THE TALE OF NED KELLY
By Turtle Bunbury
Above: The Outlaw Ned Kelly.
If you’re a member of the Kelly Clan, click here.
As he reined up outside the Glenrowan Inn that fateful dawn, Ned Kelly’s mind was diverted. A bolt had slipped from the knee-length armour suit he was wearing. The 25-year-old outlaw eased himself out of the saddle to attend to the bolt. As he touched the ground, two volleys of gunfire exploded out of the ditches surrounding the inn.
Ned turned towards the inn where his gang members were holed up and walking towards them as fast as he could, his armoured suit clunking awkwardly.
A third volley caught him in the foot and his left arm. He swung back around to face his attackers, holding his rifle out with his right arm, and lurched towards them, firing at random.
Constable Arthur’s aim wasn’t bad that day. His first shot hit Ned square on the helmet, the next two hit him in the body. But still the bushranger came stumbling forward, reloading and firing his rifle. Two policemen lay down on the ground and began firing at his unprotected legs.
Ned Kelly gradually slumped to the ground as another blast peppered his hip and right hand.
Ned was the only member of the Kelly gang who did not die that day. Nearly five months would pass before he swung from the hangman’s noose in Melbourne Gaol.
In August 2011, Australia’s most famous outlaw was back in the news following the confirmation that a skeleton found in Melbourne Gaol was indeed his. 130 years after his execution, the Ned Kelly story remained of such significance to Australian culture that the news was announced by the Attorney General at a special press conference.
Kelly is certainly a controversial figure. For many, particularly wealthier Australians, he is regarded as a dangerous radical and cold-blooded cop killer. For others he was a folk hero who stood up against a poisonous system. In 1906, his life story was immortalized in the world’s first feature length movie.[i] Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger played him on the silver screen, Johnny Cash and Rolf Harris sang about him.
Outlaw, cattle rustler, bank robber, gunman. Ned Kelly’s story epitomizes the struggle by first and second generation Irish Catholics to establish themselves in British-run Australia.
The Kelly story began in the Golden Vale of South Tipperary where a couple by name of Thomas and Mary Kelly lived in a makeshift cottage on a half-acre plot at Clonbrogan, one mile west from Moyglass village.
John, the eldest of their seven children was born on 20th February 1820 and, subsequently known as Red Kelly, he was destined to be the father of the notorious Australian bushranger.
The Kelly’s were part of Ireland’s vast pre-famine peasant population – virtually landless, utterly impoverished and frequently driven to crime.
On 4th December 1840, John Kelly stole two pigs valued at £6 from James Cooney, a farmer, of Ballysheehan, near Cashel. He then walked the pigs 14 miles to the market in Cahir where he sold them.
However, the 21-year-old redhead was arrested soon afterwards and charged with pig theft at Cashel Court. He was found guilty and sentenced to 7 years penal servitude in Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania.[ii]
Red remained in gaol until the summer of 1841 when he boarded the convict ship ‘The Prince Regent’ in Dublin. On 7th August, he was one of 185 convicts who departed from Kingstown Harbour (Dun Laoghaire), reaching Van Diemen’s Land just under five months later. [iii]
Red spent the next six years labouring in Tasmania, primarily in a camp near Launceston. In 1848, he received his Certificate of Freedom but he was 18,000km away from his home in Clonbrogan and its fine views over Slievenamon.
Soon after his release, he crossed the Bass Strait to Port Philip, now Melbourne, and found work as a carpenter amid the Irish communities based around Donnybrook and Kilmore. In 1850 Red moved to Beverdige, a township 42km north of Melbourne, where he found work for James Quinn, an emigrant from Ballymena, Co. Antrim. In November 1850, he married Quinn’s daughter Ellen, who had come out to Australia as a young girl.
Seven children followed, including Edward, or Ned, their eldest son. Born in 1854 or 1855, Ned was baptised by Father Charles O’Hara, an Augustinian priest from Cork, who would administer the last rites to him 25 years later.
It is assumed Ned and the older children were all born on the Quinn family farm in Beveridge but, in 1859, Red built his own shingle-roofed cottage at Beveride, complete with Irish-style open fireplace and earth floor, which still stands today. This is where Ned’s brother Dan was born in 1861.
During the 1850s and early 1860s, Red supported his family through a combination of horse dealing, dairy farming and gold mining. He and Ellen also bought and sold land around Beveridge but ultimately their fortunes began to dwindle.
