Friday 27 January 2017

The Greatest of the Kelly Myths : Part 1

I recently watched on DVD a debate that took place as part of the Ned Kelly Weekend in August, 2006. The subject for debate was “That Ned Kelly is an inappropriate hero for Australia” and the voice over on the DVD said there was a capacity crowd of more than 400 in attendance crammed into the Beechworth Town Hall. For the affirmative the speakers were an ABC journalist Cathy Bedford, the then Commissioner of Police Christine Nixon, and well known QC Julian Burnside. Lined up against them were probably the three biggest guns in the Kelly world : Ian Jones, John McQuilton and Keith McMenomy. Right away I thought to myself a debate in Beechworth about Ned Kelly that’s going to be decided by the Popular vote? – whatever side Ian Jones is on will win! Beechworth couldn’t possibly vote against Ian Jones AND Ned Kelly. And sure enough, that’s what happened: Ned Kelly was deemed by popular vote to be an appropriate hero for Australia. I wonder how different the result would have been if the debate had taken place in Sydney or Perth?

The debate was really enjoyable to watch, and Ian Jones’ team were formidable, as expected :  those three men after all had devoted significant parts of their adult lives to the study of Ned Kelly and the Outbreak, whereas the other side were all amateurs.  In another Blog posting I might one day detail and critique the Jones teams arguments, but today I wanted to write about a question  that occurred to me while listening to it : which of the many myths mentioned during the debate is the greatest of all the Kelly myths?

By myths I am meaning those things that are claimed to be facts about Ned,  not just the things supposed to make him a hero and Icon, but the many other claims  which on close examination are found to be based on little or no evidence, or even inspite of contrary evidence.  An obvious one is that he was Australias “Robin Hood”. Another is that he was a particularly devoted son. Another is that he only ever killed in self defence. Another is that he had massive support. Another is the Police ‘body straps’ , said to be proof that the Police went into the bush to kill not to capture Ned, another is that he had a plan to establish a Republic of North East Victoria. Another is that he would have made a great General…the list is very long!

Listening to the debate though, it suddenly occurred to me that there is ONE myth that even the journo-policewoman-QC side had accepted without question, and therefore mustn’t that make it the greatest one? ‘Greatest’ because even people who have seen through so many of the other myths haven’t seen through this one. ‘Greatest’ because once you’ve accepted this myth as a truth, you’ve conceded the possibility that Ned Kelly was at some level justified in how he behaved, and let the door open for many of the other myths to sneak through towards legitimacy? Is this the KEY Kelly myth?

The myth I am referring to is the notion that the Kellys were innocent, or mostly innocent victims of Police persecution and corruption; that they were wrongly harassed and hounded until they reached breaking point, that their criminality was largely a reaction to deprivation and oppression that was based on their race, their religion, their poverty and their status as selectors. This myth says that the outbreak was the not-entirely-unjustified reaction - or as the affirmative team suggested, the over-reaction - to injustice perpetrated against them, that everything that followed however bad or mad was somehow triggered and in some way caused and could  be understood as a reaction to what was done to the Kellys. They had had enough and took a stand.

This whole myth is brilliantly smuggled into one of the great speeches attributed to Ned – though its another myth that these words written by David Gaunson are Neds words – but they are great words never-the-less, and John McQuilton quoted them at the end of his contribution to the debate:

“If my lips teach the public that men are made mad by bad treatment and if the Police are taught they might exasperate to madness men they persecute and ill treat, my life will not have been entirely thrown away.”

Its an arresting sentence made more powerful by saying the same thing twice over, for rhetorical effect – men are made mad by bad treatment/ police exasperate men to madness by persecution and ill treatment! Cleverly he reversed the idea that actions speak louder than words, drawing our attention away from his actual life and directing it instead at his lips, his words rather than his deeds because looking at his deeds one might see an altogether different picture, one of indecency, violence, thieving, killing and mayhem.

The persuasive power in these noble words cannot be denied, coming from a man on Death Row, portraying himself as a martyr, seeming to accept what he believes is an unjust fate, but believing his life wouldn’t be entirely wasted if it taught the Public and the Police some valuable truths. Such a truly heroic stance. 

However  make no mistake : its an extraordinary thing that he is saying, which is that in spite of all the violence, the language of torture revenge and punishment, the stock theft, the robberies, hostage -taking  and the murders he was fundamentally innocent, he was a victim of ill treatment, and the Police by their persecution drove him to exasperation, to robbery, hostage taking murder and mayhem, and in the end to madness - it was all the fault of the Police. This is something which most of the present day Kelly supporters believe to a greater or lesser extent is a fundamental truth about the Kelly story, that he was a police made criminal born out of persecution and ill treatment.

In reality though, if the actual record of his life and the life of the Kelly family is examined, what is revealed is that those words are a lie, a huge lie, a delusion that existed only in the paranoid mind of Ned Kelly. In reality, when you search the record for evidence of unjustified and unwarranted harassment and persecution of the Kellys, for the acts that drove them to exasperation and madness, the ill treatment and persecution he referred to in his famous Death Row speech you struggle to find anything. What you find are claims and allegations, stories and complaints but no facts to back it up. 

