Even though there are many details of the Kelly Outbreak that Kelly supporters disagree on, one thing they are all in complete agreement about, is that the entire calamity was caused by Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick. They blame Fitzpatrick for every unfortunate and tragic consequence of his visit to the Kelly home on April 15th 1878, and seem to be convinced that if it hadn’t been for him, the lives of the Kellys and their associates in the north-east would have been tranquil and happy and free. It is no exaggeration to say that universally, Kelly followers and supporters hate the man with such an intense fury that they are blind to any other interpretation or fact or opinion that doesn’t accord with their unshakeable conviction that he was a philandering drunken liar who ruined everything for the Kelly clan, for ever.
But times have changed!
Beginning with Ian MacFarlane’s ground breaking publication in 2012 ‘The Kelly Gang Unmasked’ and followed up by Stuart Dawson’s 2015 publication ‘Redeeming Fitzpatrick’, and dare I say it continuing through a series of Posts about Fitzpatrick on this Blog last year, we are now at a very different place. We are now at the place where we can confidently identify the mythology and the lies that have been woven around Fitzpatrick’s role in the ‘incident’ and push back against the Kelly mythology that blames and vilifies him. We are now at the place where we can say that without question, Fitzpatrick was not a drunken liar, he was not a philandering cad and he was not the cause of the Kelly outbreak. Read the above mentioned sources if you want to see the evidence, and balance it against the unsubstantiated allegations, lies and conspiracy theories of the Kelly promotors.
So, if it wasn’t Fitzpatrick then who or what was the immediate cause of the Outbreak, that explosion of criminality in 1878 that resulted in the Kelly Gang being outlawed and the police looking not for a horse thief but a gang of murderers? The answer will shock you, but if you ignore the baseless mythology and instead follow the logic and look at the historical facts you will have to agree with me – it was Mrs Ellen Kelly!
The reason that the idea that Mrs Kelly was the cause of the outbreak will shock you is that Kelly mythology regards Ellen Kelly as almost a saint. She suffered through the miseries of the infant death of her first born, of the adult deaths of her husband, of two of her adult sons and a grown daughter, and of grandchildren, she endured the shame of being mother to a killer, and in spite of it all survived lifelong poverty into a dignified ripe old age. What did Ellen Kelly ever do wrong, other than stick up for her family?
Well, by all accounts Mrs Kelly was a hot blooded short tempered fiery woman. Once she was arrested for ‘furious riding in a public place’ but avoided conviction on a technicality. In fact Mrs Kelly was very far from being a conventional selector wife. She conceived out of wedlock to three separate people, ran an illegal grog shop out of her house which was also rumoured to be a place where sexual services could also be obtained, she encouraged eight year old Ned Kelly to lie to the Court to try to keep an uncle out of Gaol and encouraged the 14 year old Ned Kelly to become the apprentice to a wanted criminal, the bushranger Harry Power. And on the 15th April 1878 when Fitzpatrick visited to arrest Dan on a horse stealing charge it was Mrs Kelly who told him that because Fitzpatrick didn’t have the warrant for his arrest in his possession, Dan didn’t have to go to the station. So incensed was she, so infuriated was she that Fitzpatrick would dare to come to her home to arrest her son without a warrant that she attacked him with a shovel, smashing him once violently over the head and buckling his helmet, and then lining him up for a second. Brickey Williamson told how he grabbed the shovel off her, and believed he had saved Fitzpatrick’s life by doing so. At that point, according to Fitzpatrick whose left arm was raised to ward off the second blow, Ned Kelly burst in and shot at him, hitting him in the wrist. Eventually order was restored and Fitzpatrick went back to Benalla and the Kelly boys headed for the bush.
In fact, Mrs Kelly’s understanding of the Law was faulty – her belief that the suspect had to be shown a warrant before he could be arrested and carted off to the Lock-up was wrong, entirely wrong , and Fitzpatrick’s actions were perfectly legal. Given that Dan Kelly had said he was willing to go peacefully with Fitzpatrick, Mrs Kellys intervention seems even more unfortunate and ill-advised, because if she had been better informed she may have let Dan go, there wouldn’t have been a fight, and nobody would have been shot. But sadly for everyone she didn’t actually know what she was talking about, she lost her temper big time, there was a fight, Fitzpatrick was wounded and so the Outbreak began. And why? The Outbreak began because Mrs Kelly didn’t understand the law, and because she lost her temper. Fitzpatrick had done nothing wrong.
Much later, after Mrs Kelly had been sentenced to 3 years gaol for her part in the fracas, she uttered the chilling phrase which became the title of chapter eight in Ian Jones Kelly biography “There would be murder now”. What an irresponsible and foolish remark to make – she was dog whistling to her mob.
So heres my argument: Ellen Kelly was a tough volatile woman who by her own example taught her sons at a young age to lie and to break the Law when it suited, and to disrespect police and the courts. She may have been the one to teach them that their problems were not of their own making but were the fault of the police or the squatters or the drought. Her sons never seemed to have developed a ‘work ethic’. In important respects she was clearly an inadequate mother and she was also ignorant of the Law. The Outbreak happened because at a critical moment Ellen Kellys disrespect and ignorance of the law and her short temper combined to produce the worst decision she ever made – to attack a policeman doing his lawful duty. If she had influence over her delinquent sons, she used it foolishly, for example in encouraging Ned to be Harry Powers apprentice, in advising Dan he didn’t need to go with Fitzpatrick and worst of all in signalling to them before she went to Gaol that ‘there would be murder now’.
Mrs Kelly has escaped critical scrutiny till now, but she has an awful lot to answer for.