Ned Kelly : A Lawless Life

I think we can take it from its title, that in writing this book Doug Morrissey was taking aim first and foremost at the work of Ian Jones, a man Morrissey describes somewhat patronisingly I feel as “the best known of the myth-makers….despite his lack of academic credentials” The titles of these two authors major works are identical except that Morrissey inserts the unambiguous “Lawless” to  replace   Ian Jones  non-committal “Short” to indicate in no uncertain terms, right at the start exactly what he thinks about Ned Kellys “short life”.
Doug Morrisseys book on the life of Ned Kelly is the very latest in that crowded trail of Kellyana that started before Kelly was even dead. I suppose every author completes his task feeling that his publication will end the trail once and for all, that he has finally written the definitive work,  the one that answers all the questions and tidies up all the loose ends.  Certainly I think that’s what Morrissey tried to do, because in addition to the main body of the work he has included several Appendices in which he surveys  the modern Kelly mythmakers one at a time, he  provides a detailed line by line commentary on the Jerilderie letter, and answers a few other issues that he feels need specific commentary on. So has he done it?
Well firstly he states in the Preface that the broader context of Kellys life is covered in his other works, his PhD thesis among them, so this book is not actually a complete biography – it ignores Ned Kellys early life and origins, and most of what happened after he was captured at Glenrowan. For example Neds association with Harry Power gets half a sentence, the only mention made of his father “Red” Kelly is to record that he died in 1866 and the only mention of his rescue of Dick Shelton is in relation to his clothing at Glenrowan, where Kelly was wearing the sash he received as a reward.   Morrissey describes what happened to Ned Kelly after he was captured at Glenrowan in a single sentence : “So Kelly was nursed back to health, tried and hanged.” 
Instead Morrissey concentrates on the details of Ned Kelly’s adult life as a stock thief and fugitive and shows that the problem with the modern “legend” is that it is based largely on an acceptance of Ned Kelly’s own words in the Jerilderie letter. Closer examination and comparison with numerous other historical records and accounts proves that time and again Kellys version of events cannot be relied on to be a true and accurate record. It is a detailed and comprehensive scrutiny, very similar in style and conclusion to the 2012 publication “The Kelly Gang Unmasked” by Ian MacFarlane, which was of course the landmark publication that signaled the beginning of the end of Kelly idolatry. I am not sure that this new book adds much more than drive a few more nails into the lid which MacFarlane had already quite firmly nailed on to the Kelly coffin. The tone of this book is uncompromising and hard-nosed, very different from the dispassionate academic style of the earlier works. 

A typical example is the “McCormick Affair” an incident that resulted in Ned Kellys first term of imprisonment. Ned is routinely portrayed in the pro-Kelly narratives, and he claimed himself  in the Jerilderie Letter to be a bemused innocent bystander who ends up being unfairly persecuted by the Police. Instead, according to Morrisseys research it was Ned himself who wrote the offensive letter, and Ned’s uncle John Lloyd testified later in court that he “saw Kelly try to ride over McCormick”. Ned  had blamed Mrs McCormack for hitting his horse and making it lunge forward, one of innumerable examples of Ned seeking to absolve himself of responsibility for what happened and blame someone else, excuses which the pro-kelly people duly trot out at every retelling. But in reality this was not unfair police prosecution but an example of what we might now describe as “bogan” behaviour being called out.
Another example taken from the inaccurate pro-kelly narrative is Neds insistence that the police who went to Stringybark creek were so heavily armed they could only have been intending to murder him and therefore he was justified in shooting them in self defense. In fact the only arms they had in addition to their Police revolvers were two rifles – one a “fowling piece” and the other a borrowed weapon added to their kit at the last minute. As is well known, they took and used the fowling piece to kill birds to eat while on the search.
Morrissey shows later how Ned Kellys much vaunted destruction of documents taken from the safe during the raid in Euroa harmed selectors rather than Squatters, the opposite of what is usually claimed.
Morrisseys untangling of the complex relationship between Kelly and Fitzpatrick is quite startling. Fitzpatrick is demonized and  pilloried throughout the pro-Kelly literature but Morrissey uncovers a much more interesting story of closeness and intimacy between Fitzpatrick and the Kellys, friendships it seems that both were hoping to exploit to their own advantage, but which in the end went horribly wrong.

