50th Anniversary Lecture : Good Day to you Ned Kelly

‘Good day to you Ned Kelly’was the title of the lecture given at the Easter 1967 Ned Kelly Symposium by the already famous and widely respected Australian intellectual and  historian, Professor Manning Clark. There seemed to be a growing suspicion at the time that Ned Kelly may have been an unrecognised but important figure whose ideas and activities were significant contributors to the development of the Australian psyche and national identity.  Its ample testimony to the huge interest that there was in discovering the real meaning of the Kelly story back then that someone of Manning Clarks stature would become involved in such a seminar. But he was not alone – there were two other professors who also attended and contributed to the Symposium  – professors Louis Waller and Weston Bate.
Clarks view, expressed in this lecture, was that “mad Ireland had fashioned Ned“  and that, as contributors to this Blog have also recently suggested, because of the environment  and the circumstances that he grew up in, Ned didn’t stand a chance at being anything other than a rebel. Clark believed Ned Kelly was a man who wanted to live “fearless free and bold” but instead was driven by a torrent of raging passions and emotion, what he called “that madness in the blood which had caused him first to steal and then to kill”. He wrote of Neds ‘blind fury’, of ‘the unquenchable fire in Neds heart’, of “that recklessness which was driving him on to his doom” a man who had given “free rein to the tempest in his blood, a man not driven by some lofty ideal to take down the mighty from their seat and send the rich empty away, but rather to hurt and destroy the ones who had caused the dark undying pain to his mother, his brother, himself and men of his kind” But in diametric opposition  to the view of Ned as a forward looking visionary expressed later in the Symposium by Ian Jones, Manning Clark saw Ned as being ‘weighed down by the dead hand of the past”. Ned went bush when the drift was increasingly to the townships, Ned took to the saddle just as the trains arrived in the north-east, and Neds grievances weren’t with ‘the deeper causes of poverty, degradation and misery of the selectors”. Instead his rage was directed against the gaolers and the Police and the  bankers, ‘and not against the  deeper reasons why he and his people had lived in such darkness’
Clarks view of Neds life is full of biblical references to such things as ‘the gallilean’ to demons, to redemption, and to the Commandments, and there are also references to the Greek Gods, Apollo and Dionysius. Manning Clark saw the course of Neds life as a clash of Biblical, mythical proportions between ‘civilisation’ and the demonic urges being expressed by Ned that could have only one possible outcome : Neds annihilation: Ned ‘had to be defanged if civilisation was to survive’.  Neds ultimate fate was inevitable.
In the discussion after the lecture he said that if the Fitzpatrick incident hadn’t triggered the outbreak, someone or something else  eventually would have. Furthermore Clark believed that Ned himself, at the end, realised too that his struggle was doomed, his rage was impotent, and realised that in the end he needed to accept his defeat, and ‘die like a Kelly’. Clark thought he saw a glimpse of Neds struggle with this realisation as far back as at Jerilderie, which was a moment of great and intoxicating triumph for Ned, where “for days Ned lorded it over the forces he loathed and despised – the police, the bankers and all the respectable people” :
A moment of triumph, and yet, Clark draws our attention to the confrontation between Ned and Mr Gribble, in which the Clergyman discerned something to appeal to in Ned, and Ned seemed to sense briefly the futility of his struggle, and to relent, albeit momentarily:
“A member of the gang took a watch from the Reverend Mr Gribble, the local Methodist clergyman. With great courage Mr Gribble asked Ned to order his mate to hand the watch back. For a moment two mighty opposites confronted each other in that hotel parlour in Jerilderie. Mr Gribbble represented those very forces Ned was fighting. He was that upright man who feared God and eschewed evil – that man who honoured the law and the prophets – a symbol of that that giant of English philistinism with its harsh wisdom for mankind, namely that if civilisation is to prevail then men must behave like tame geese. ……
Yet at this moment in Jerilderie Ned resisted the temptation to humiliate the man of law and order. He ordered his mate to  hand back the watch. Mr Gribble had his moment of wisdom in that Hotel parlour in Jerilderie. Sensing perhaps that like all the supporters of law and order he was also a secret sharer of the unquenchable fire in Ned’s heart, he bowed to him and said “Good day to you Ned Kelly”
Further elaborating his theological interpretation of Neds life, Clark saw Father Gibney as another clergyman who began to “tame Ned and to prepare him desperately late though it was, for  redemption and acceptance – to get him to see that that  though men find some things right and some wrong, to God all things are fair and just and right”
At the end, Clarks proof of the success of Neds redemption is seen in how he reacts to Mr Justice Barry “a symbol of all that had provoked Ned to his impotent rage and to his desperate quarrel with God and man”. Ned had just been convicted of murder but before he passed sentence on him at the end of the Trial was asked by Justice Barry, the man who sentenced Neds mother, if he had anything to say :  “And Ned said quietly, ‘I do not blame anybody’ –  for wisdom and grace were coming to him as the fires died down”
Professor Manning Clarks  Ned Kelly is huge, dramatic, wild, untamed and furious, a man virtually exploding with passionate energy that was horribly misdirected and self destructive and drew him inevitably to a confrontation he could never be allowed to win. Manning Clark didn’t see Ned Kelly as having been a visionary or potential leader of a rebellion – for Manning Clark Neds vision was all about his own pain. It’s ultimately a sympathetic view of a tragic figure, whose life because of its starkness and its drama ‘encouraged people to think about fundamental things in our history’ (…) perhaps there is some deeper wisdom about the meaning of life to be learned from Neds stormy days on earth
Manning Clarks understanding of Ned Kelly was ahead of its time, because the serious published work till then, notably J.J. Kenneally, and the Max Brown and Frank Clune biographies  mostly saw Ned as more akin to a noble rational heroic figure, a person responding in a more or less justifiable manner to injustice and institutional corruption. Clark recognised the madness in Ned Kellys behaviour and thought and word, and the unique combination of that with his times and his physical abilities generated a rare and viiolent but fascinating beast of a human being upon whom we project our own hopes and fears. Ian Jones also recognised the madness in the Kelly story but refused to believe what he was seeing and instead justified it by proposing Ned was at War, and what looked like madness was actually a bold revolutionary plan to transform the political landscape pf North east Victoria.

