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