John Kelly was baptised on 20th February 1820, in Moyglass Church in the county of Tipperary, Ireland. His parents, Thomas Kelly and Mary Cody, lived near the town of Clonbrogan, which is about one mile west from Moyglass, and raised a family of five boys and two girls on less than half an acre. While six of the children would make the journey to Australia, it was the eldest son John who made the first crossing thanks to sentence of seven years transportation. Kelly had worked as a ranger on Lord Ormonde's Killarney estate until transported for stealing two pigs. The pig, known variously as His Lordship (because the landlord was English), or Georgie (after George IV), was bought at market as a piglet, then fattened and sold and therefore commonly called 'the gentleman who pays the rent'. Eight out of every ten Irish convicts were transported for larceny of an animal.
Kelly had made the voyage to the Derwent in the barque Prince Regent and done time with the bushranger William Westwood, hanged with ten other convicts on Norfolk Island for organising a mutiny. Like Red himself, Westwood had been a harmless short-sentence man before absconding from a sheep run south of Sydney. According to tradition Red was run-of-the-mill Irish, but generous to a fault. He could sign his name, but it is doubtful if he could write much - hardly surprising since whatever common schools Ireland had were conducted clandestinely under hedgerows.
Red Kelly, as he was called for his reddish hair, had not long completed his seven year sentence across the strait in Tasmania. Around 1849, Ellen Quinn's father James came to know John Kelly, a fellow countryman post-splitting on Merri Creek. In 1850 he met Ellen Quinn, and they were married on November 18, that same year in St. Francis's Church, Melbourne. For the next fifteen years Red made a hard living from horse dealing, gold mining and dairy farming. Over this period of time Red was to father eight children – including Ned Kelly. In 1865 he was charged with stealing a calf from a Mr. Morgan. While the charge of cattle stealing was dismissed, the charge of "unlawful possession of a hide" was upheld and he was fined £25 or 6 months in gaol. Unable to pay the fine Red spent many long months locked away.
Released in an unhealthy state, by November 1866 Red's constitution had seriously deteriorated — helped along by his penchant for the bottle. At the age of 46, John Kelly finally succumbed to the effects of dropsy on 27th December 1866. His death was reported and signed by his son Edward "Ned" Kelly who, while not yet 12 years of age, was to take over as the man of the house. Red was buried in Avenel Cemetery, Victoria, on 29th December 1866.