Ned Kelly – Villain Or National Folk Hero

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Australians have a very romantic view of their national heroes. Some heroes genuinely deserve admiration and respect, while others are no more than sham heroes deserving recrimination and punishment for their monstrous crimes. As a career criminal, whose lifetime of wrongdoing included horse theft, bank robbery and murder, Ned Kelly’s rise to national folk hero status is clearly in the latter camp.

Australians love a larrikin bad boy. Bad boy antiheroes dominate our TV screens and are the imaginative stuff of admiring newspaper stories, thrilling books, songs and movies. With few exceptions, each of these artfully crafted productions celebrates the antisocial misdeeds of celebrity criminal heroes. Sometimes with a moral message added, sometimes not.

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The Kelly legend is an exciting tale when viewed from a safe distance, without personal involvement as either witness or victim to the often gruesome crimes. Ned is the premier celebrity bad boy of the criminal lexicon, whose words and actions are rarely subjected to critical analysis.

Ned confessed to his many crimes and publicly bragged about them, shouting to the world that he had no choice other than to confront the police who unfairly pursued him. Ned's crimes were of his own making and had nothing whatsoever to do with settling the land, police harassment or defending the poor from the wealthy and influential – issues that he used to justify his bush ranging.

Of course, those who had to endure the consequences of Ned's crimes, and those who suffered years of fear and intimidation from his horse and cattle stealing associates, saw the matter in an entirely different light. The truth of the matter varies enormously from the ‘tyranny and persecution’ story spun by Ned.

Until recently, history books pandered to the Kelly myth, presenting a fairytale story of heroism and rebellion. Even the Victoria Police, who see Ned as a horse thief and a murderer, occasionally make good media use of the public’s fascination with all things Kelly to promote their exhibitions and displays, drawing crowds of patrons through Ned’s infamous name.

Even the hallowed ANZAC story has a link to the Kelly narrative. The ANZACS are characterized as tall, bronzed Aussies, mischievous by nature, larrikin in behavior and ‘Game as Ned Kelly’ in battle. Soldiers admired Ned’s fighting spirit and they would sometimes playfully invoke the bushranger’s name to make a point in their arguments. While one case was high-spirited, good-natured behavior, the comparison was gang-based criminal behavior, neither good-natured nor playful.

These stories, integrated and taken together, give fraudulent credibility to Ned’s behavior as a bushranger, and misrepresent him as a national hero. Australians enthralled by the history see Ned as a wronged and persecuted underdog, valiantly fighting against the evil forces of colonial tyranny and police oppression.

This offers an explanation as to why Australians proudly seek out their convict origins and become greatly excited when they discover a highwayman or bushranger in their family tree. It is the myth personified, and not the historical reality that they are jubilantly celebrating. They may not be so pleased if they’d had to live through the harshness of the convict period or suffer the crimes of their wayward relatives!

The saturation media coverage Ned received when he was captured at Glenrowan was instrumental in cementing a courageous image of the bushranger in the public mind. It was a dramatic and spectacular media event, unparalleled in its breathtaking immediacy and community impact until the twentieth century, a media event that still has emotive power to resonate strongly with Australians today.

Ned’s dramatic Glenrowan capture and the destruction of his gang, was the first real time media event in Australian history. Reporters were aboard the police train as it warily steamed into the Glenrowan station, following schoolteacher Thomas Curnow’s courageous warning that the railway tracks had been torn up. Once on the ground, a telegraph link was quickly established with Melbourne and regular updates were sent through the telegraph newswire as the pub siege unfolded over more than twelve hours. Hundreds of excited onlookers hastily made their way to Glenrowan to be on the spot. While crowds of thousands gathered expectantly outside newspaper offices to receive the latest news.

Then as now, people were thoroughly intrigued by astonishing tales of the Kelly armor and most were appalled by the gruesome enormity of Ned’s planned Glenrowan crime of mass murder – a dastardly plan that luckily failed to eventuate. It is Ned’s ploughshare armor, the desperate and overstated bravery of his last stand fight with the police. The criminal daring of the Euroa and Jerilderie bank robberies told in a favorable light and Ned's larger than life swaggering bushranger persona, all playing into the romantic notion of a Republic of North East Victoria, that Australians remember most today and celebrate as Ned’s enduring bushranger legacy.

The often mentioned establishment of a Kelly Republic — if such a republic of thieves and murderers had in fact been contemplated and proclaimed — it would have received no sympathy and no support from the majority of north east inhabitants, who were respectable and law abiding people decidedly, unimpressed by the larrikin toughs living among them. The notion of a Kelly Republic was an early addition to the Kelly story, which was later popularized by an unreliable, post Second World War Kelly family source.