In 1864 Red sold his cottage for £80 and relocated the family, including five-year-old Ned, to a farm near Avenel, Victoria, where they rented 40 acres. However, an economic depression coupled with a crippling drought evidently drove Red to desperate measures. In 1865, quarter of a century after he was caught stealing pigs in Tipperary, he was arrested for stealing a calf in Avenel. The charge was actually dropped but he still served four months in gaol for “unlawful possession of a hide”.
Red Kelly was now at the end of his life, his health broken by poverty and prison cells. The 46-year-old Irishman died of dropsy two days after Christmas 1866 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Avenel. His eldest son Ned, aged 11, signed his death certificate.
Within two years, Ellen and the children were living in a two-roomed hut at Eleven-Mile-Creek, near Greta, which reputedly doubled as a shebeen.
Ned matured into a teenager with attitude. Other children regarded him as a hero because he once saved a fellow pupil from drowning at school.
Ned had no time for the law, whom he blamed for his fathers early death. In fact, the Kelly family were hit with a whopping 18 police charges between their arrival in Greta in 1868 and Ned’s eventual outlawing the years later. Historians are split over whether this means they were unfairly targeted by the authorities, or whether the Kellys were simply the baddest family in the district.
In 1869, Ned spent ten days in custody for assaulting and robbing a Chinese pig farmer with the improbable name of Ah Fook. Upon his release, he took up with a 50-year-old Waterford-born bushranger called Harry Power. Within a year, Power had been arrested and Ned was a marked man. In 1871, the 16-year-old was arrested with a stolen horse and sentenced to three years hard labour.
By the time of his release, Ned’s mother had married a Californian called George King who duly educated his Kelly stepsons in he fine art of cattle-rustling. Ned’s run-ins with the police continued, most notably with an Irish constable called Lonigan who once squeezed his balls so hard that Ned vowed: “If I ever shoot a man, Lonigan, it’ll be you!”.
On 15th April 1878, the so-called “Kelly Outbreak” began when Alexander Fitzpatrick, a 21-year-old policeman, arrived up at their homestead, apparently stinking of alcohol, claiming he had a warrant to arrest Dan Kelly for horse theft. During this time the policeman is said to have made a lunge at Ned’s petite and slender 15-year-old sister Kate, for which he was beaten up and hounded off the land. He made his way to the police station at Benalla where he claimed Mrs. King (Ned’s mother) had whacked him with a coal shovel, Dan Kelly had thumped him and Ned Kelly had shot him in the wrist.
Arrest warrants were issued and soon, with Cork-born Sir Redmond Barry acting as Judge, Mrs. King was sentenced to three years behind bars, charged with attempted murder. She would remain in gaol until after Ned’s execution.
Meanwhile, Ned and Dan Kelly took flight into the Wombat Ranges where they soon had a price on their head. Two other sons of Irish immigrants now joined them. 21-year-old Joe Byrne came from a respectable family but had a passion for opium and was possessed of a cruel streak. 19-year-old Steve Hart, an amateur jockey, had spent 10 months in gaol for horse-stealing. His subsequent attempt to lead a decent life came asunder when he memorably declared ‘”Here’s to a short life and a merry one!’ and rode off to join the Kellys.
The Kelly gang based themselves in a series of caves, supplied at random intervals with clothes, food, ammunition and vital information by their sisters, Kate and Maggie. They also raised some basic funds panning for gold on abandoned diggings in the hills.
But the law was on their case. Aided by Aboriginal trackers, two bounty-hunting police patrols began to close in. One comprised of four constables called Lonigan (Ned’s nemesis), Kennedy, Scanlon and McIntyre who were clearly there on an unofficial shoot-to-kill basis. The Kelly’s seized the initiative. On 26th October 1878, they ambushed Lonigan’s patrol at Stringybark Creek and shot three of them – including Lonigan – dead.
When news of the triple-murder got out, the gang were declared outlaws. Seven weeks later, they pulled off one of the greatest robberies in Australian history when they walked out of a bank in Euroa with over £2000 in banknotes and 30 ounces of smelted gold. Over the next four months, police rounded up 20 suspects whom they deemed to be Kelly accomplices, causing considerable resentment and hardening support for a gang that was fast achieving legendary status in north-east Victoria.
In February 1879, dressed as policemen, the Kelly gang orchestrated an even more spectacular robbery on the bank in Jerilderie, taking nearly £2,500. A handsome man with laughing eyes, Ned simultaneously wooed the people of Jerilderie when he began redistributing the gang’s newfound wealth amongst friend and supporters, as well as paying the tab at the local pub.
When they made good their escape from Jerilderie, they left behind a letter which, dictated by Ned, expressed his disapproval of the harsh treatment of his family by the police, and of Irish Catholics generally by the wealthy Protestant landowners. The letter was not published until its emergence in 1930. It now holds a proud place at the National Museum in Canberra.