So this new book is certainly a “must read” for anyone interested in the Kelly story. It provides some new insights and perspectives but never-the-less there are a few things that disappoint me about it. The biggest disappointment with this book is its more or less complete lack of proper references. Why Morrissey decided to dispense with them is beyond me, because by leaving them out readers are denied the opportunity to verify  his claims for themselves, and to a degree as a result his book is reduced to the level of just another version of the Kelly story: its Morrisseys word against Neds. Essentially Morrissey is saying “Trust me on this” and personally, having read and reviewed his article on Stock Theft I have every confidence in his integrity as a writer. However references make the difference between a work being a great read and an authoritative text, and I think to properly challenge Ian Jones book he needed to supply them.

Another disappointment I have with this book is that it doesn’t address the great question of “Why?”  He writes 
For reasons that cant be pursued here Australians have made  him their national hero  
Maybe at some other time Morrissey will pursue those reasons but I would be intrigued to read his understanding of how Ned Kelly became a national hero. This really is the great mystery of the saga,
but its not just modern day Australians who made Ned Kelly their national hero – he was a hero even when still alive, a phenomenon which demands explanation. Why, as someone posted in a comment on this Blog last year, did NOBODY attempt to dob him in and get their hands on the absolutely massive rewards offered for his capture? Why did the people who knew him protect and support him? If Ned Kelly was just a liar, and a violent and nasty thief then why is he still remembered?
John McQuilton was of course a Kelly author who attempted to answer that greater conundrum about Ned Kelly, the “why” of the Kelly Legend and as I suggested in a previous Post, produced an intriguing and plausible answer.  However, in his chapter entitled The Makers of the Modern Kelly Myth, Morrissey dismisses McQuiltons work as “the shonky foundations upon which successive Kelly writers have built their edifices ever since” He is equally dismissive of Ian Jones work, and is particularly unimpressed with Peter Fitzsimons effort, describing it as “not truthful” and “a novel with distorted historical fact and copious footnotes added to give verisimilitude”
These are harsh judgements and I don’t agree entirely with his assessment of McQuilton, or of Jones,  but  I do agree that the Fitzsimons effort was a cynical commercial exercise that added nothing to the debate despite promising that it would! My own view is that Morrisseys characterisation of Ned Kelly, the man, is accurate.  Those other authors,  in trying to somehow reconcile the man with the  mythology, have made the mistake of getting the two confused, and to a greater or lesser extent have ended up merging them, and then finding themselves obliged to dream up unsustainable theories about Republic, about Land wars and political symbolism to try to hold them together. Morrissey  instead has avoided that mistake and has managed to  isolate the man from the myth with cold clinical precision. His assessment fits with the recent characterisation of Kelly as a psychopath, and he has produced a devastating exposition of his lawless life. 

Its been  predicted that the main stream media won’t be interested in this book because its not Kelly Myth. However they did take an interest in Ian MacFarlane and his book, and in Craig McCormicks book Ned Kelly Under the Microscope  so maybe the tide is starting to turn in favour of historical truth. I hope so. 

4 Stars.
(Visited 75 times)

31 Replies to “Ned Kelly : A Lawless Life”

  1. I'm finding Morrissey unexpectedly lumpy too. But overall, its a great well-edited read.

    I hope everyone will pardon me for pointing out that Ian Jones' three paragraphs about Ned's imprisonment at Williamstown (see previous post) is nearly completely incorrect. My documents show Ned worked almost exclusively at the Alfred Graving Dock {not elsewhere as Janes claims} and that he was on the sick list quite often. He was discharged to freedom from Williamstown, and not Pentridge as claimed by Jones.

