Where to from here for Kelly Mythology?

Recently someone objected to my use of the term “apologist” in relation to people who support Kelly mythology, saying it was ‘distasteful’. I think this is for two reasons, the first being that in general we tend to think of apologists as people who defend causes and viewpoints that most of us regard as indefensible, such as fascist right wing ideologies, land-mine merchants and cigarette manufacturers. Secondly, ‘apologists’ have a reputation for being entrenched and inflexible people who fight ‘dirty’ and use whatever tactic seems to advance their cause no matter how dishonest or underhand they need to be.


In fact, the dictionary definitions of ‘apologist’ only say that an apologist is ‘a person who offers an argument in defence of something controversial’. This definition of an apologist, like most of them in various ways, requires that to be an apologist a person not only actively campaigns and argues for something, but that ‘thing’ – which could be an idea, or a person or a process – has to be ‘controversial’. In another definition, the word used is ‘unpopular’ and in another ‘criticized or attacked by other people’. But there’s nothing in the definition that suggests apologists are people who necessarily resort to playing dirty – it’s just that it seems in reality that’s what people who adopt ‘controversial’ or ‘unpopular’ causes, or causes that are ‘criticised or attacked by other people’ tend to do – they tend to play dirty.


So from that perspective, I can see why someone might take exception to being labelled an apologist: they don’t want to be thrown in with people who play dirty, or have  the Kelly story likened to ethically dubious causes like white nationalism and arms manufacture! If you think you play fair and your cause is reasonable, you wouldn’t want to be labelled an ‘apologist’.


But here’s the point: the behaviour of most present-day defenders of the Kelly myths conforms to all the negative stereotypes attached to the word ‘apologist’. There are one or two notable exceptions of course, but its almost impossible to find a Kelly ‘apologist’ defending their beliefs by arguing about the substance of their claims, such as that Ned Kelly was a victim of persecution, or that he was a model son, or that Fitzpatrick was a womanising alcoholic or that Glenrowan was about something other than murder and revenge. Instead in recent years while all these beliefs of theirs, and many more have been under serious challenge almost the only thing that Kelly supporters have ever done in response has been to mount personal attacks and abuse everyone who has challenged them. So, while it may be true that not all defenders of the Kelly myths behave in ways that fit the negative stereotype of an ‘apologist’, most do. Don’t believe me? – check out the comments on any one of the two or three remaining pro-Kelly Facebook pages – observe the language used to describe academics like Morrissey, MacFarlane, Kennedy and Dawson, and the total absence of any attempt to actually debate the views expressed by them. The focus on vilification and abuse to the exclusion of almost everything else is staggering. Enough said!


But it wasn’t always this way. The centenary of Ned Kellys execution in 1980 gave rise to a massive revisionist approach to the Kelly story and for a time it looked as if the history books were going to be rewritten and Ned Kellys image rehabilitated. Academic seminars and symposia and respectful intellectual discussions about Kelly history were held, several doctorates and Kelly biographies and histories were written on related topics and there were public exhibitions, trial re-enactments, documentaries and movies made. It was a golden age of Kelly enthusiasm. Kellys advocates were actual academics and professors, as well as informed amateurs and history buffs and sympathisers everywhere thought all their Xmases had come at once.


But what happened was that all this academic scrutiny resulted in the history books not being re-written, the hoped-for rehabilitation was eventually seen to be unhistorical and rejected, the Outbreak as criminal. The academics moved on and with the passing of Ian Jones last year the Golden Age of Kelly came to an end. The collapse of Kelly scholarship has been so complete that there are no real apologists left anymore – instead there are just ‘sympathisers’, surrounding themselves with Kelly memorabilia and rather pathetically clinging on to disproven stories about Ned Kelly and the Kelly outbreak.  According to one dictionary, a sympathiser is ‘a person who agrees with or supports a sentiment, opinion, or ideology’. Another definition is ‘someone associated with another to give assistance or moral support’. Clearly that description would apply to everyone who thinks Ned Kelly was some sort of Australian hero and an icon. But, compared to ‘apologist’ its quite a passive state of affairs: all you have to do to be a sympathiser is ‘agree’ with the notion that Ned Kelly was some kind of hero. There are still plenty of people like that, but nobody is seriously trying to make the case for Ned Kelly any more. All they do instead is recite dogma and the occasional conspiracy theory to try to keep it afloat.


