I recently watched on DVD a debate that took place as part of the Ned Kelly Weekend in August, 2006. The subject for debate was “That Ned Kelly is an inappropriate hero for Australia” and the voice over on the DVD said there was a capacity crowd of more than 400 in attendance crammed into the Beechworth Town Hall. For the affirmative the speakers were an ABC journalist Cathy Bedford, the then Commissioner of Police Christine Nixon, and well known QC Julian Burnside. Lined up against them were probably the three biggest guns in the Kelly world : Ian Jones, John McQuilton and Keith McMenomy. Right away I thought to myself a debate in Beechworth about Ned Kelly that’s going to be decided by the Popular vote? – whatever side Ian Jones is on will win! Beechworth couldn’t possibly vote against Ian Jones AND Ned Kelly. And sure enough, that’s what happened: Ned Kelly was deemed by popular vote to be an appropriate hero for Australia. I wonder how different the result would have been if the debate had taken place in Sydney or Perth?
The debate was really enjoyable to watch, and Ian Jones’ team were formidable, as expected : those three men after all had devoted significant parts of their adult lives to the study of Ned Kelly and the Outbreak, whereas the other side were all amateurs. In another Blog posting I might one day detail and critique the Jones teams arguments, but today I wanted to write about a question that occurred to me while listening to it : which of the many myths mentioned during the debate is the greatest of all the Kelly myths?
By myths I am meaning those things that are claimed to be facts about Ned, not just the things supposed to make him a hero and Icon, but the many other claims which on close examination are found to be based on little or no evidence, or even inspite of contrary evidence. An obvious one is that he was Australias “Robin Hood”. Another is that he was a particularly devoted son. Another is that he only ever killed in self defence. Another is that he had massive support. Another is the Police ‘body straps’ , said to be proof that the Police went into the bush to kill not to capture Ned, another is that he had a plan to establish a Republic of North East Victoria. Another is that he would have made a great General…the list is very long!
Listening to the debate though, it suddenly occurred to me that there is ONE myth that even the journo-policewoman-QC side had accepted without question, and therefore mustn’t that make it the greatest one? ‘Greatest’ because even people who have seen through so many of the other myths haven’t seen through this one. ‘Greatest’ because once you’ve accepted this myth as a truth, you’ve conceded the possibility that Ned Kelly was at some level justified in how he behaved, and let the door open for many of the other myths to sneak through towards legitimacy? Is this the KEY Kelly myth?
The myth I am referring to is the notion that the Kellys were innocent, or mostly innocent victims of Police persecution and corruption; that they were wrongly harassed and hounded until they reached breaking point, that their criminality was largely a reaction to deprivation and oppression that was based on their race, their religion, their poverty and their status as selectors. This myth says that the outbreak was the not-entirely-unjustified reaction – or as the affirmative team suggested, the over-reaction – to injustice perpetrated against them, that everything that followed however bad or mad was somehow triggered and in some way caused and could be understood as a reaction to what was done to the Kellys. They had had enough and took a stand.
This whole myth is brilliantly smuggled into one of the great speeches attributed to Ned – though its another myth that these words written by David Gaunson are Neds words – but they are great words never-the-less, and John McQuilton quoted them at the end of his contribution to the debate:
“If my lips teach the public that men are made mad by bad treatment and if the Police are taught they might exasperate to madness men they persecute and ill treat, my life will not have been entirely thrown away.”
Its an arresting sentence made more powerful by saying the same thing twice over, for rhetorical effect – men are made mad by bad treatment/ police exasperate men to madness by persecution and ill treatment! Cleverly he reversed the idea that actions speak louder than words, drawing our attention away from his actual life and directing it instead at his lips, his words rather than his deeds because looking at his deeds one might see an altogether different picture, one of indecency, violence, thieving, killing and mayhem.
The persuasive power in these noble words cannot be denied, coming from a man on Death Row, portraying himself as a martyr, seeming to accept what he believes is an unjust fate, but believing his life wouldn’t be entirely wasted if it taught the Public and the Police some valuable truths. Such a truly heroic stance.
However make no mistake : its an extraordinary thing that he is saying, which is that in spite of all the violence, the language of torture revenge and punishment, the stock theft, the robberies, hostage -taking and the murders he was fundamentally innocent, he was a victim of ill treatment, and the Police by their persecution drove him to exasperation, to robbery, hostage taking murder and mayhem, and in the end to madness – it was all the fault of the Police. This is something which most of the present day Kelly supporters believe to a greater or lesser extent is a fundamental truth about the Kelly story, that he was a police made criminal born out of persecution and ill treatment.
