No one is sure what Australian bushranger Ned Kelly uttered as his final words. While some accounts have him reflecting, “Ah well, I suppose it has come to this,” he has also been immortalized with stating the simple, “Such is life.” Interestingly, the uncertainty over Kelly’s final statement parallels his entire life. Despite being an outlaw, forced to the fringes of Australian society, Kelly’s brazen criminal acts and personality captured the lasting attention of the Australian public. Indeed, during the 2000 Sydney Olympics Opening Ceremony, Ned Kelly figures entered the stadium, donning the suit of armor from his famed battle at Glenrowan. As Australian literature journal Antipodes noted, “This show was about Australia for Australia … it was telling that he appeared on this world’s stage as an example of what we take ourselves to be.” So, who was Ned Kelly? What brought him to a life of crime, and how did he make the ascent to quasi-heroic recognition? Above all, what does his enduring status tell us about Australia over one hundred years later?
Born June 1855 in Beveridge, Victoria, Edward “Ned” Kelly’s childhood was not a fortunate one. The son of a former Irish convict who was transported to Australia and Ellen Quinn, an Irish “assisted migrant,” Kelly was the oldest of seven children, raised in a strictly Irish Catholic household. The disadvantages of being Irish in British Australia were significant. Not only did most Irish convicts speak Gaelic rather than English, but also their practice of Catholicism over Protestantism led to cultural and social exclusion. In fact, the Irish “were oppressed with special vigilance and unusually hard punishments. They formed Australia’s first white minority” (Hughes 181). Later on in his life, being Irish and having to deal with the accompanying drawbacks would have a tremendous impact on Kelly.
From the outset, Ned Kelly’s future seemed destined for dastardly doings. His father stole horses as additional income and after being sent to gaol (Australian jail) for four months, fell ill (in part due to his alcoholism) and died. His mother, forced to provide for seven children, often had bouts of violent temper, during which Kelly sought solace in the tales of bushrangers like “Brave” Ben Hall. At fourteen, Kelly was arrested for assaulting a Chinese man in 1869, and the next year was held in custody for assisting bushranger Harry Power. While both charges were dismissed, Kelly had made a name for himself with the Victorian police and had also exposed himself to Australian bushranging.
Before continuing on with Kelly’s tale, it becomes important to consider the term bushranging. In Australia, the bush refers to undeveloped or rural areas, not so remote as to be the Outback, but also unable to support higher density populations. As defined by Encyclopædia Britannica, bushrangers were bandits who, “acting individually or in small bands…harassed the settlers, miners and Aborigines of the frontier in the late 18th and 19th centuries and whose exploits figure prominently in Australian history and folklore.” It is into this culture that Ned Kelly plunged in the 1870s. Following a three-year stint in prison for stealing a horse, Ned returned home in 1874 and soon joined his stepfather George King and his brother Dan in horse rustling. He continued to scuffle with the law, and in 1878, events came to a head. Leaving after Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick arrested his mother for sheltering Dan, who had a warrant out for his arrest, Ned fled to the Wombat Ranges. Eventually, Dan and two other runaways, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart, joined him. A patrol of four police officers, men by the names of Kennedy, Lonigan, Scanlon, and McIntyre, was sent to seek them out. After a series of ambushes at Stringybark Creek left the first three officers dead and the fourth rushing back to civilization with news of the killings, the Victorian government declared the group outlaws. And thus, the Kelly gang was formed.
Over the next year, bank robberies and the Kelly gang’s final stand immortalized them and their leader, in part because of the semblance of selfless heroism of these acts. Two well-known bank robberies in Euroa, Victoria and Jerilderie, New South Wales were carried out in similar fashions. While groups of hostages were rounded up over a lengthy time period, the gang held up nearby banks, making off with about £2000 each instance. These bold robberies increased the bounty for the Kelly gang to a combined £8000, with both the states of Victoria and New South Wales contributing to that reward. Additionally, Kelly left letters justifying his actions at the scenes of both crimes. While the first letter’s fate is unknown, the second, called the Jerilderie letter, has survived to become one of Australia’s most treasured documents. In this quasi-manifesto, Kelly wrote of police injustice, of how he killed the police officers at Stringybark in self-defense, and of how he was forced into his situation by factors beyond his control.
And so with police from two states searching for the gang, the scene was set for a final stand at Glenrowan. Without significant resistance, the Kelly gang took control of the town on 27 June 1880, barricading themselves with sixty hostages in a local hotel. Learning that a train was sending forces, Kelly attempted to derail the train but failed, resulting in a prolonged siege. Donning crudely fashioned metal armor designed to deflect bullets, the gang exchanged fire with police. As defeat became apparent, Ned fled to the bush as the others remained in the hotel. He soon afterwards returned to help his friends, but still “ironclad,” was quickly subdued and arrested. With most of the captives now escaped, the police lit the hotel on fire to ensure that the remaining gang members had truly met their end.
Within months, Ned Kelly was found guilty for the 1878 murder of Constable Lonigan and sentenced to hanging. However, he had earlier stated, “It is not that I fear death. I fear it as little as to drink a cup of tea.” He had long expected his demise and was truly at ease.
Over one hundred years after his death, Ned Kelly still attracts the attention of the Australian public. Since his execution, he has been the subject of 12 stage plays, 30 books, and 10 films. With his acclaimed 2000 novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, author Peter Carey “solidified and revitalized Kelly’s status as a national icon.” How did such a man, an audacious criminal at best, come to attain near-mythological status? Antipodes finds that lasting interest in Kelly stems from his “convict background, English/Irish relations, [and] republican sentiment,” all of which were embodied in his history. Above all, it seems as though what has truly immortalized Ned Kelly was his acute sense of awareness. Writing letters justifying his actions, conducting symbolic crimes, and relying on people in the bush for support are the traits that have allowed him to transcend time and the limitations of his own life. While the words Kelly uttered as the noose tightened around his neck on 11 November 1880 will never be confirmed, it is certain that he is Australia’s most enduring character, its one true folk hero.
Barry, John. “Edward (Ned) Kelly.” Australia Dictionary of Biography. Australia Dictionary of Biography. Web. 15 June 2014.
“bushranger.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 15 June 2014.
Hughes, Robert. The Fatal Shore. 1st ed. London: Vintage, 1988. 181. Print.
Ingram, Penelope. “Representing the Irish Body: Reading Ned’s Armor.” Antipodes. 20.1 (June 2006): 12-19. Web. 16 June 2014.
“It is not that I fear death. I fear it as little as to drink a cup of tea” (Edward “Ned” Kelly).
“Ned Kelly fact sheet.” State Library of Victoria. State Government Victoria. Web. 15 June 2014.
Stuart, Macintyre. A Concise History of Australia. 3rd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 99. Print.
Tranter, Bruce, and Jed Donoghue. “Bushrangers: Ned Kelly and Australian Identity.” Journal of Sociology 44.4 (2008): 374. Web. 16 June 2014.