Manning Clarks idea that at the end Ned Kelly accepted his fate is an interesting idea that nobody else seems to have adopted. Ive wondered myself on occasion about how quiet and unrebellious and almost meekly he went to the gallows, but decided it was because he was so badly injured and so weak from blood loss he had no energy left to keep struggling. Nevertheless in Court he exhibited a little bit of spark insisting if he had been able to conduct his own defence things would have turned out differently. (yeah, right!)

Manning Clarks view of Ned, in 1967 is where I think the Kelly story is returning, as the Jones view of the Kelly republic and all the associated creative history telling is now more or less completely dispelled by rigorous modern research. In the intervening years the public mind had been seduced by the Kelly myths promoted so brilliantly by people like Ian Jones and other notable academics, not to mention the power of the Nolan imagery, TV and Hollywood. Now we recognise the ‘madness’ boldly pointed out by Manning Clark 50 years ago as being the truth, somewhere along the spectrum of the psychopathic personality. Exploring and understanding the nature of the psychopath is probably where the Kelly story needs to go next. Then we will probably finally arrive at the final truth about him.
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9 Replies to “50th Anniversary Lecture : Good Day to you Ned Kelly”

  1. I never much liked Manning Clarke's work as a historian. However in this case, as you say Dee, he seems to have been ahead of his time regarding Ned kelly.

  2. And why didn't you like his work as a historian Spudee? Interested.

  3. Eddie Donovan says: Reply

    The right answer is that few of his refs checked out.

  4. Anonymous says: Reply

    Simple really Mark. I am a rightie and he was a leftie. I also gather he came up with conclusions and then worked his research to back up his results.