    I also found that Jones provides no evidence whatsoever to prove Ned boxed 20 rounds whipping Wild Wright. There is no proof such a fight ever occured. Nor that it lasted 20 rounds, or that Wright got thumped. This did not prevent Jones proclaiming Ned as the boxing champion of NE Victoria. This is really shocking stuff. Its like the republican rubbish. Wild claims, no proof.

  2. Much as I disagree with some of Ian Jones theories about the Kelly Outbreak, and the Republic Idea especially, in reading A Short Life I was often impressed at the way in which Jones would not infrequently accept logical conclusions from evidence, and report them even if they didnt entirely help his cause – declaring that Ned was involved with the Fitzpatrick affair being the obvious one. This left me with a deal of respect for Ian Jones integrity, so when he makes a claim such as the ones about Neds fight with Wild Wright I am inclined to believe there would have been a reason for him saying so.

    Indeed Jones does provide evidence for the fight. The first is that Photograph – its inscribed with a date, August 8 1874, and then “Fought Wild Wright 20 and won” which Jones says was added later but in the same hand. Jones also says that in 1962 “legendary spruiker and showman Charlie Fredricksen had told me that Wild Wright spoke of being given “the hiding of his life” in a fight with Ned Kelly at Beechworth”

    So, for what its worth, and to be fair I think there is evidence to support this claim. The VFL claims however are not made by Jones and do indeed seem ridiculous!

  3. As you know, Ian J has trouble successfully identifying photos at the best of times. The provenance of the boxer photo is unclear. To me it looks like a later copy of an original, to which writing has been added. Was Wild or Ned 20 years old then? It does not say rounds. It sort of looks like Ned… I am finding that facts presented by Ian were once very believable. Now, wiser than I was, I am finding more of his facts just don't stack up.

  4. Jones' Short Life is beginning to crumble big time. I gagged at the republic stuff, but now it is starting to look as if all the glitz was manufactured. I checked and distrusted the endnotes for the boxer photo. I too wonder if the photo is of Ned or someone else. There is no proof it was him.

  5. Somewhere I have the catalog for the sale of the boxer photo. It was a sepia print but not a carte de visite. A copy is on:

  6. I think you guys are being too hard on Ian Jones. The idea that Ned Kelly may have engaged in a 20 round fight with Wright and won is quite consistent with much that we know and accept about Ned Kelly – i.e. that he was a violent pugilist who was always threatening people one way or another and boasting about his ability to bash people with his fists. McMenomy reproduces that Photo twice in his book – so he must have also accepted it as genuine. Is there any particular reason not to accept that its genuine, or are we going to demand extraordinary proof from Jones of everything he asserts and set a standard for acceptable evidence thats so high that we would have to call into question Morrissey and MacFarlane as well? At some point we have to decide whats a reasonable and fair standard and then stick to it.

  7. Thank you Dee. Let no one here be hard on Ian Jones. He has done so much work on the Kelly story, the hard way, with lots of shoe leather and he is more fair minded on Ned than you may think. In fact, Dee noted his stance on the Fitzpatrick Incident with Ian pronouncing that Ned was probably there, despite being unfavourable to Neds cause.

    When the Gentleman Ned image was proved not to be Ned some years ago, the same scientific tests and measurements were applied to the boxing photograph. Based on the results of these tests (using the death mask) it was proved this image of Ned in boxing garb was indeed Ned Kelly.

    Yes, Ned may not be quite the amiable fellow presented at times but let's give Ian Jones his due. Lets not under estimate the work he has done in the field. It's been huge. And a nicer bloke you could never meet..

  8. Well Ive never met Ian Jones but I wonder how nice he would be to Morrissey! Mark I am guessing you only intended to Post your comment once so Ive deleted the duplicate! And thanks to everyone for supporting my Blog – we just passed 20,000 visits – it took six months to make the first 10,000 and only six weeks to make the second!

  9. Ian Jones is a nice bloke who I met a couple of times – although Bill, among others, had a run in with him at Beechworth. So he has harder side too.

    His 'Short Life' was brilliant, or so I once thought. There are a lot of errors too, I'm afraid. Let's not lower standards just because he was an accepted guru.

