Ned Kelly

Ned Kelly was a cop killer. He certainly wasn’t a hero.

There, I said it.

On Boxing Day (26 December for the Americans out there) I stopped off briefly at Glenrowan. It’s a small town now bypassed by the Hume Freeway but famous in Australia for being the site of Ned Kelly’s last stand. I went there literally out of curiosity, because I was passing by. But it was 35°C and far less comfortable in the street than the air-conditioned comfort of my car. I stopped long enough to photograph the big Ned Kelly statue that you see above. I also saw the plaque in front of it, part of which reads:

Ned Kelly – Hanged a murderer in Melbourne, November 11, 1880 – not 26 years old – described as a rebel, bushranger by necessity, a bush battler, underdog, sometimes gentleman, sometimes larrikin and a man with a strong sense of family.

In a country born of brutal convict settlement, the Kellys were one of many to suffer the English notions of class distinctions, property and land tenure and Anglo-Irish hatreds. With the continued persecution of his family by the police, Ned fought back. The donning of his armour made from plough mould boards here at Glenrowan, June 1880, made Ned Kelly an Australian Legend.

About an hour away by car I came to the similarly small town of Euroa. There you can find a sign on the side of a building where the bank used to stand. This sign says:

December 10th 1878 saw a daring raid by the Kelly Gang on the 2nd Euroa National Bank, built at this site in 1876.

Ned, Dan & Steve held the bank. Joe stayed at Faithful’s Creek Station 3.5 miles away guarding captives taken the previous night.

The gang took £2,260, gold and 14 hostages in a hijacked hawker’s wagon & spring cart. That night, 37 people were left at the station when the gang escaped into the Strathbogie’s.

The present building was built in 1974 using the original bricks.

One can hardly fault Glenrowan or Euroa playing up their Ned Kelly connections because he remains very famous indeed and the association is good for tourism. However the proclamation of Ned’s heroism, with one notable exception, is completely unjustified. The exception is the time he saved a child from drowning – his one noble act in an otherwise ignoble life.

Ned Kelly was undoubtedly intelligent, almost certainly charismatic, a natural leader and a talented self-publicist. However he was also an unrepentant cop-killer and despite his protestations there was no justification for his criminal acts. Was his family persecuted by the police? Possibly, but then they were a criminal family. There were plenty of other people who lived in the area who didn’t behave as the Kellys did.

The notion of Irish persecution doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny either. Peter Lalor, famous for leading the Eureka Rebellion in Ballarat, was Irish. As it happens, the Eureka Rebellion took place in the same month that Ned Kelly was born. Lalor had been elected several times to the Victorian Legislative Council by the time Kelly was hanged.

Kelly tried to justify his actions in his Jerilderie Letter of 1889. I used to read a lot of true crime and in the letter we hear his voice, which is the same self-pitying dribble used by any other criminal. He never took responsibility for his actions.

The Ned Kelly mythology won’t ever be erased. Too many people have found it useful and the idea of his rebelling against a cruel establishment is attractive to people with their own agendas. But we don’t celebrate the Walsh Street killers, nor the murderers of Gary Silk and Rodney Miller. I don’t think we should celebrate Ned Kelly either.

The Melancholy Roman