Magazine

Ned Kelly: The outlaw who divides a nation

  • 20 January 2013
  • From the section Magazine
Ned Kelly
Kelly was hanged in Melbourne in 1880

More than 130 years after he was hanged, Australia's most notorious outlaw is being buried, as old tensions resurface about what he really means to the country.

To many Australians, Ned Kelly, the son of poor Irish Catholics, was a heroic anti-establishment figure who fought corrupt British colonists in the 19th Century.

To others, he was a vicious thug who murdered three police officers.

Kelly's descendants have insisted that by burying him, they were not seeking to glorify the notorious bandit, but to give him a dignified and proper farewell.

"It's good to see that Ned will get the funeral he finally deserved in the first place," says Anthony Griffiths, the outlaw's great-grandnephew.

He'll be laid to rest on Sunday alongside his mother in a small cemetery in the hamlet of Greta that lies in the Victorian countryside he roamed during his feud with the local constabulary.

The bushranger was executed in November 1880 after a shootout with the police in the southern state of Victoria.

His body was put into a wooden box and dumped into a mass grave with the corpses of other prisoners. It wasn't until 2010 that DNA testing finally confirmed the identity of Kelly's remains.

In death, as in life, he remains a polarising figure, and nowhere more so than in the community where relatives of the police officers he killed still live alongside Kelly's own descendants.

"There is still conflict over Kelly," says Peter Norden, an adjunct professor at Melbourne's RMIT University and former chaplain at Pentridge prison where the outlaw's remains were discovered.

"He is going to be buried in an unmarked grave to minimise the danger of vandalism. There are a lot of people local to where his family lived where there is still a lot of resentment and antagonism towards his descendants."

His enduring appeal is celebrated in countless books, poems and films, among them a 1970 production starring Mick Jagger, while the inspired work of the Melbourne painter Sidney Nolan presents an eye-catching portrayal of the Ned Kelly story.

He symbolises a notion that strikes at the heart of what Australia is, says Norden.

"He exemplified the independence and the maverick spirit of early Australia. He appeals to the ruggedness and individualism of Australians."

If Kelly was tried today and had proper legal representation, he would never be convicted of murder because he was acting in self-defence, he adds.

"He was convicted of very serious offences, held responsible for the killing of three police officers but he was really defending his family and his interests, and stood up to the police who were intent on murdering him rather than arresting him."

You also have to consider his family's circumstances, says Norden. The gold rush had made Melbourne one of the wealthiest cities in the world, but many people did not share in that wealth.

Mick Jagger as Ned Kelly in 1970
Jagger later claimed he had never seen the 1970 film in which he starred

"The Kellys and their associates were very poor farmers who struggled to make an existence and were discriminated against in many ways back in the 1870s and the 1880s."

The Australian government lauds the bushranger as one of the country's "greatest folk heroes". Its official website states that: "More books (and) songs have been written about Ned Kelly and the Kelly Gang than any other group of Australian historical figures".

The State Library of Victoria has on permanent display the homemade armour Kelly wore in his final confrontation with the law at the Glenrowan Inn.

It is one of the library's most visited attractions, along with a swag of other memorabilia, including photographs of the making of the movie featuring Mick Jagger, posters of various theatre productions and the manuscript of Peter Carey's acclaimed novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, which won the Booker Prize in 2001.

Ned Kelly
Aged 16 (left), Kelly cut an imposing figure

"It's part of the Australian psyche [to be] big supporters of the underdog. We're very much enamoured of rogues and rebels," explains Jo Ritale, the library's collection services manager.

"I think the armour and guns appeal to young boys particularly. They get to make a paper Ned Kelly helmet, which they get to take home."

Jo Ritale believes the fable of the infamous bank robber has been sustained over the years by writers, artists and filmmakers, who share the nation's fascination with the eldest son of John "Red" Kelly, an Irishman who was sent to the Australian penal colony from the UK for reportedly stealing two pigs.

Before the end of transportation in 1840, more than 50,000 Irish were banished to Australia. They harboured a deep suspicion of the British establishment, and brought with them their staunch Catholicism.

Skeleton of Ned Kelly
Kelly's skull remains missing from his remains

It was a potent and inflammatory combination, and it is often argued that this fiery anti-authoritarianism was at the heart of Kelly's insurrection against colonial forces in the 1870s and the final showdown at Glenrowan in 1880.

Today, the police in Victoria still insist that he should not be revered as a folk hero.

Bruce McKenzie, the assistant secretary of the state's police association, accuses Kelly of committing one of Australia's worst atrocities.

"What we shouldn't forget is that Ned Kelly remain responsible for the single biggest act when it comes to the killing of police officers in Australia's history.

"We hope what will be buried with him is the quaint Australian tradition we have of hero-worshipping those who have been responsible for the most horrific crimes," he says.

Rightly or wrongly, Edward 'Ned' Kelly was hanged in November 1880 at Melbourne Gaol. He was 25. According to some historical documents, his last words as he went to the gallows were 'Such is life'.

"At least now he'll be given a decent burial and funeral service, something which he was denied back in 1880," says Norden.

"I think the private burial will only increase, rather than lessen, the attraction of Kelly the legend."