  10. Hi All. Sorry about the double posts. It keeps happening but I don't know why.

    Ian Jones deserves the recognition. Short Life is still brilliant in my opinion. And very lyrically written. He makes a sentence sing. One mans opinion of the Kelly Outbreak.. But one man who has devoted a life time of study to the subject. There are things we know today because of Ians hardwork. We have heard Elly Byrne and Bill Knowles voice because of Ian. Paddy Allen, John McMonigle, Dummy Wright, Jack Sherritt, Denny Byrne and co, all came alive because Ian brought the Kelly Country of the past alive and delved into corners often overlooked. Oral history cops a lot of flack but as long as it's sifted and conclusions extrapolated logically, it paints a tremendous, usually accurate picture. The detail on the Woolshed Valley is all Ian. We know the gangs eating habits because of Ian. Revisionists will always have something to say about many aspects but that's the beauty of the Kelly saga is it not?

    I also think McFarlanes work is quite brillliant. And gutsy considering. He has really opened my eyes wide and made me even a little uncomfortable about Ned and by extension, myself. And another somewhat overlooked great work is Alex Castles "Ned Kellys Last Days". All have their place.

    Getting back to Ian Jones and Morrissey though. There is no reason Dee why they wouldn't get on I wouldn't think. Alex McDermott and Ian Jones are polar opposites when it comes to the Kelly story and have had some barneys in public. Yet they both get along famously. I guess they are seasoned enough to play the story and the not the man.

  11. Talking of Ian Jones, I just remembered that there was another Kelly book published last year, apart from the one I mentioned in a previous Post about the dying world of the kelly Fanatic, and that was "The Kellys and Beechworth" by Ian Jones. Sharon reviewed it on her Blog and described it as a booklet that was essentially a distillation of Ians other works, rather than something new. I wonder where the next book is going to emerge from? I had been hoping that Morrisseys might be good enough to call an end to proceedings but without references, among other things, I don’t think we have the definitive work yet.

  12. I would like to see McDermott and Williamsons "Nedwood" that was promised long ago. It's gone quiet though.

  13. Oops. McDermott and WRIGHT. Not Williamson.

  14. Who is Wright? Nothing from Sharon for a while. I think her Dial Up connection has frozen in the Arctic freeze theyre having over there. Food Parcels anyone?

  15. Dee you wrote –
    " Another disappointment I have with this book is that it doesn’t address the great question of “Why?” He(Morrissey) writes “For reasons that cant be pursued here Australians have made him their national hero”

    Whether we lean towards pro or con, we all have an opinion. Pursuing the 'Why' question will reveal a whole lot of answers usually glossed over by the numerous Kelly authors. It's my opinion there was far more to the Kelly story than what the authorities wanted to the public to know about. It was all about politics and who was in charge. Ned Kelly had to be got rid of to avoid a serious local rebelion backed by many NE Victoria farmers who liked Ned's pluck.

  16. What was plucky about ambushing and murdering three police, the bank holdups, the general thuggery and the pistol-waving threats?

  17. Anonymous says: Reply

    Craig ignorance can be bliss. Suggest you study some more.

    Bill, makes some very valid points here.

  18. I am still trying, it would seem so far unsuccessfully , to get everyone to realise there are TWO NEDS. The first is the actual Ned, the unsavoury violent criminal character referred to by Craig who lived in the real world, and then there is the Ned people believed in, the Mythic figure who was hailed by certain people, the Sympathisers, as some sort of Icon, the one Bill refers to, who lives in the imagination of believers.When these people supported Ned, they were supporting the Idea they had of him in their heads, the idea that he was some sort of expression of their own resentments and anger and distrust of authority, of Government, of Police and the Law.

    Now, Ned had to be brought in because stock thieves, bank robbers and Police killers cant be tolerated in civil society, but Sympathisers like to believe he was bought in to silence him and to quell any sort of rebellion that he was supposed to be about to trigger. This is what Bill refers to as the “far more to the Kelly story” – but I have yet to see the evidence for it. But both Neds existed – one was real but the other one only existed – indeed continues to exist – in the minds of believers.