In reality though, if the actual record of his life and the life of the Kelly family is examined, what is revealed is that those words are a lie, a huge lie, a delusion that existed only in the paranoid mind of Ned Kelly. In reality, when you search the record for evidence of unjustified and unwarranted harassment and persecution of the Kellys, for the acts that drove them to exasperation and madness, the ill treatment and persecution he referred to in his famous Death Row speech you struggle to find anything. What you find are claims and allegations, stories and complaints but no facts to back it up.
I begin by referring back to my earlier post “The New view of Red” in which I showed that the growing Kelly family had virtually no interactions with Police up until the time of Red Kellys death in 1866 when Ned was 11. This is not a mere opinion, or a version or an interpretation but an account of what is actually known. Yes, Neds father had been a convict, but he had served his time quietly, and kept out of trouble for almost the whole of the rest of his life. However because of his alcoholism his farming ventures eventually all failed, and in a moment of weakness, not much more than a year before the alcoholism finally killed him he stole a neighbours calf, killed and dressed it and unsuccessfully tried to conceal the evidence. In the end he was convicted of the most minor possible charge in relation to that theft, being in unlawful possession of a hide, and he went to prison because he was too poor to pay the £25 fine. The sentence itself was remitted by 2 months, but later on that same year he was fined 5 shillings for being drunk and disorderly. A year later there had been no further police interest in Neds family, but Red died from ‘dropsy,’ a complication of his alcoholism. It was a truly tragic loss, but thats the whole story of Red Kellys life in Australia. Nowhere in it is there a single scrap of evidence that he or his young family were persecuted, subjected to ‘ill treatment’ or driven to exasperation and madness by the Police.
But to understand how these baseless myths have been fostered and promoted into the supposed truths of the Kelly story read what JJ Kenneally wrote in 1929 :
“Irish patriotism was such an unforgivable crime in the eyes of the British Government officials in the Colony of Victoria that even the serving of a savage sentence would not wipe out the campaign of anti-Irish hatred so well organised in the Colonies. John Kelly was continually hounded by the Police who without the authority of a search warrant frequently searched his home without success. The heads of the Police department were very disappointed. The search continued until at last they found a cask with meat in it. John Kelly was arrested and charged with having meat in his possession for which the Police said he had not given them a satisfactory account….
It is evident that the bench at Kilmore regarded the charge against John Kelly as a ‘trumped up affair’ ; he was sentenced to only six months…
Although the sentence was only for six months it proved to be a Death Sentence. Such was the treatment to which John Kelly was subjected in the Kilmore jail that notwithstanding his good health and perfect physique when sentenced, he died shortly after his release”
The numerous errors and misrepresentations of fact in that passage are so obvious I don’t even have to point them out. And they continue right throughout the entire book, which was still being reprinted 40 years after it was first published. Clearly it has had a huge impact on the public understanding of the Kelly story, and on writers who came after Kenneally, but the story it told, believed by many today to be true even now, was actually a fabrication, a fairy story.
Max Brown continued the innocent persecuted victim theme this way, describing the stolen calf as ‘bread for his children‘ for greater emotive effect and aligning Red with the genuinely innocent: “The sentence meant the collapse of hope for Red, in gaol for stealing bread for his children – that crime for which so many thousands of his countrymen had been transported”
The myth is continued by John Moloney who gets some of the facts wrong whilst developing the false ‘persecution’ theme as well, saying this: “It was Reds first appearance before a Court since he was granted his freedom, and although the money to pay the fine was somehow raised thus obviating the necessity of a return to prison, the old lag charge was revived and the ex convict was again ranked in the criminal class”
The truth is this : there was no ill treatment or persecution; it didn’t happen. In fact there is plenty of evidence that supports the opposite view: the Police dropped more serious charges, and Red received what even Ian Jones described as a ‘generous’, remission of a third of his sentence.
That’s not to say of course that the Kellys were not aware of the Police or had nothing at all to do with them: unfortunately for Red, Ellens brothers were constantly before the Law, but nobody seems to dispute the genuine criminality that these men were engaged in, or have ever suggested that Police interest in them wasn’t justified. Speaking of Ellens brother Jimmy, Ian Jones wrote “ …young Jimmy had begun a long career of crime, most of it generated by a volcanic temper that led him into a succession of brawls and sometimes murderous assaults, punctuated by a few stock thefts. Cause and effect can be debated but he emerged as a dangerous unpredictable rat bag of a man, rarely out of trouble.”
What has to be agreed on, because that is what all the evidence shows, is that at least while Red Kelly was alive, his family were not the victims of Police persecution, or being exasperated to madness by ill treatment. In my next post I will examine what happened between the Police and the Kellys after Red was gone. Maybe there we will find the proof of what Ned claimed..
And does anyone think theres a different myth that is greater?
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