Illustration by Tor Evans
Ned Kelly is a legend to some, and a murderer to others.
In 1880, the law had its say. Today, two students have theirs.
Words by Simon Farley
If you think Ned Kelly was just another old-timey thug with a gun, I personally invite you to read the Jerilderie Letter, Kelly’s 56-page note to fellow bushranger Joe Byrne. Yes, it contains a lot of bragging about how good he is at fighting. And yes, he does admit to robbery and taking lives (though the latter only in self-defence). But it also exposes the systematic harassment of the Kelly family by the Victoria Police, not to mention the perfidy, perjury, and petty corruption that was rampant among the Colonial authorities. Kelly and his gang’s crimes are understandable, if not totally forgivable, because they were living in a Victoria where justice simply did not exist, or at least not for poor Irish Catholics.The Jerilderie Letter reveals Kelly as a criminal, of course, but also as an intelligent, funny, and politically savvy man who could have done truly great things had he not been subject to societal prejudice and outright oppression. He wanted enfranchisement for the poor and the oppressed; he wanted equality. Portraying Ned Kelly as just a cop-killer is akin to portraying the French Revolution as just a series of beheadings, or Nelson Mandela as just a terrorist. It would be rash to describe him as a ‘freedom fighter’, but he was a man who fought for freedom, and fought hard. That’s admirable, even if the way he went about it was not.
Yet Ned Kelly’s beardy, drunken ghost continues to face scorn from some quarters. Why? Because so long as his reputation is intact, he will still be a threat. To give powerless people the knowledge that it’s possible to fight back—to beat the system and get what’s yours—can be a very dangerous thing.
If you’re still not convinced, consider this: there’s a universe out there in which Ned Kelly is a minor historical figure, of fleeting importance at best. He is generally remembered as a violent criminal, no better than any of the dozens of highwaymen and cattle duffers who terrorised the gentry of colonial Australia.
But we are not living in that universe.
People loved Ned Kelly. A petition begging for his reprieve allegedly amassed some 30,000 signatures at the time of his execution. People continue to love him now, fiercely, like few other Aussie historical figures outside of the sporting world. The problem for Kelly’s detractors is that they have already lost the battle; for better or for worse, Ned Kelly is a folk hero.
And anyone who’s got a problem with that can take it up with my Irish Catholic fists.
Words by Madeleine Cleeve Gerkens
Until a few days ago I was under the impression, as I’m sure many of you are, that Australian bushranger Ned Kelly was a badass vigilante with a majestic beard. You might even say he was our very own Robin Hood or Billy the Kid. I mean, apart from the fact that his life had spawned some pretty ugly art (see Sidney Nolan’s Bush Ranger series 1946-7), what else did I have to hold against him? It wasn’t until I opened the history books that I learnt the truth about folk ’legend’ Ned Kelly.