  19. There is nothing plucky about killing three poor police.

    If the well to do private sector of the community had not formed the 'Stock Preservation Society' of which James Whitty and his brother in-law Robert Farrell and many other Squatters had not sponsored the reward monies, the Vic police party set up for the apprehension of the Kelly brothers, would not have been out there camped within a mile of the Kelly camp.

    Obviously it was very unfortunate they did, but someone had tipped off the police as to where the Kellys may be found. The police in private and apart from their normal wages also hoped to gain financially from the Kelly brothers capture. Previously the leader of the police party had been handsomely rewarded for the capture of other wanted persons only months before, so they were 'lured' by the reward monies offered more so than pure justice.

    I have not as yet read Morrissey's book but understand he has something to say about the early relationship between Ned Kelly and Fitzpatrick that triggered the apprehension. Whitty and Farrell were also beneficiaries of 'stock theft' as found before they were lost!

    The later bank hold ups were actioned by the Kelly gang to show a struggling community up North East the authorities had little control over unfolding events. The Kellys were not intentional bank robbers, rather a survival tactic of an underclass denied natural justice. The needed to provide financial support to those in need and especially those who felt marginalised in their own land.

    Some say you either buckle under or rise up. Kelly had been taught to rise up.

  20. Sorry Dee and readers,
    Robert Farrell should have been 'John Farrell '

  21. Anonymous has resurfaced because NKF and Ironoutlaw are finished. Bill has lost the plot.

    I don't have time to endlessly argue over the same old tired points.

    Its like we've gone back to the very beginning.

    Anonymous and Bill haven't read the new Morrissey book, which is what this blog is about. What is there to discuss with them?

  22. Please attack the arguments and not the people. Theres no Law that says you have to have read the Book to be able to Comment here, so Bill was responding to something I wrote, which is fair enough. But even if it was something “Off Topic” that doesn’t matter to me – if people are interested in discussing it, go ahead!

    Its quite remarkable how dead NKF and IO are! The irony is they are the ones who kicked out the enquiring minds like Bills and various others over the last couple of years , banned me from conmmenting on their FB pages but they are the ones who ended up on the scrap heap.

  23. Anonymous says: Reply

    Dee, perhaps you yourself should attack the arguments and not other Forums. It has become rather tiresome.

  24. I was simply agreeing with Craigs statement that NKF and IO are finished. I am sure you find it tiresome to have to face this reality, so to spare yourself the distress I suggest you dont bother coming to this Blog. Its not for people like you.

  25. Anonymous says: Reply

    According to Craig, Bill has lost the plot and according to you people like me should not bother coming to this Blog.

    What do you think Bill?

  26. Anonymous and I agree and I think this-
    In Kellys time there was more to the story than what the authorities wanted everyone to believe.
    Kelly's defence was stifled for political reasons.

    Morrissey's – A Lawless Life in my opinion is another self believing slant, and early on it becomes obvious on what side of the fence he stands. I don't know what Graig feels is tiresome or of what I am guilty of? I simply pointed out some of the 'Whys' that never seems to be explored in Kelly dialog. But Graig feels I'm losing the plot, oh well sorry.

    To know what the truth really was we need to read all. For an anti Kelly book my money goes to Ian McFarlane's Ned Kelly Unmasked. Then Alex Castles Ned Kelly's Last Days. One wonders how many more books on the Kelly Outbreak can be written, what if I, err mmm.

  27. Bill can you elaborate on what you mean when you say Neds defence was stifled for "Political reasons”? I am thinking that “political reasons” simply means that “Politicians” had reasons for wanting to silence Ned Kelly, and to me that seems perfectly reasonable – of course they would have wanted him silenced – after all he had murdered three Policemen, had robbed two banks and was involved in wholesale and retail stock theft. It would be dereliction of a politicians duty not to want him silenced surely?