I begin by referring back to my earlier post “The New view of Red” in which I showed  that the growing Kelly family had virtually no interactions with Police up until the time of Red Kellys death in 1866 when Ned was 11. This is not a mere opinion, or a version or an interpretation but an account of what is actually known. Yes, Neds father had been a convict, but he had served his time quietly, and kept out of trouble for almost the whole of the rest of his life. However because of his alcoholism his farming ventures eventually all failed, and in a moment of weakness, not much more than a year before the alcoholism finally killed him he stole a neighbours calf, killed and dressed it and unsuccessfully tried to conceal the evidence. In the end he was convicted of the most minor possible charge in relation to that theft, being in unlawful possession of a hide, and he went to prison because he was too poor to pay the £25 fine. The sentence itself was remitted by 2 months, but later on that same year he was fined 5 shillings for being drunk and disorderly. A year later there had been no further police interest in Neds family, but Red died from ‘dropsy,’ a complication of his alcoholism. It was a truly tragic loss, but thats the whole story of Red Kellys life in Australia. Nowhere in it is there a single scrap of evidence that he or his young family were persecuted, subjected to 'ill treatment' or driven to exasperation and madness by the Police.

But to understand how these baseless myths have been fostered and promoted into the supposed truths of the Kelly story read what JJ Kenneally wrote in 1929 :

"Irish patriotism was such an unforgivable crime in the eyes of the British Government officials in the Colony of Victoria that even the serving of a savage sentence would not wipe out the campaign of anti-Irish hatred so well organised in the Colonies. John Kelly was continually hounded by the Police who without the authority of a search warrant frequently searched his home without success. The heads of the Police department were very disappointed. The search continued until at last they found a cask with meat in it. John Kelly was arrested and charged with having meat in his possession for which the Police said he had not given them  a satisfactory account....

It is evident that the bench at Kilmore regarded  the charge against John Kelly as a 'trumped up affair' ; he was sentenced to only six months...

Although the sentence was only for six months it proved to be a Death Sentence. Such was the treatment to which John Kelly was subjected in the Kilmore jail that notwithstanding his good health and perfect physique when sentenced, he died shortly after his release"

The  numerous errors and misrepresentations of fact in that passage are so obvious I don't even have to point them out. And they continue right throughout the entire book, which was still being reprinted 40 years after it was first published. Clearly it has had a huge impact on the public understanding of the Kelly story, and on writers who came after Kenneally, but the story it told, believed by many today to be true even now, was actually a fabrication, a fairy story.

Max Brown continued the innocent persecuted victim theme this way, describing the stolen calf as 'bread for his children' for greater emotive effect and aligning Red with the genuinely innocent: “The sentence meant the collapse of hope for Red, in gaol for stealing bread for his children – that crime for which so many thousands of his countrymen had been transported”

The myth is continued by John Moloney who gets some of the facts wrong whilst developing the false  ‘persecution’ theme as well, saying this: “It was Reds first appearance before a Court since he was granted his freedom, and although the money to pay the fine was somehow raised thus obviating the necessity of a return to prison, the old lag charge was revived and the ex convict was again ranked in the criminal class”

The truth is this : there was no ill treatment or persecution; it didn’t happen. In fact there is plenty of evidence that  supports the opposite view: the Police dropped more serious charges, and Red received what even Ian Jones described as a ‘generous’, remission of a third of his sentence.

That’s not to say of course that the Kellys were not aware of the Police or had nothing at all to do with them: unfortunately for Red, Ellens brothers were constantly before the Law, but nobody seems to dispute the genuine criminality that these men were engaged in, or have ever suggested that Police interest in them wasn’t justified.  Speaking of Ellens brother Jimmy, Ian Jones wrote “ …young Jimmy had begun a long career of crime, most of it generated by a volcanic temper that led him into a succession of brawls and sometimes murderous assaults, punctuated by a few stock thefts. Cause and effect can be debated but he emerged as a dangerous unpredictable rat bag of a man, rarely out of trouble.”

What has to be agreed on, because that is what all the evidence shows, is that at least while Red Kelly was alive, his family were not the victims of Police persecution, or being exasperated to madness by ill treatment. In my next post I will examine what happened between the Police and the Kellys after Red was gone. Maybe there we will find the proof of what Ned claimed..

And does anyone think theres a different myth that is greater?

Saturday 21 January 2017

In 2017 watch the Kelly Legend collapse even further ..

