screenwriters "couldn't have come up with a more bizarre bunch of characters than these. The Kellys are the real McCoy.

There are nine brothers and sisters in all, ranging in age from 14 to 33, each one a talented singer and musician. They live on a houseboat on the Rhine with their father, dress like a Viking horde crossed with a hippie commune, and they sound like they might have come second to Vicky Leandros in the Eurovision Song Contest.

The Kellys' golden image has not been helped recently by controversy concerning the group's fundraising activities, with some people connected with AIDS charities asking where the money goes after audiences cough.


The family is the biggest pop phenomenon in Germany, outstripping Michael Jackson and Take That, and they've made millions in record sales, concert performances and merchandising over the past five years. Their most recent album Over The Hump has so far sold more than three million copies, and they've broken U2's record for concert attendances.

A spokesman for EMI, the company which has a distribution deal with the family's own Kel-Life label, says the success of The Kelly Family in Germany can be compared to the meteoric rise to the top of Garth Brooks in Ireland: both were already around for quite a while, both produced music which was seen as "unfashionable", and both conquered their chosen territories with frightening swiftness.

In the past year The Kelly Family have been winning over Irish audiences with their fresh faced Celtic smiles and old fashioned tunes.

The saga began more than 20 years ago, when Irish American Dan Kelly and his wife, Barbara, began busking around Europe with their children, most of whom were born in different countries along the way.

The family finally settled in Germany - though not on solid ground, of course - and the children continued to sing and play professionally, having their first hits in Holland and Belgium in 1980. They even played The Late Late Show as far back as 17 years ago, but alas, their first visit to Ireland did not seem to make much of an impact.

The Kelly kids' early bid for fame was cut short when their mother became ill and subsequently died of cancer. According to the eldest Kelly girl, Kathy, her mother's last words were "Keep on singing" and, much to the dismay of rock critics everywhere, the children kept their bedside promise.

The Kelly Family's second coming to Ireland was at Feile 95 in Pairc Ui Chaoimh, where they shared the stage with such hip acts as The Stone Roses, Tricky and Black Grape. Rock journalists stayed safely away in the beer tent, no doubt hoping that these long haired extras from Braveheart would soon head back to the hills.

EMI Ireland was enthusiastic and effusive about its new discovery, but the media were somewhat wary of this peculiar travelling troupe. Radio stations repeatedly turned down requests by EMI to playlist their single An Angel, but after the group appeared on The Late Late Show, they were suddenly made champions of the airwaves. The single subsequently stayed in the Irish charts for 15 weeks, and the album Over The Hump went platinum.

A gig at Dublin's Olympia Theatre last autumn attracted a big crowd of Irish fans, and a special guest appearance at the National Entertainment Awards gave television viewers another chance to see them in all their patchwork glory. In February they packed Dublin's National Stadium and their popularity is growing so fast they're expected to announce a show at The Point before the end of the year.

Commenting on the critical contempt in which the Kellys are held, the spokesman for EMI said: "The type of people who buy Kelly Family records don't read critics.

The group's audience ranges from toddlers to grannies, and even the "cool" 20 to 30 year old age group is not immune. In Germany, Kelly Family merchandise is a lucrative business, run as a tight ship and employing 52 people to distribute Tshirts, head bands, badges, posters and even jumpers.

Although The Kellys have performed everywhere from the US to Europe, they have so far only conquered Germany and Austria. Scandinavia, however, is fast succumbing to the power of these singing, smiling Vikings.

Ireland is the only English speaking country so far to have, fallen under their spell, and it looks like we'll be under their thrall for quite some time to come. The group is recording a new album in Capri and, when it's released, some time in autumn, it could conceivably pose a threat to Oasis's (What's The Story) Morning Glory.

Perhaps when The Kelly Family play their next gig here they might have another collection - to help repatriate the many rock critics who will surely want to flee the country.

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is an Irish Times journalist