    Now I suspect that what you’re really hinting at is that they wanted him silenced because he was about to lead a revolutionary political movement in the North East and that THIS was why the Politicians wanted him silenced, that it was all about Politics.

    My response to that view – which is part of the Kelly Myth – is to refer to something called Occams Razor. A “razor” is a term used in Philosophy meaning a rule of thumb, and Occam was the person who is credited with creating it, and basically it states that the best explanation for something is the simplest one – its used in science and by detectives and in argument generally; its a basic principle of rational debate. So what is the simplest explanation for Politicians wanting to silence Ned? ANSWER : He was a criminal menace to society. EVERY Politician ( and Religious leader, and civic leader, newspaper editor and responsible citizen) would want him silenced. There is no need to complicate the answer to that question by saying yes, but also there was some sort of Political conspiracy as well.

    Jones – and others – advance this idea as the “Republic” in their attempts to explain the “madness” of Glenrowan, and the sympathiser support for Ned, but the “evidence” for it is so very weak and unconvincing, whereas the other explanations for those two facts about the kelly outbreak are robustly supported by evidence and by logic, and thats why I favour them and discount the “republic” idea as a fantasy.

  28. Please accept I am no expert in the Kelly story, just a limited interest. I've read what I could and explored a few bits of the story on the ground. What I found was at odds with recorded history.

    Dee asks for me to elaborate on what I mean by Ned's defence was stifled for Political reasons ?

    To start with, Ned was denied access to his family and legal representation for months or more after his capture. He was locked away while the authorities worked out how to deal with him. ( a little like David Hicks perhaps)

    Ned's earlier letter of explanation delivered at Jerilderie 'WAS' locked away and not to be made public even though he was promised it would. The letter was part of the prosecutors file, but not read to the jury during his preliminary or final Magistrate court Melbourne under judge Barry. Was this not a denial of justice for Ned Kelly who could have explained much of the developments that took place. All in my humble opinion for political reasons.

    We know Alfred Deakin who became our first 'Attorney General' in the first Federal government ( and later Prime Minister) had been the legal journalist for David Syme's 'The Age' (a Protestant paper)- and competitor to the 'Melbourne Herald' (Catholic paper).

    Deakin was to be reporting to the Age readers on Kelly's trial but failed to do so for what could be 'religious and political reasons ' because of Ned Kellys connections to the Irish Catholic community. The Melb Herald was owned by Sam Winter whose niece had married one of Ned's school mates and immediate neighbour when they lived at Wallan East. The fact Ned had impeccable connections were part reason he was sold down drain for political reasons. The shootings of the police at SBC were in-defensible by any court, but had he been given the chance to make his case he may have been given a life sentence.

    The legal fraternity painted Ned's challenge to authority as treasonous. Had Ned Kelly not been wanted with rewards offered and hounded in the bush for some petty clan rivalry, which led to the shooting dead of three police. Instead, had he been given the chance to be listened to and used his political skills to advance the cause for his underclass, he could have become a formidable politician with the connections he had. He lost and we know history is always written by the winners.

  29. Doug Morrissey and his book Ned Kelly A Lawless Life (which it says is the first of a proposed three!) gets a write up along with Leo Kennedy.

    Doug Morrissey's book launch for Ned Kelly A Lawless Life will be Sat June 6, 2015 at Bendigo Art Gallery

    details here-

    Also Doug Morrissey will be talking to the students from Latrobe's Exhibiting Culture: Imagining Ned course, with special guest Leo Kennedy on June 6 at the Gallery

  30. Thanks for that info Sharon. The write-up on the ABC website reads like something I might have written in parts!

    I am pleased though that the gallery has made the effort to present all the viewpoints in relation to Ned, and the Official Book Launch should be interesting – Morrissey emerges from the woodwork at long last.

  31. Double J ABC radio interview with author Doug Morrissey, his new book Ned Kelly – A Lawless Life and Leo Kennedy's thoughts on the Kelly myth and the problems with Stringy-Bark Creek.

    Approx 22 minutes duration. May take a 30 seconds to start.


Leave a Reply