Ned Kelly and the lies Aus­tralia tells about it­self

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - PÁDRAIG COLLINS


Aus­tralians like to view them­selves as nat­u­ral born rebels who are re­sis­tant to au­thor­ity. It is part of the foun­da­tion myth the coun­try tells it­self, based on some of the pop­u­la­tion trac­ing their her­itage to con­victs trans­ported from Bri­tain and Ire­land.

But mostly, the op­po­site is true. It is a hugely pro­scrip­tive and very law-abid­ing so­ci­ety. And with three lev­els of gov­ern­ment – lo­cal, state and fed­eral, each with its own set of rules and reg­u­la­tions – there are a lot of laws to abide by.

The one blind spot Aus­tralians have to­wards ac­tual rather than imag­ined out­law be­hav­iour is a ven­er­a­tion of Ned Kelly. The world’s first fea­ture film, made in 1906, was The Story of the Kelly Gang. More books and songs have been writ­ten about Kelly than any other Aus­tralian fig­ure, and most of these ad­here to that fa­mous quote from John Ford’s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Lib­erty Valance: “When the leg­end be­comes fact, print the leg­end.”

Dr Doug Mor­ris­sey has done more than most to sep­a­rate the fact and fic­tion of Kelly lore. His pre­vi­ous book, Ned Kelly: A Law­less Life, said the out­law and his gang’s last stand in the Vic­to­rian town of Glen­rowan, in 1880, was proof Kelly was a crim­i­nal, not a rebel. The gang took 60 hostages in a ho­tel and planned to de­rail a train car­ry­ing po­lice to the scene. “[It] was an act of law­less ter­ror de­signed to … slaugh­ter its pas­sen­gers. It had noth­ing to do with the fight for Ir­ish Catholic po­lit­i­cal free­dom ei­ther in ‘the old coun­try’ or colo­nial Aus­tralia.”

Se­lec­tors, Squatters and Stock Thieves tack­les the Kelly leg­end from an­other an­gle, be­ing mainly about the so­cio-eco­nomic cir­cum­stances peo­ple found them­selves in in north­east Vic­to­ria in the 19th cen­tury. Mor­ris­sey adds greatly to our un­der­stand­ing of the forces that shaped Kelly and, more im­por­tantly, those that prob­a­bly did not, de­spite Kelly say­ing so.

The book is decades in the mak­ing, start­ing as Mor­ris­sey’s PhD the­sis in the 1980s, “a time when the Kelly myth was not be­ing ques­tioned”, he writes. But hav­ing lived with the story for so long, Mor­ris­sey oc­ca­sion­ally as­sumes a level of knowl­edge some read­ers will not have. The “se­lec­tors” part of the ti­tle is not prop­erly ex­plained un­til page 92, and “squatters” is never fully ex­plained. The reader will gather from con­text what squatters were, but it would have been help­ful to have it ex­plained in sim­ple terms at the be­gin­ning. The state li­brary of Vic­to­ria’s web­site, for in­stance, has a suc­cinct ex­pla­na­tion of squatters be­ing “set­tlers in the new colonies of Aus­tralia [who] could sim­ply trek into the bush, mark out a large par­cel of land and claim own­er­ship with­out ref­er­ence to any­one else”. Ed­ward Mick­leth­waite Curr, who was both a squat­ter and author, wrote of his class that “No body of men ever cre­ated so much wealth in so short a time”.


Land re­form and a con­certed ef­fort to spread this wealth led to the se­lec­tor class: set­tlers who se­lected as good a plot of land as they could get, pay­ing for half an al­lot­ment at a uni­form price of £1 per acre and pay­ing rent on the other half over seven years. Kelly’s mother Ellen and var­i­ous rel­a­tives were se­lec­tors, and Ned Kelly him­self ap­plied for land but never fol­lowed through.

The Whitty and Byrne fam­i­lies (orig­i­nally from Wex­ford and Wick­low, re­spec­tively) are ex­plored in great de­tail, not only through their deal­ings with Kelly, but also about their his­tory and con­tri­bu­tion to Aus­tralian so­ci­ety.

“There was more than a hint of jeal­ousy and envy in Ned’s an­gry … words con­cern­ing Whitty and Byrne’s farm­ing ac­com­plish­ments. While Whitty and Byrne dili­gently and with sac­ri­fice set­tled their large fam­i­lies on the land, Ned’s rel­a­tives squan­dered their op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

The book goes into great de­tail to ex­plain Kelly’s com­pli­cated con­nec­tion with po­lice of­fi­cers such as Alexan­der Fitz­patrick and Ernest Flood, who were in re­la­tion­ships with Ned’s sis­ters An­nie and Kate. Kelly was friendly with Fitz­patrick and Flood, un­til it was ex­pe­di­ent for him not to be. “Once Ned be­came an out­law any mem­ory of friendly re­la­tions with the po­lice gave way to wild de­nun­ci­a­tions of tyran­ni­cal mis­con­duct which, by the time of his ex­e­cu­tion, had be­come in his own mind a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for his law­less life.”

The essence of who Ned Kelly re­ally was is summed up in a quote from Brid­get Kennedy, wife of Sgt Michael Kennedy, whom Kelly shot dead. “He mur­dered my Michael and robbed his body; there was no mercy, no re­spect, just cru­elty. I lost the child I was car­ry­ing after Michael died and raised our chil­dren alone.”

Se­lec­tors, Squatters and Stock Thieves is an im­por­tant and schol­arly ad­di­tion to the study of Ned Kelly and that pe­riod of Aus­tralian his­tory.

Ned Kelly in Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia. PHO­TO­GRAPH: STATE LI­BRARY OF VIC­TO­RIA/AP PHOTO

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