So where does the Kelly story go from here? Facebook arguments have achieved nothing  – at best, Kelly mythologists endlessly repeat debunked claims, at worst, and more often, they ignore the challenges and instead engage in vilification and personal abuse. Long gone are the days when anything resembling respectful rational debate took place. Instead, I think the time has come to turn to the institutional places where the myths are perpetuated and recycled, such places as museums and schools and tourist destinations, and every other place that talks about the Kelly outbreak. These places now have to be made familiar with all the recent discoveries and developments in our understanding of the Outbreak. They have to be helped to make changes in the story they tell to bring them into line with what we now know to be the true story of the Outbreak. Its time for the myths to be replaced with the actual historical truths. 



What we now know for sure thanks largely to the scholarship of Morrissey, is that the Kellys and their extended family associates were not typical selectors, who mostly were hard working but poor, strict teetotallers and churchgoers, upholders of the law and supporters of the establishment. By contrast the Kellys were lazy, they didn’t work their selection, they didn’t go to church, they were drinkers, and they were not at all popular or widely supported in their local districts. Neither were they unfairly persecuted and harassed by police, but instead they attracted the interest of the authorities by their own actions, not just by being stock thieves but by acts of violence, arson, sexual assault and domestic violence and even animal cruelty. Their claims of harassment were merely excuses. All this is now well established, because the archives have now been opened to everyone.


The other dimension of the Kelly story that is now established, are the many parts of it that are pure invention. One, discussed on this Blog recently is the allegation that Ned Kellys sister was sexually assaulted by Fitzpatrick. Another is that Fitzpatrick was a womanising drunk who died an alcoholic – but there are many others, and many have been discussed on this Blog. The most important myth, debunked comprehensively by Stuart Dawson is that Ned Kelly planned to establish a republic in north East Victoria. Even Kelly descendants have now gone on record to say that Ned Kelly didn’t have a political bone in his body. The republic is dead and nobody should be talking about it any more.


The other thing that has to happen is that the idea that Ned Kelly was the embodiment of fair dinkum Aussie values has to be exposed as nonsense: lying and thieving, laziness and boasting are not Aussie values but they were the hallmarks of Kellys lifestyle.  Neither is disrespecting police an Aussie value– let alone trying to bail them up and then killing them. The claim that Kelly exhibited the genuine Aussie values of mateship, of respecting family, of showing the skill that would have made him a great leader, of treating everyone with respect and fairness are all contradicted by the evidence. He didn’t uphold those values. He should no more be regarded as an Aussie Icon than should Rolf Harris or Chopper Read.


Sympathisers of course will continue to believe in the Kelly mythology because its an appealing story that gives them something to dream about. But its not history, which must be why none of them are prepared to defend it.

Time for everyone else to move on.


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4 Replies to “Where to from here for Kelly Mythology?”

  1. Hi David, I think there are two important points here. First, that the cultural institutions that mention Ned Kelly promote well-outdated and essentially 1980s naïve adulations of Kelly and the Kelly gang which were in turn heavily based on Kenneally (1929) and Brown (1948) as revamped with selectively researched Kelly loving history from the 1960s to 1980s, culminating is the universally praised but historically disastrous “Short Life” Kelly biography by Jones in 1995. This consolidated numerous errors and speculative nonsense and presented them as fact. We could list a string of examples, but here are a sample few: The myth says that that the Kellys were struggling selectors rather than members of a sprawling criminal clan; that Ned was a largely innocent child caught up in criminality rather than that he and his brothers were stock thieves by the age of around ten; that Fitzpatrick was a drunken bum rather than that he did his duty rather well from the time he was employed in the force to the time he was sent to Sydney after being scapegoated extensively in the press, that the Kelly family were republicans of rebel tradition, rather than the loyalists attested by Ashmead; and then the republic myth that Jones made central to his entire view of Kelly. We see the bungled history about the family persecution myth, Stringybark Creek and the body straps myth, the army of sympathisers myth, the obscuring of the train derailment massacre, the 30,000 petitioners for reprieve myth – just about the entire Kelly story as presented from the 1980s on is fantasy built around taking the Jerilderie letter as a basis for accurate history rather than irrational desperate nonsense. That in itself goes back to the 1940s in Brown’s and Clive Turnbull’s books.

