If you went into any Australian classroom and asked if anyone knew who Ned Kelly was, chances are you’d get an answer of something like: “mm yeah, that bushranger who had the steel bucket on his head who got shot”. Not many people know the real story, but it is an intriguing one. Ned Kelly has, over the years, been described as a hero, “one of the most romantic figures in history”, “the father of our national courage”, an Australian icon.
To a person with no knowledgeable background of Ned Kelly, he would be seen as exactly that. The real truth is though, Ned Kelly was a thief. He held ordinary people hostage, and shot and killed policemen. The reasons to why he has been glorified in such a way to be called a hero have been one of the great controversies of all time.
Ned Kelly was born into a life that was surrounded by crime. Before he was born, his parents were sent from Ireland on a convict ship to Australia for committing petty crime.
He entered life in 1854 in Victoria, and attended school at Avenel until age 12 when his father died. Ned’s family was poor, and were forced to own land as ‘selectors’, where they were issued a piece of land to be paid off while they were living there. The land was small and the soil wasn’t good enough to grow to make a living. Many of the ‘selectors’ resorted to stealing horses and cattle from the rich squatters, and Ned Kelly was no exception.
At age sixteen he was convicted of receiving a stolen horse and served time in jail for three years.
In 1878, Ned’s mother, Ellen was convicted of wounding a policeman by shooting him in the wrist. Ned and his brother, Dan, were mistakenly accused of attacking the same policeman, so they fled to the bush where they formed the “Kelly Gang”, joined by Steve Hart and Joe Byrne.
Later on that year Ned and his gang happened to come across a group of policemen camping in the bush. Believing that the policemen intended to kill him, the gang called upon them to surrender. The police of course resisted and during the fight Ned shot three of them dead. By this time the reward for capturing Ned was an amazing 8000 pounds – the equivalent to 2 million dollars today.
Many people admired the Kelly gang for their bravery, and helped them avoid police for over 2 years. It was during these two years that the Kelly gang robbed two banks – one in Euroa – and held the town of Jerilderie hostage.
Although there was no way around that what they were doing was wrong, living in the 1800’s in Australia life was hard – if you were poor you had to steal to survive, it was what being a bushranger was all about. If you managed to do this without getting caught, or killing anyone, and as long as the people you were stealing from were rich, people thought you were, rather than just being a common criminal, brave and bold, which was a popular image of bushrangers at the time.
Something else attributed to this image of the Kelly gang. Most robberies were committed with an element of farce, distracting attention from the true extent of the crime being perpetrated. At each robbery, Ned gave one of his hostages a letter to the government, calling justice for the poor saying: “I have no intention of asking mercy for myself of any mortal man, or apologising, but I wish to give timely warning that if my people do not get justice and those innocents released from prison, I shall be forced to seek revenge of everything of the human race for the future.”
On Saturday the 27th of June, 1880 the Kelly gang performed their last crime. They took possession of the Glenrowan hotel and took 60 of the town’s residents hostage. The gang was prepared to fight and made armour made of steel. Unfortunately the armour made them clumsy and when the police surrounded the hotel, and opened fire the gang was heavily outdone. Ned escaped, but returned a few times to help his friends and brother. He ran off into the bush, but his brother Dan Kelly, and fellow Kelly gang members Steve Hart and Joe Byrne escaped to the hotel to seek refuge. Joe was shot in the leg, and bled to death before the police set fire to the hotel with Dan and Steve inside who were burnt to death. At about 5 am Ned returned wearing full-bodied armour (show OHT of armour). Sadly this wasn’t enough to protect him from the 28 bullets he received to his arms, feet, legs, groin and hands. He collapsed, and was promptly arrested. After he recovered from his wounds, Ned was, albeit protests by thousands of supporters, sentenced to death and was hung at the old Melbourne Jail on the 11th of November 1880.
In blatant terms, Ned Kelly simply was a cold blooded criminal. Had all of this happened in the 20th century, there’s no way the gang would be described as brave, and bold and admired in such a way that the Kelly gang were. Of course, you could say 100 years on there really isn’t any comparison, but then why is Ned Kelly still considered a hero today? Australians admire Ned Kelly so much that his image was placed on centre stage at the 2000 Sydney Olympics – but is he really a realistic representation of an Australian? People say: Ned Kelly was a true Australian. The Australian who sweats and suffers and fights, who is loyal to his mates.
Some people regard Ned Kelly as a champion of the oppressed, others call him the forerunner of Australian nationalism – but to call someone who had committed so many crimes his reward for capture was most outstanding, and when he was captured was sentenced to death that is as good as saying Australian nationalism is based on crime. Sure, the Kelly gang was supposedly committing these crimes in the hope police will take notice and grant justice to the poor, a crime is a crime no matter what circumstances it’s performed under.
If we examine at Ned’s criminal record today, simply looking at his inability to live within the law, it goes without saying he had the most vicious attributes equal to the worst kind of criminal today – SO why would we want him as an Australian icon?
Looking at other Australian icons we have: the Sydney Opera House, home to Australia’s best orchestras and theatre productions; Kathy Freeman, the first aboriginal gold medal athlete to do the flag run with the Australian AND Aboriginal flags; Dame Edna, for the hilarity she has brought to the world.
What do these icons all have in common? They’re nice icons. They represent nice things. Why would we want someone like Ned Kelly as our Australian icon?
Maybe it’s Australia’s secret desire to be seen as a ‘tough’ country. The image that Australia’s a hard country to live in, and you have to be tough to be able to do it. It’s every man for himself out here and it’s not for the feint hearted.
Who knows? What we do know though, is that ultimately, no matter after how much dispute and discussion, no matter how much we look into it and analyse it, wether anyone likes it or not, Ned Kelly is, and always will be an Australian icon.