Ned’s public performances as a bushranger were impeccable, following the traditional bushranger script to the letter. As a bushranger indulging his role as a poor man’s champion, Ned burnt bank mortgage deeds. He claimed pious, self-defense in ambushing and murdering the Stringybark Creek policemen. He disingenuously said of his Glenrowan plan: ‘it was not my intention of upsetting the train for the purpose of killing the police’. When all the evidence, including words from Ned’s own mouth spoken at Glenrowan, says otherwise, even Ned’s famous last stand fight with the police, a desperate bushranger’s ‘I’ll fight but not surrender’ moment, was betrayed by his subsequent pleading for his life to be spared.

In the months before his execution, Ned claimed for himself the celebrity mantle of a soon to be martyred hero: ‘If my lips teach the public that men are made mad by bad treatment, and if the police are taught that they may not exasperate to madness men they persecute and ill-treat, my life will not entirely be thrown away’. Of course, it was Ned’s lawless behavior involving horse theft and multiple murders and not his sham claim of police harassment that caused him to throw his life away.

There was in Ned’s public figure makeup a cheeky larrikinism, a defiant antisocial attitude towards authority and a recklessness and impulsiveness of behavior that modern day Australians like to identify themselves with. In the same self-reflecting way, a sense of an idealized, rural past imaginatively expressed in Ned’s terms as ‘fearless, free and bold’ dominates the national attention. Together these self-reflections form the bedrock of a national psyche, where Australians who for the most part live conventional and law abiding city lives, feel emotionally connected with Ned the national hero, a bygone pastoral age and the wilderness splendor of a bush landscape under threat.

Today’s Australians see in Ned’s ‘sanitized’ criminality, a Robin Hood figure, a rebel with a cause fighting for justice for his persecuted family and a fair deal for the long suffering poor. When in truth only the shrewdness of a clever career criminal with a colossal, narcissistic sense of his own importance exists. Ned said his ‘orders must be obeyed’ and took responsibly for nothing he did blaming others, in particular the police, who lawfully pursued him for his predatory crimes of profit and revenge.

The final words on Ned’s sham heroism, his flawed myth and enduring bushranger legacy should come from Leo Kennedy, who in a few well-chosen words truthfully speaks on behalf of all victims of crime and their long suffering families.

In the case of Ned Kelly, the national hero, the focus of attention is always on the murderer and not his victims. In a recent public address, Leo Kennedy the great grandson of Sergeant Michael Kennedy, who was callously shot to death by Ned at Stringybark Creek as he lay wounded on the ground pleading for his life to be spared: ‘for the sake of my poor wife and family’. Had this to say concerning the Kennedy family tragedy:

‘Bridget [Michael’s widow] never got closure or the truth. She was not allowed to confront the killer before he was hanged. Instead, she endured other people’s imaginings and, throughout her life, the glorification of Kelly, a murderer. Neither Bridget nor Constable Lonigan's widow (Lonigan was also killed by Kelly’s gang) were listened to when they protested time and again against the release of romanticized books and movies. Bridget would protest: “Kelly was a convicted criminal, a bully, a liar, a drunkard, a thief, a hostage taking killer. He blamed others for his problems. He was forever blaming the police for his problems. He never took responsibility for his own actions. A callous murderer of policemen, of husbands and fathers, he murdered my Michael and robbed his body; there was no mercy, no respect, just cruelty. I lost the child I was carrying after Michael died and raised our children alone”.

My grandfather had the saddest eyes I've ever seen. Praise for Ned Kelly angered him; he would say a brave man does not ambush others. My father was confronted with the movies and the nonsense, he lived through that and now my children and I go through it and it can still be confronting. People have heard the myth, taking their 10 seconds snapshot and formed an opinion. So imagine me repeating stories passed down in the family, only to be mocked, talked over or corrected by someone who has no connection with the events.

It is my view that these honest, hardworking policemen deserve their true place in history, not as footnotes to murder and not to be written out of it. History needs to be accurate and it needs to be told. People should get over “fantasy” Ned, who is nothing like “real” Ned. Australia needs real heroes and positive role models. We as descendants of Sergeant Kennedy and Constable Lonigan deserve a say in our heritage. We want to be free to honor the murdered policemen and their widows who wore aprons not armor, raised their families alone and were well respected. They are our heroes and they are real.

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