The suggestion that the definitive Kelly book still hasn’t been written may seem ridiculous to those who are aware of the vast collection of Kelly writing that already exists, or to those who think that Ian Jones wrote the definitive Kelly book nearly 25 years ago. By now, 140 years after it all ended one might be forgiven for thinking that every possible aspect of the Outbreak had been analysed to death, that the minutiae of every newspaper article, editorial, police document and court record had been processed, that every nugget of detail that could be mined from the Minutes of the Royal Commission had been extracted, and the arguments and controversies about the Outbreak were just going over the same old ground and nothing new will ever come of them. Is the Kelly story book now more like a kids colouring-in book, where all the images and outlines are clearly drawn, and all that remains to be done is for the colours to filled in, like what’s happening with Joe Byrnes image on the Outlaws Journal?
The problem has been that until recently access to all those records was extremely limited, and readers were obliged to accept whatever authors claimed the sources said. Almost none of us could fact-check Kenneallys use of the Royal Commission reports in the 1920’s, the claims made by Clune and Max Brown in the 1950’s, by Molony and McQuilton and Jones in the 70’s and 80’s and later – but now thats all changed. Not only can all of us more readily access all the books these authors have written, and more readily discuss their contents with like-minded and not so like-minded enthusiasts the world over, we can also download the actual original documents and read the official reports and the minutes and the newspaper articles for ourselves and discover often enough, that the story we have been told is sometimes not the whole story, sometimes a misrepresentation or even a completely false story.
Here’s a perfect and very clear example : I looked at the Death Certificate of Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick. I was hundreds of miles away from Victoria at the time, and would probably have never seen it, or even known where to begin to look for it in Melbourne if I had taken a few days off and spent several hundred dollars to go there to look for it. And yet, in a few minutes on the Internet I found it and downloaded a copy of it. In so doing, I instantly exploded a 140-year-old myth about Fitzpatrick thats still in print in many places, not the least of which is the Ned Kelly Encyclopaedia which says he died of cirrhosis of the liver. That claim continues to be used by a legion of police-hating Kelly sympathisers to bolster their claim that Fitzpatrick was an alcoholic. In fact, the death certificate clearly and unequivocally shows that Fitzpatrick died of an abdominal malignancy that had nothing to do with alcoholism. Cirrhosis is mentioned nowhere, and there is no evidence anywhere that supports the idea that Fitzpatrick was an alcoholic, but it’s in all the books that relied on that false claim about him, a claim that won’t be found in the definitive Kelly book waiting to be written.
The Kelly book waiting to be written will start at the beginning and tell the whole story of Red Kellys background in Ireland, not just make a brief mention of him stealing two pigs to make it sound like it was a petty crime. Those pigs were stolen from an equally poverty stricken neighbour, not from some rich Landlord, and Red Kellys role as a police informer and the death of a man he betrayed won’t be concealed either. Ellen Kellys origins will also be fully examined : she also belonged to a poor Irish family, and when she arrived in Victoria with her parents they were penniless. The Whittys were another family of Irish Catholics who arrived in Victoria penniless and destitute around the same time, but the Whittys, whose success Ned Kelly became intensely jealous of, and Ellens father’s stories are fine examples of what poor Irishmen can achieve by working hard. Those stories will be told to put the Kelly family failures into perspective.
The definitive Kelly story wont perpetuate the Kelly family’s complaint that their difficulties were someone else’s fault, but show how even Red Kelly, after serving his time, began his married life with considerable success. He made enough money on the goldfields to buy a very satisfactory little farm, but not much more than ten years later Ellen was penniless and a widow! The definitive Kelly story will show that her predicament wasn’t the result of squatter oppression or police persecution but Reds decline into alcoholism, the final blow after his death being the drunken arson attack in 1868 by Reds brother, Neds Uncle James Kelly that burned their house to the ground, destroyed all their possessions and left Ellen and all her children utterly destitute. And vey lucky to be alive!