    The second thing is what you said on another recent blog, that the definitive Kelly history has not yet been written. The reason is obvious – the most frequently referenced and dominant Kelly history is Jones’ “Short Life”, which is built entirely on selective history and many distorted and manipulated interpretations of source evidence. Jones started with a certain vision of Kelly, largely taken from Kenneally and Brown, and set out to vindicate them from a Kelly republic and bad Fitzpatrick standpoint. As such, his Kelly biography is miles off the mark, and miles from historical fact. While a labour of love, it is wildly skewed because it is built on false foundations. When one starts digging into his references, which few people do, one discovers that all over the place they don’t support the arguments he based on them. The silly tale of Kelly returning to the Glenrowan Inn in the middle of the night in time to see Byrne die, then going one again through police line in armour unseen, is probably the simplest example to unpick of his massive distortions of historical evidence to built a wrong-headed fantasy tale. (I unpicked and demolished it in my Republic myth book in less than a page.) But it keeps being repeated by anyone and everyone taking Jones as “the expert”.

    Where we are now is that the cultural institutions simply use Jones as their reference and don’t have much interest in offering alternatives. For example, the Old Treasury Buildings had a bushrangers exhibition a couple of years ago, with Dan’s armour in it, and a badly written explanatory poster about how Fitzpatrick started the Kelly outbreak. I advised them of my “Redeeming Fitzpatrick” article, and one of the staff was looking into offering it as a PDF download by Q code as an alternative narrative. The person was overruled by some plonker who said they didn’t want controversy (i.e. thinking), and would stick to the version based on Jones’ book. In other words, the cultural institutions are largely run by non-intellectuals.

    So I agree that it would be good to start educating these places about the idiot narratives they continue to present, but they are puddles of anti-intellectual inertia. Another example: the Kelly Vault had a little glass bookcase shrine to Jones with some of his “Short Life” typescript in it. It was good to see it, as it showed me how he had constructed his references – basically, he wrote a narrative then populated it with supporting evidence. To spell this out, the evidence was selected to support the narrative – it was never a balanced academic style investigation. It was a story with references that fitted. That’s why it is a house of cards in many places. Anyway, the Vault has never mentioned my Redeeming Fitzpatrick article or Republic Myth book as being available alternative narratives, because they are not interested. They have their little story, and have no interest in changing it as far as I can see. So they continue to perpetuate utter nonsense and pass it off as “education”. Duh. Maybe they will get around to rethinking their display and signage one day and offer sources of debate rather than conventional mythmaking, but I don’t think that will happen anywhere soon. I’d love to be wrong though.

    1. Well Stuart its interesting to read about the efforts you’ve been making to have institutions update their Kelly narratives! But I dont think you ought to be discouraged because so far nothing seems to have changed – after all these understandings of Kelly history didn’t spring up overnight so its going to take time and persistence to have them brought up to date!

      But change is inevitable – and actually is happening already.! Have you seen the line-up for the Greta Heritage Kelly weekend seminar next February called “Ned and the Law” ? – I think Kelly sympathisers will get a hell of a fright if they look into the credentials of the speakers, and might not even turn up to listen to stuff I am sure many wont like! At least one of their speakers is a huge supporter of Ian MacFarlane! But a decade ago sympathisers could safely roll up and be spoon-fed a diet of the pure kelly tripe they’ve all become addicted to. Not any more!

