A bi­og­ra­phy of Ned Kelly’s mother of­fers new per­spec­tives on the le­gend of the out­law fam­ily, writes Tom Gilling

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Near the end of his rol­lick­ing ac­count of Aus­tralia’s most no­to­ri­ous out­law fam­ily, Grantlee Kieza zooms in on Ned Kelly’s last words: The re­porters are all too far away to hear with any cer­tainty what Ned says. One thinks it is “Ah well, I sup­pose it has come to this”, while an­other thinks that he has stopped in mid-sen­tence and sim­ply said, ‘‘Ah well, I sup­pose …” As the seven stunned jour­nal­ists … quiz each other in whis­pers about what Ned might have said with his last des­per­ate breath, [Mel­bourne Herald re­porter Jim] Mid­dle­ton tells him­self he has a great quote. He jots down three words: “Such is life”.

How Kieza could be privy to what Mid­dle­ton ‘‘tells him­self’’ at such a mo­ment is a ques­tion some read­ers might be tempted to ask, but most will prob­a­bly be car­ried along by the drama of the scene. In any case Kieza is scrupu­lous here, and through­out the book, to pro­vide ref­er­ences to en­able us to check the record for our­selves. (As Ian Jones and others have pointed out, the words ‘‘Such is life’’, if spo­ken at all, were prob­a­bly said the day be­fore, when Ned was told the hour of his ex­e­cu­tion.)

If his­to­ri­ans can­not agree on Kelly’s fi­nal words, it is scarcely sur­pris­ing that his life it­self re­mains con­tested. Is Ned ‘‘one of Aus­tralia’s great­est folk heroes’’, as he is de­scribed on the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s About Aus­tralia web­site; is he the ‘‘so­cial ban­dit’’ por­trayed by John McQuil­ton and others, an ide­al­is­tic mar­tyrhero fight­ing for the rights of down­trod­den se­lec­tors? Or is he, as con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tor Ger­ard Hen­der­son ar­gues, noth­ing more than a ‘‘cop killer’’, the leader of a gang of ‘‘vi­o­lence-prone, nar­cis­sis­tic thugs’’?

In Mrs Kelly: The As­ton­ish­ing Life of Ned Kelly’s Mother, Kieza weighs th­ese com­pet­ing ver­sions of the Kelly le­gend. The ti­tle is a lit­tle mis­lead­ing, since for most of the book Ellen Kelly is in jail, a long way from the ac­tion. But even off­stage, Ellen re­mains a cen­tral fig­ure in the story of her son’s ram­page. In the Jer­ilderie let­ter, Ned railed at his mother’s per­se­cu­tion by the ‘‘big ugly fat-necked wom­bat headed big bel­lied mag­pie legged nar­row hipped splaw­footed sons of Ir­ish Bailiffs or English land­lords which is bet­ter known as Of­fi­cers of Jus­tice or Vic­to­rian Po­lice’’.

Where Kieza stands apart from pre­vi­ous au­thors is in his ef­forts to present Ellen Kelly as a Mrs Kelly: The As­ton­ish­ing Life of Ned Kelly’s Mother By Grantlee Kieza ABC Books, 616pp, $39.99 (HB) fully re­alised char­ac­ter, a tena­cious and spir­ited woman whose ex­pe­ri­ence of life helped shape the course of Ned’s out­law ca­reer.

Born Ellen Quinn in 1832 ‘‘on the north­ern tip of an emer­ald-green land stained with blood’’, the fu­ture Mrs Kelly left Ire­land with her par­ents and seven sib­lings, ar­riv­ing in Port Phillip in July 1841. Nine years later Ellen mar­ried John ‘‘Red’’ Kelly, a Tip­per­ary pig thief trans­ported for seven years. Her first son, Ned, was born in De­cem­ber 1854, the same month as the Eureka up­ris­ing.

Af­ter Red Kelly drank him­self to death, leav­ing Ellen with seven young chil­dren, 11year-old Ned signed the death cer­tifi­cate. By then, Kieza tells us, Ned had al­ready made his first ap­pear­ance in court, he and his mother hav­ing sworn an im­prob­a­ble al­ibi for an un­cle charged with cat­tle-steal­ing. The court did not be­lieve the al­ibi and sen­tenced Ned’s un­cle to three years’ hard labour.

‘‘Ellen has ei­ther told the truth or coached Ned to lie un­der oath,’’ Kieza writes. ‘‘The law was ei­ther an ass or a shrewd and dan­ger­ous en­emy, and Ellen’s rel­a­tives are be­com­ing known as a ‘ crim­i­nal brood’, a bunch of thugs and thieves.’’

Whether Kieza be­lieves Ned told the truth or not (the lat­ter seems more likely), the idea of Ellen as a mother who schooled her then eightyear-old son to per­jure him­self in court is bound to colour our read­ing of their re­la­tion­ship and of Ned’s fu­ture ex­ploits.

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