The Remembrance Project: Ken Kelly

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The family farm in County Longford, Ireland, took root in Ken Kelly’s blood and bones.

"He knew the cattle by name. He was driving a tractor from, like, 5," remembers Conor Brennan, who met Ken in boarding school when they were 12. Seven years later, Ken came to America, bringing the persistence that farm work requires, and the conviction that community is a life force. Conor followed a few years afterwards, and they reunited in Somerville.

Ken Kelly (Courtesy Conor Brennan)
Ken Kelly (Courtesy Conor Brennan)

"So I was staying on Oxford St, I believe, and I was working overnights in the Westin Hotel, so he would stay in my room and my bed," Conors recalls. "So basically, every morning, I’d come home at and he’d get out of bed and I’d get into bed."

They decided to open a bar — where better to root community? — and chose Union Square in Somerville; a place that, at the time, might have had more pigeons than people.

"It’s a great infrastructure of the little squares — very very similar to Ireland, I suppose. Little squares, little communities surrounding those squares, where if you give a good product to your neighborhood, your neighborhood will support you," Conor explains.

There were small glitches.

"I remember us opening and not having salt and pepper shakers," recalls Conor.

But Ken moved unstoppably. Eventually, one Somerville bar grew to five Somerville restaurants.

"Every part of his personality is covered by the bars, from the small little Irish bar, to the hip cocktail bar, to the restaurant," Conor explains.

Each new project carried the values of his first country into his second. Over and over, he started from where he had begun.

"Being able to drive a tractor at 5, being able to herd in 150 cattle to be milked, to load a trailer — it’s those type of things that seem insurmountable. But once you do it, once you achieve it, then everything else will probably seem simple," Conor says.

Ken created communities, and then befriended them. After his funeral, mourners retired to his first restaurant, The Independent. The cows had been herded and milked, the hay was in, trailer was loaded, and now they had stories to tell.

Ken Kelly died last December at the age of 44. In 2014, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Somerville Chamber of Commerce. In addition to The Independent, Ken opened Brass Union, Foundry on Elm, Saloon and River Bar.

Did you know Ken Kelly? Share your memories in the comments section. 

This program aired on June 29, 2016.

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Elissa Ely Creator of WBUR's The Remembrance Project
Elissa Ely is a community psychiatrist in Massachusetts and the creator of WBUR's The Remembrance Project.



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