James and Desmond Kelly were the “founding fathers” of the Portrush nightclub revolution that produced the now-famous Kelly’s nightclub.
James, the older, was born in 1943 to Glengormley dairy farmers James and Sadie Kelly. Their farm was taken over by Newtownabbey Council in 1962 and the family moved to Portrush, buying “Cloghorr Hotel”, initially taken by the idea of expanding a small, existing caravan site on which now stands the Golf Links Caravan Park.
Coincidentally, the owner of the Hotel - Mrs Rankin - stipulated that no alcohol could be sold on the premises as
part of the sale.
Within months of the move, James and Desmond’s father died after a short illness. Mrs Kelly and her teenage sons ran the hotel and dairy farm alone. The family initially agreed to hold some barn dances in conjunction with
Ballymoney Rugby Club within their large cow sheds.
The events proved hugely popular, attracting visitors from across the North Coast area.
The family eventually saw the commercial benefit of the hospitality industry compared to their farming past and, when enough time had passed since the original sale of the land, the brothers opened the first of the family’s well-known bars: the White Pheasant Lounge.
To this day, the larger Kelly’s venue is still housed within the original cow shed framework!
James and Desmond eventually developed the caravan park across from the hotel in 1967. Five years later, the
original Deerstalker Bar and Nosebag Restaurant opened to visitors.
Tragedy struck in 1973 when Desmond passed away suddenly, leaving a huge voiding James’s life. Discos began in the 1970s as the show bands era came to a close. In the decades since then, the larger venue Kelly’s has hosted some of the biggest names in music from Thin Lizzy, to some of the world’s best known DJs to the Lush! club nights including Carl Cox, Pete Tong and FatBoySlim.
James was known as a visionary, before his time, a big personality and generous, fun presence, working tirelessly and leading the venues to the institutions they became. He was hugely creative, an ideas man, with an
eye for detail, visiting every auction nearby and indeed countries across the world, collecting treasures to adorn
In the mid-1980s loss visited James again as his mother passed away. But the decade also brought with it the
arrival of his nephews, the Nigel and Peter Wilson (James’s sister Sally’s children) who worked with him to keep
the venues vibrant and constantly moving forward.
Nigel is credited with bringing an era of professionalism and a new ethos to the nightclub in particular, he was
the instigator of the nightlife scene that Kelly’s is renowned for now, an ideas man of creative flair and passion, like his uncle James, who passed away in 2008.
Peter Wilson, who has since taken over the entirety of the sites following Nigel’s passing nine years ago, has now
renovated and relaunched The DeerStalker, Study and Boat Bar for a new generation, enthusing within its new
walls that sense of homely comfort, quirky creativity and professionally high standards for which the family carry
decades of pride.