  5. Hey Spudee, I'm pretty sure Ned was a leftie. Is this why you are so critical of how the Kelly story is getting traction year after year? There are more lefties out there than you would hope for. You would be a liberal member of the Melbourne Club who set out to make sure any opposition who were anti 'establishment' were your enemy. Can we help it if we are born on the wrong side of the fence? I believe in the rightie principle but not at the expense those who cannot quite put it together because the odds are stacked against them and its always about money and control. Lefties do have a voice, and Ned's voice still speaks today. Righties would be nothing without the Lefties as you well know. No we won't get out the violin !

  6. Interesting Bill. I come from a blue-collar family; Dad was a coal miner at 13, Mum a shop assistant. And to add to that, my maternal grandfather was Irish and a rigger until he retired. At 17 I started work at the Port Kembla steelworks. I had been there about a week when 2 members of the appropriate union (can't recall which one) confronted me in the change room and demanded I join up. I said that I would like to talk to my parents about this (they would undoubtedly have told me to join) but the 2 blokes wanted me to sign-up on the spot. I mumbled and fumbled and said I wouldn't do it just then. I was promptly given a bit of a flogging for my reticence. Oh, I did sign up.

    Fast-forward a few years. In 1966 I was called up and served in Malaysia for 15 months in the Army. At that time Vietnam was on and I had mates who served there, 2 KIA. I came home and became a police officer at the peak of the Vietnam demos. I saw colleagues who had served in Vietnam and proudly wore their service ribbons on their uniforms singled out as 'baby killers' and targeted by demonstrators (mostly uni students or other assorted 'lefties') with spittle and occasionally, rocks. My mates soon learned to not wear their ribbons! , like many Australians, witnessed on TV the disgraceful behaviour of, presumably 'lefties' throwing paint over a senior officer of a unit which marched down George Street. At a Days of Rage demo, I was felled by half a house brick (no riot gear for us then) and hospitalised. By this time, my views about the 'left' were pretty solid and they remain unchanged.

    But I don't think I would have qualified for the Melbourne Club even if I had wanted to join, which I wouldn't, as I despise entitlement and elitism. No doubt Ned was a 'leftie' and his apparently uncontrollable rage and violence seems to fit the profile of my experience.

  7. Thanks Spudee, you are a justified rightie gentleman. Unlike you, I missed out on national service I think because I was an apprenticed model Pattern Maker, an exempted engineering trade from National service. I too was required to join a union but did not sit well with a USA controlled company GMH management as they did vet certain employees for advancement in the company, and they even needed to know a person's religion too. How unfair is it that having finished my apprenticeship, by 1966 I was able to start my own business, and unlike you, called up for nasho that same year, shows how unfairly the cards can be dealt out (by righties Govt). I always agreed with my Dad, that we had no right to be fighting wars as in African Boer war, Sudan and China, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and that makes me a leftie. Is it any wonder the world is in such a mess today with nothing solved by those military actions. Ned Kelly would have been appalled to see native born Australians sent over to fight in other peoples wars. It is terrible how we treated those return service men and women, they were just being told what to do. In future we need to elect Govts that question very hard what we are fighting for.

  8. Anonymous says: Reply

    I was ambivalent about being called up an I had a relatively easy 2 years in the Army. At the time I tended to agree with the Vietnam War, probably because I had mtes killed in it and also because of my own experiences as a young cop. But as Time went by I came to see the uselessness of it and the waste of so many good people. Anyway, enough of politics which are enough to bring about depression.

  9. Most interesting and revealing comments Bill and Spudee. Thanks for sharing those insights with everyone. I am younger than you two so never had any involvement with the Armed Forces or being called up to fight in a war – thank God! I couldn't say how I might have reacted if I HAD been called up, or how I would have behaved if I had been sent to fight in a war, so I fully respect the decisions of the people who were, whatever they were because they were tough decisions that you would have rather not have been forced to make I am sure.

    One of the reasons I dislike the Ned Kelly mythology is because I believe it glorifies a violent man who saw violence, indeed quite extreme violence as a solution to problems. Violent people and violent solutions should not be held up as models and icons. They should be condemned.

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