There is also said to have been a letter calling for the creation of a Republic of North-east Victoria. This letter forms the basis for those who regard Ned and his friends as Republican freedom-fighters. No evidence of this letter has survived.
The Kelly gang hid for the next sixteen months, evading capture at every step and growing impressively bushy beards. At one point they contemplated an exodus to California but things took a sudden turn for the dark side when Dan Kelly and Byrne gunned down a former friend called Pat Sherritt when they discovered he was a police informant.
The following day, sensing that the police were closing in, the Kelly gang found themselves in the small town of Glenrowan. On Byrne’s suggestion, the four men wore armoured suits down to their knees, forged from farm machinery. They tore up the railway line to prevent the police accessing the town by rail and then took 70 people hostage in the Glenrowan Inn. This included the schoolmaster Thomas Curnow whom Ned permitted to go home to collect his dancing boots. Dan Kelly, who was rather more intelligent than his older brother, questioned the wisdom of this and sure enough, once he was let go, Curnow got word to the police.
Unbeknownst to the Kelly gang, 34 policemen had surrounded the hotel by the time Ned Kelly dismounted his horse to check out the dodgy bolt in his armour. At about that same moment, Joe Byrne stood up to raise a glass of whiskey. “Here’s to the bold Kelly Gang!” he said, as a bullet tore through the woodwork, ploughed into his groin and severed his femoral artery. He died from a loss of blood soon afterwards.
Two of the hostages were killed in the ensuing shoot out as Dan Kelly and Hart desperately tried to save Ned from capture. By the time Ned collapsed to the ground, seemingly dead, the Glenrowan Inn was a blazing furnace. The two men committed suicide, either by shooting themselves or taking poison. No autopsy was ever performed as their bodies were so badly burned in the fire. They were buried side by side in Greta Cemetery the next day.
But Ned Kelly was not dead. He spent the next 4 months in police custody before his trial. Sir Redmond Barry was again in the Judge’s chair. Ned’s sister Kate tried desperately to raise money for a good lawyer but Barry had no doubts what the sentence should be.[iv]
“May God have mercy on your soul”, said Barry.
“I will go a little further than that, and say I will see you there when I go”, replied Ned Kelly.
Ned was permitted a final meeting with his mother before he faced his executioner. “Mind you die like a Kelly”, she urged him. He was hanged at 10 o’clock in the morning on 11th November 1880, allegedly saying ‘Such is life’ as his final words.
His body was pitched into a mass grave where it remained unidentified until the wonders of DNA matched him up with his great-great-nephew in August 2011. His skeleton will now go on display in Melbourne Museum as a stark reminder of Australia’s troubled colonial past. His skull remains at large.
And as for Sir Redmond Barry, he died unexpectedly from lung congestion twelve days after Ned’s execution.
With thanks to Jasper McCarthy (of McCarthy’s Bar & Undertakers, Fethard, who buried the last of the Clonbrogan Kellys), Terry Cunningham (Fethard Historical Society), Joe Kelly (the Kelly Clan Association) and all involved with http://fethard.com/people/redkelly.html
Anyone interested in joining the Kelly Clan Association should click here.
[i] You can see the 1906 film at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqbiWCjwk_Y&feature=related
[ii] John Kelly was also named as an accomplice to a man called Patrick Regan who stole ‘seven fat cows’ belonging to a neighbouring farmer, a Mr. Ryall from Moyglass. Red Kelly actually spilled the beans on Regan as the court reports noted “it was he (i.e. John Kelly) that gave information respecting Regan”. However, it is not clear whether he talked because of a promise to reduce his sentence, or because he was under physical or mental pressure. In any event, Regan was sentenced to ten years servitude in the Australian colonies for cattle rustling.
[iii] By the time the ship reached Cape Town, three convicts were dead. She finally docked on the Derwent River in Van Diemen’s Land on 2nd January 1842. For details of the ship’s Medical Journal, see http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/catalogue/browser.asp?CATLN=3&CATID=204&POSCATLN=6&POSCATID=481000
[iv] Kate Kelly went down on her knees before the Marquis of Normanby, the Governor, begging for her brother’s life. His Excellency refused to listen. She later appeared as a lady rider in a Wild West Show in Sydney under the assumed name of “Ada Hennessey”. In 1888, she married a prosperous blacksmith but ten years later, depressed by the premature death of her sister Maggie, Kate appears to have drowned herself in a lagoon near Forbes at the age of 35. Ned’ s mother survived until 1923 and his brother Jim lived until 1946.