It would be interesting to know for certain who supports the idea that Ned Kelly is an Aussie Icon and Hero these days but I would guess that more than half of the population still does. I would guess though, that a survey would show that the huge majority of Australians have only a very limited knowledge of the facts of the Kelly story, much of what they believe about it is wrong, but most would say he was some kind of hero who fought against corruption and only ended up killing police because he was standing up for his family.
My guess is based on what I’ve seen the general public post to Facebook about the Kelly story. On places that discuss Australian history in general there are quite frequent references to the Kelly story and the majority of those comments are ‘pro Ned’ but often expose the writer’s ignorance of facts. Even on the FB pages specifically devoted to Ned Kelly many of the comments reveal ignorance of the facts or relate to outdated and now refuted claims about the Kelly story. The obvious clangers are discussions about Dan Kelly surviving the Glenrowan siege, the ‘rape’ of Kate Kelly, the great cluster of myths about the police search party being in disguise, carrying ‘body straps’ being heavily armed and so on, but up-to-date devotees of the story shouldn’t be talking about Ned Kellys last words being “Such is life” anymore, or referring to the Kelly Republic any more, or to Fitzpatrick being a drunk or a womaniser. All these claims are false.
So you might ask why am I saying Kelly Sympathisers have lost the battle to keep Ned Kelly as an Australian Icon if I also think most Australians still think of him as some sort of hero?
I can illustrate it best with a simple analogy: when the tide turns, and starts to go out, for a while nothing looks any different…. except that the water has started to flow in the opposite direction to what it had been. Eventually, what’s happening becomes obvious to everyone.
The big and dramatic change in momentum around the Kelly story began ten years ago with Ian MacFarlane’s courageous ground-breaking publication ‘The Kelly Gang Unmasked’. Before then, there had been a few challenges to the Kelly myth at various places but they were mostly smothered by ‘Australia’s foremost Kelly authority’ Ian Jones, author of the 1995 Kelly biography “A Short Life”. A steady stream of ‘pro-Kelly’ books preceded and followed Jones book but before MacFarlane nobody had assembled the evidence from the historical record and published a comprehensive forensic analysis of the entire story. Before then, for over thirty years Kelly books and literature to be found in school and public libraries, in museums and tourist trails were almost entirely ‘pro-Kelly’, all pointing in one direction, to the man as icon and hero. The police were the villains and Kellys murders were justified by tales of persecution and oppression, and his willingness to stand and fight for his family. Kelly was promoted as a colourful uniquely Australian hero, Australia’s Robin Hood, no less.
It’s now ten years since MacFarlane threw his hand grenade into the Kelly legends. The flow of pro-Kelly books quickly slowed and has now stopped and been replaced by a growing list of titles that challenge the Legends and replace them with the evidence based historical truths of the Kelly story. In the last ten years Dr Doug Morrissey has released three books, Grantlee Kieza has written two, David Dufty one, Dr Stuart Dawson four powerful monographs, Aidan Phelan self-published, and there are two books from Police descendants, one written by Leo Kennedy and another by Lachlan Strahan.
On the internet, where the only activity taking place other than on Facebook pages is this Blog, change has also been in the same direction : less interest in mythology and more interest in accurate history. Apart from The Best Bloody Man Facebook page, where the focus until recently has been on Kellyana rather than history, all other FB pages devoted to Ned Kelly are struggling to survive. Several pro-Kelly Facebook pages, and a few pro-Kelly forums have been and gone. One interesting challenge they are struggling to deal with more recently is balancing devotion to Ned Kelly with his obsessional hatred of police and his scheme to murder a score or more of them in cold blood at Glenrowan. For decades police hate and scorn and vilification has been a fundamental of Kelly sympathiser belief. Now, because of pressure being out on these people by this Blog and by others, the ugliness of police hatred that used to be tolerated is increasingly being rejected. People labelling Lonigan and Kennedy and Scanlan as scum and as dogs who got what they deserved are starting to be called out, if only because it gives the Kelly sympathiser mob a very negative and unattractive public image. The paradox has emerged of pro-Kelly pages prohibiting the expression of anti-police sentiment, even though police hate was the central driver of Ned Kellys behaviour. The growing cognitive dissonance between rejection of police hate and devotion to Ned Kelly, the personification of police hate, is driving some of them crazy. The point is that even within the Kelly mobs, because of the pressure of evidence thats being exposed in this stream of books and writing in various places, there is gradual movement away from some of the historical core beliefs of the Kelly legend.