The headline in the Australian of last weekend, January 14th 2017 said it all : “Kelly Gang descendants at war over bushranger lore and legacy” This article referred to the fact that since the Weekend Australian had published ‘that photo’ and an article about it a month before, “the letters page of The Ovens and Murray Advertiser has run hot with claims and counter-claims about who should call the shots for the latter-day Kelly Gang.”  Read it HERE.(If that link just takes you to a pay wall, Google Kelly Gang descendants at war ) Today, a week later there have been 46 comments added to the Autralians story and the clear majority  are not supportive of the ‘war’ or of the Kelly story generally -  those comments  are the ones that received the greatest number of “likes”. This  Comment is one of my favourites :

Why is this news? Let them fight amongst themselves, who cares! The fact remains that Ned Kelly was a criminal and murderer. 41LIKES

Another good one :

Amazing. The descendants of robbers and police-killers fighting over who gets to be recognised for it. I wonder if 100 years from now we'll see the descendants of the current crop of grubs and murderers  doing the same? The way the media treats them as celebrities I wouldn't be surprised.    26 likes

Nobody on any of the Kelly Facebook pages dared to mention it, but in the SAME edition of the Australian last weekend there was a SECOND article about Ned Kelly. It was called “Truths need to be told abut Australian Bushranger Ned Kelly” and written by Gerard Henderson. Read it HERE ( If that Link just taks you to a Pay wall , Google Ned Kelly Gerard Henderson and you'll find it) The reason none of the Kelly fan sites mentioned it is obvious, even in its title: Henderson was making a plea for the facts about Ned Kelly to be told instead of the baseless myths and delusions of the “Legend”, such as the ones repeated in Peter Fitzsimons book

Henderson writes  “The problem with so many of the Kelly Gang fan club, including Carey and Fitzsimons, is that they believe what Kelly said in his Cameron Letter (1878), Jerilderie Letter (1879) and elsewhere. But Kelly was a congenital liar whose accounts warrant critical scrutiny.”

Henderson knew about Morrissey’s book, and mentioned it positively - I am guessing he became aware if it because  it was shortlisted in the 2016 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for Australian History. He mentions McDermott as well, as a person who has challenged the Kelly myths but rather regrettably has completely missed ‘The Kelly Gang Unmasked’ by Ian MacFarlane, something that I am sure wouldn’t have happened if it been part of the bibliography of Fitzsimons book. Fitzsimons disgracefully pretended that work didn’t exist when he published his book, ignoring it at the behest of Ian Jones, the arch Kelly mythologizer. Henderson expresses a hope that the upcoming book by Grantlee Kieza about Ellen Kelly wont also perpetuate the Kelly myths.

The article was followed by over 200 comments and again, the majority – by  a big margin – were supportive of Henderson’s view, that Ned Kelly wasn’t a heroic revolutionary but a criminal murderer. As usual, Kelly defenders mmostly repeated myths and fairy stories about Ned Kelly and demonstrated their ignorance of the detail of the story.

I have no idea if any of the any of the comments were submitted by people who read this Blog, but I read many of the very same ideas that I have been promoting here for more than 2 years, such as that the ‘body straps’ story is unsupported, the Republic story is a myth, that Glenrowan was akin to a  ‘terrorist’ plot, and that Kelly was a notorious liar.

Delightfully, there were a couple of responses from Grantlee Kieza himself, and they gave me great encouragement because they seem to indicate he is clearly very well aware that Kelly was a liar, and that much of the modern story is Myth:

Thanks Gerard for mentioning my new book Mrs Kelly, out next month. Rest assured that I debunk many of the myths about the Kelly family including the absurd notion that the very honourable Sgt Michael Kennedy was the head of some sort of hit squad sent to kill the Kelly brothers and that they were only defending themselves at Stringybark Creek. Ned Kelly had many noble qualities but he was also a dangerous criminal who had little regard for human life if someone crossed him. But my book also tells the personal story of Mrs Kelly and all her tragedies - a poor, illiterate Irish woman with a dozen kids, surrounded by criminal relatives on all sides. Her three sons  kept the police hammering on her door until it exploded on one afternoon in  April 1878. Yet one of Mrs Kelly's  sons also became a well respected policeman and world famous horseman and she was known as a very beloved resident of her village in her later years. Best wishes. GK “

Ive been saying for a while now that the public squabbling between Kelly factions can only harm their cause and I think the responses to these articles confirms it. It also confirms that appealing to the Public with a Petition for public support for a Kelly Center is doomed, as was the previous attempt using Crowd Funding. Admiration for Ned Kelly has had its hey-day and now its in decline - if there was ever a chance for something big, it was 10 years ago. Thankfully Australia is moving on, and when the big Ned topples over at Glenrowan nobody will ever put up a new one, because by then it will be realised by everyone that Ned was a crook. The Kelly Vault will become a weird memorial to someones creepy fascination with a psychopath, a ghoulish collection of mementos of a delusion shared briefly with uninformed romantics. 

So , all in all the Kelly myth is off to a rotten start for 2017. The Kelly descendants are scrapping amongst themselves and trashing their public image, they’ve banned me from some of their sites but the true story is emerging anyway, I am getting unprecedented numbers of Hits on the Blog and even The True Story Facebook page has finally started to take off.  And in Australias most widely distributed newspaper, in the first two weeks of the year not one but two articles have trashed Ned Kelly the hero. It looks like the new book on Ellen will continue the dismantling of the Kelly myth, but at the same time reveal what I expect will be the fascinating and complex story of Mrs Kelly. Bring it on!