      Another recent positive change has been the re-wording of the on-site Stringybark Creek memorials – the Kelly Gang has been relegated to the role of criminal murderers and reference to them minimised, and the murdered Police elevated to hero status. Quite a lot of ratepayers money was spent on that upgrade!

      As well, despite the Kelly factions denial and their loud protesting to the contrary, the wave upon wave of new Kelly scholarship that began with Ian MacFarlane in 2012 has brought the Jones-Kelly juggernaut to its knees , and there is more to come, the last of Morrissey’s trilogy being not too far off.

      You also might not know, not being on Facebook, that two pro-Kelly Facebook pages have retreated from public gaze by becoming Members only places. They find the glare of critical scrutiny too much to bare, whereas once, being a Kelly sympathisers was nothing to be embarrassed about! So that’s changed!

      But yes as I suggested in the post, despite these steady gains I think we need to start rethinking our strategies. I once imagined that on-line debates with the people who frequent pro-Kelly Facebook pages would be fruitful but Ive discovered that almost none of those people is capable or willing to engage in such debates, unless its to post vile personal abuse or restate disproven Kelly dogma. In any case, as I pointed out many have retreated into members only places so they can vet who joins and kick people out that they dont like! Recently Mark Perry was kicked out of a Members Only site that he helped get established, so all is not right behind those closed doors!

      On the other hand people who manage museums and libraries and tourist attractions are more often willing to listen to feedback and constructive criticism. What should appeal to such people is the desire to be historically accurate in the information they provide the public and I think thats the approach we need to adopt – we are not talking about providing the other side of the debate, as if most of the kelly story is still in contention. What we should be reminding these institutions of is their obligation to getting the history right.

  2. Hi David, I still think is still a massive inertia problem, coupled with stuck in the mire quibblers who keep referencing Ian Jones’ books as though they are unquestionably accurate in most places. In fact they are unquestionably inaccurate in most places that require any interpretation, and selectively inaccurate wherever he has found a quote or source to support his narrative. Another example – he took the second hand narrative attributed to McIntyre in Sadleir’s “Recollections of a Victorian police officer” as factual in regard to Lonigan’s death at Stringybark Creek, and trumpeted as the true story that proved that all of McIntyre’s sworn testimony everywhere else was perjury. It is hard to see how such massive ineptitude and historical incompetence won anyone over, but it did. It won most of the subsequent Kelly authors over, despite his blatant selective twisting of historical evidence. Pathetic. As part of that Jones spent a page or so arguing that the date Sadleir arrived at Mansfield was incorrect in Sadleir’s memoir, which was “proved” by the Mansfield Occurrence book. Again, total incompetence. The only pages of the Occurrence book that survive are the few pages in the Kelly VPRO files, which had been typed out from the original book. They are online now in the Kelly papers. Jones applied a relentless lack of logic and singlehanded bloody mindedness to argue that the date shown for Sadleir’s departure from Mansfield proved that the arrival date he gave in his memoir was wrong. Gong! For that to be true, the relevant Occurrence book entry would have to be written the day before the departure happed. But entries were retrospective, not fortune cookies. There is no arrival date recorded. Once we realise that, we can see that there is no inconsistency and the dates in Sadleir’s memoir all hold true. There are tons of examples of this sort of error all through Jones “Short Life”, and all through his “New View” in “Man and Myth” 1968. Yet this is the uncritically examined “authority” that the institutions turn to without blushing, to reject more recent and thorough critical scholarship that shows Jones wrong. That’s why it’s frustrating sometimes; the inertia is ubiquitous.

  3. It is a great pity Ian Jones was so wrong so often. No-one picked him up until Macca did in 2012.

    Jones then stupidly advised author Peter Fitzsimons to ignore Macfarlane’s book altogether.

    Gross stupidity.

    Don’t like attacking the dead but Ian tried to mislead us all.


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