But publications are not the only indicator of the change thats taking place. Public institutions are now coming on board with the need for the new research and the new insights and understandings to replace the myths. One of the first places at which this process of renewal and of rejection of the Kelly mythology took place was at Stringybark Creek four or five years ago. Heritage Victoria upgraded the signage to bring it into line with modern understandings of what happened, minimising references to the Kelly Gang and maximising awareness of the brutality of the police murders.
At Glenrowan an expensive Tourist investment is underway with the construction of a viewing Tower near the siege site. The historical content to be displayed there has yet to be revealed but it needs to be approved by Heritage Victoria, which means of course, given the nature of their revisions at SBC, it will focus on history and not myth. It will be a huge disappointment to Kelly devotees who are expecting it will glorify the Last Stand, but if evidence and historical truth is their guide, the take-away message from the Viewing Tower will be that it overlooks a place where a brave disabled teacher stopped a brutal murderer from carrying out a monstrous bloodthirsty and merciless act of mass killing of innocent people. Nothing heroic about the Kelly gangs behaviour.The excuses have all been debunked. Is it too much to hope the new narrative will be about the genuine hero at Glenrowan, Thomas Curnow?
Kelly devotees themselves have noted with alarm recently further mythology roll-back in Beechworth, where the promotion of all kinds of other local historical cultural and social attractions seems to have displaced the Kelly story from centre stage. This is in addition to the disappearance of the once very popular annual Beechworth Ned Kelly Weekend and the closure of the equally popular Kelly Vault, its interesting collection now disbursed among the private owners and the Burke Museum, which has also removed its large display of Outbreak related material.
Other public institutions re-evaluating the information about the Outbreak that is being put on public display include the National Museum of Australia. After I wrote to them in 2021 and detailed my concerns about inaccuracies and misinformation in them, this influential and important public institution removed two 30 minute videos from its “Australian Journey” series. That was because they agreed with my critique.
Brad Williams also wrote to the NMA to express his similar concerns about the content of their “Defining Moment : Ned Kellys Last Stand” and this is part of the response he received a few days ago :
“Thank you again for alerting us to new research which was not reflected in our Defining Moment titled ‘Ned Kelly’s last stand’. This has been extremely useful.
In response to your review of the Defining Moment ‘Ned Kelly’s last stand’, two external reviews, and an internal review we have decided to temporarily unpublish/remove the web page that features the Defining Moment ‘Ned Kelly’s last stand’ and work to update and re-write the content to better reflect new research, and to correct factual inaccuracies that were identified through the review process. This process also initiated a review of other material related to Ned Kelly across the Museum’s website. We will also work to ensure that this material is updated and more reflective of current scholarship in the field.
This has been a valuable undertaking for the Museum, and we again thank you for your thorough review of the Defining Moment, which has contributed to this decision and will support us in re-writing this content.”
Another institution reviewing its approach to telling the Kelly story are the regional councils of NE Victoria. They are jointly responsible for the content of the well-known and well publicised “NK Touring Route”.
Brad Williams alerted them to the new research and understandings of the Outbreak and suggested a rewrite of the NKTR material was long overdue. They agreed and set in train a Tender process which resulted in the appointment of an independent researcher to review the entire Touring Route enterprise, a process which took most of 2022. The reviewers remit was to make information on the NKTR historically accurate and ‘to move away from the usual “simplistic narratives of legends, heroes, villains and myths”. This process is in the very last stages of implementation and already many of the myths and misconceptions have disappeared from the NK Touring Route website. Changing websites and brochures is not too difficult but replacing signage will take a little longer.
So, the outlook for 2023 is not good for the Kelly sympathisers, devotees, apologists – whatever you want to call them – who have been deriding Brad Williams campaign for truth to be told about the Kelly story in public institutions. He has been warning the Kelly mobsters for a long time that change is coming and indeed it really is : what we all will be seeing in the coming year, 2023 is further public rollback of Kelly myths and fables, and their replacement with the evidence based historical truths. Kelly fans have nothing to look forward to in 2023, not even the anti-Fitzpatrick work promised by Mick Fitzsimons : that book is unlikely to ever see the light of day, but if it did, and it was honest and true to the evidence it would further redeem him. If its not true to the evidence it will be quickly shot down in flames.