The definitive Kelly story will also describe how Red Kelly valiantly fought against the demons of shame and guilt for what he had done in Ireland, demons that eventually brought him down through the medium of drink. Commendably, Ned Kellys father got him to school and shielded him from the worst of the documented background of Kelly, Quinn and Lloyd family immorality, criminality, disrespect for the law, horrendous sexual and domestic violence, animal cruelty and alcoholism that surrounded Ned Kelly as he grew up. Sadly, once Red Kelly died, Neds schooldays ended and his mother Ellen actively encouraged him to participate in a life of crime, sending him off at the age of 14 to be an apprentice to a wanted criminal, learning the power of a loaded gun and disrespect for the rights and freedoms of ordinary law abiding citizens. Later, Ellens volatile temper and her ignorance of the law resulted in an assault on Constable Fitzpatrick, and the triggering of the entire Outbreak. Fitzpatrick, as already mentioned has been the subject of a vast host of falsehoods, insane conspiracy theories and extreme hostility the basis for which evaporates under close examination of the facts, and the support of the scores of petitioners from Lancefied who protested loudly at his dismissal from the force. If there was ever a person denied justice in the Kelly story, it was Fitzpatrick who was made a scapegoat not only for the Kelly crimes but also for police failings. All this will be told in the definitive Kelly story waiting to be written.
The two central myths of the Kelly story, that Ned Kellys behaviour was a reaction to persecution and oppression by police and the courts, and that Ned Kelly planned to establish a republic of north east Victoria will have to get a mention in the definitive story, but only to point out their status as myth rather than historical truth. Ned Kelly invented the persecution myth in an attempt to shift the responsibility for his behaviour from himself to the police, and Ian Jones invented the Republic myth, and the myth of a republican army to avoid having to accept his own conclusion that without inventing such an explanation for it, Ned Kellys plan for Glenrowan was nothing but a ‘criminal monstrosity’. Other myths that will need to be dissected free and dismissed from the definitive history will be the claim that Ned Kelly was Australia’s ‘Robin Hood’, that Ned Kelly was devoted to his mother, that he would have made a great General, that he was a crack shot with a rifle…the list is long!
The definitive Kelly story will also expose Ned Kelly as a notorious liar, one of his biggest lies being his claim to have killed Lonigan in self-defence. The forensic evidence shows that Kellys claim that Lonigan arose from behind a battery of logs and was about to fire at him was a lie. Kelly also lied about where he was at the time of the ‘Fitzpatrick Incident’ and he committed innumerable outlandish lies to paper in letters he wrote from prison in November 1880, letters we can now all read and wonder at. Ned Kelly was also a self-confessed stock thief, his chosen criminal career that involved many deceits, lies and forgery, and a boast in the Jerilderie letter that he was never caught!
The many myths about Kellys trial, such as that it was rushed, that is was a gross miscarriage of justice and that if conducted ‘according to Law’ the outcome would have been any different will all be catalogued, as will the minutes and the reports of the Royal Commission into the outbreak. The Commissions exposure of Police corruption, blundering, missteps, violence and stupidity, highlighted by Kelly promotors to the exclusion of every other finding made by the Commission won’t be ignored, but neither will its principle conclusions, the foremost of which was that the Kelly Outbreak arose out of the ‘unchecked aggregation of alarge class of criminals in the north east’
Lastly, after Ned Kelly was hanged, life returned to normal in the north east, but Ned Kellys brother Jims criminal career didnt come to an end for a few years. He went to goal for horse stealing in 1881 and was acquitted of a similar charge in 1912. Mrs Kelly is supposed to have brokered the peace, but given the kind of volatile woman she had been all her life, I am inclined to think that tale is another bit of Kelly mythology aimed at rehabilitating the Kelly family. Much more likely it was the absence of the dominating psychopath, her son Ned Kelly, that resulted in life returning to normal.
The story of the influence that the outbreak and Ned Kelly had on Australian culture and identity is something else, something for some other book, maybe many more books to discuss into the future. But at least with the definitive story finally brought together, everyone will know what the true story actually was.