This little publication of barely 140 pages is an absolute gem of a book.
As an introduction to the Kelly story I can’t think of a better one to recommend, but I can certainly think of worse ones. This book, released 27 years ago is streets ahead of the rubbish that was produced just last year by Brad Webb ( Ned Kelly: Iron Outlaw) and by Jack Peterson ( An Introduction..) For anyone trying to decide which book to get to start their collection, this is the one to go for, and not just because you can get it on ebay for a lot less than the other two. The other two are Kelly propaganda, biased and distorted accounts of the Kelly story that promote fake news about Ned Kelly, his family and the police. This book, by contrast is remarkably even handed, but comprehensive and I think a balanced person reading it will come away not just with a good understanding of the basic story, but also an appreciation of the complexity of it.
No doubt some will say ‘if Dee thinks its balanced it must favour the police and knock the Kellys’. But this is what Brad Webb has to say about “The Larrikin Years” on his web page of Kelly book reviews :
“This book is quite an enjoyable read. After all, it states just as much on the back cover “His new book challenges conventional thinking about the Kelly Outbreak”. Buy it, read it!”
And read this from Graham Jones Introduction :
“it was part of the original concept to weave the story of the creation of the gang around the court cases in which the Kellys and their clan were involved. This structure was abandoned when it began to appear that the family and the Sympathisers must have spent the best years of their lives circulating between the North Easts various court houses.”
“The court list is ominously long for a family of good intentions and sober habits. It must invite speculation about ‘the Kellys’ as hardworking selectors. But it must also cast doubts on the impartiality of the Police”.
As Jones says, the record of Kelly criminality is ominously long, but there is also a record of police misbehaviour: Jones doesn’t ignore any of it
Like many Kelly books of recent years do, Graham Jones begins this book with a kind of apology for adding further to “the already sagging shelves of Kellyana”. He declares it was his intent to put the outbreak into ‘cultural and historical’ perspective, and to ‘place the outbreak within the wider uprising of youth against society which occurred in Victoria in the 1870’s’.
Jones thesis is that the Kelly story is primarily ‘the story of the rise and fall of a gang of youthful larrikins, who achieved notoriety throughout Australia in the latter part of the 1870’s as the Kelly Gang’. His view is somewhat akin to the view of McQuilton (The Kelly Outbreak) published 3 years earlier, that Kelly was a ‘social bandit’, which is to say, a product of the environment and the social circumstances of the time, who became a symbol to societies victims. McQuiltons view was in turn, in sharp contrast to the earlier published works of Molony (Ned Kelly 1980) and Brown ( Australian Son 1948) who lionised Ned Kelly and his exploits as a romantic rebel. Ian Jones ( ‘A short Life’ 1995 and no relation ) turned back from Graham Jones view of the larrikin towards Browns and Molonys view, that he was a hero, indeed a politically motivated revolutionary.
The beauty of this book however, in my view is that Graham Jones makes very little direct attempt to persuade the reader of his particular perspective. There is a limited discussion of what was understood at the time by ‘larrikinism’ and its origins and effects, and of some of the communitys attitudes and responses to it, but essentially what Jones does here is let the story speak for itself. However, unfortunately Jones provides almost nothing in terms of references and bibliography, my main disappointment.
This remarkable little book thus consists mostly of a surprisingly thorough account of the entire Kelly story, beginning with the arrival in 1848 of Red Kelly in Port Phillip Bay, through the Ah Fook incident, Harry Power and all the usual landmarks to Ned Kelly’s trial and execution, ending with a brief mention of the Royal commission and the aftermath of the outbreak. There is plenty of factual detail but not so much pejorative commentary, either about the Kelly’s or the Police. There’s even a nice map of Kelly country.
Something I hadn’t read before – but others have apparently – was that when Ellen Kelly’s brother-in-law was convicted of arson – he burned down the house in which Ellen, her two sisters and all their children lived – the sentence of death pronounced on him was a mandatory sentence. Jones makes little comment about this fact, but notes that Judge Redmond Barry, who had no choice other than to pronounce it, commented that it was excessive. He knew from precedents already set that there was no danger of the sentence being carried out, and left it to the executive to show ‘appropriate mercy’. The modern pro-Kelly commentariat ignore these facts entirely, preferring to cite that death sentence as evidence in support of their vilification of the great Judge Redmond Barry as some sort of vindictive and merciless ‘hanging judge’ who was out to get the Kellys. Again, as ever in the Kelly debates, the full facts show a very different truth to the one promoted by the likes of Peterson and Web, and repeated by the ill-informed internet Kelly propagandists who for ever conceal all the inconvenient truths.
The Larrikin Years finishes with something that no Kelly defender should ever read : its a 25 page appendix, a list of the cases covering the period from the arrival of Ellen Kelly in the north-east in 1867 to Neds preliminary trial at Beechworth in 1880. It is a long, comprehensive and dispassionate catalogue that has no accompanying commentary, no attempt to moralise or patronise or excuse or excoriate any party, but simply presents facts as they were recorded at the time. It is an absolutely devastating read. I found myself shaking my head in astonishment as I turned page after page documenting the interactions between the Kelly clan and the Courts. Facts alone can sometimes make the most powerful arguments.
This is the ideal Introduction to Ned Kelly and its still available on e-bay and Abe books. A Kelly ‘must read’
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