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Graveyards, Guinness and G strings
or a Pom on the Kelly Trail
Michele Eve

What’s a Pom doing on the Kelly trail you may ask? Well, in short I was on a personal quest to see the Jerilderie Letter, a task unfulfilled in Dublin last year when I travelled with my father to an exhibition called Ned at the Dead. Which rather than a bad joke was a chance for people this side of the Equator to see some of the artefacts associated with some of Irelands distant sons. They were displayed in somewhat incongruous dilapidated grandeur of James Joyce’s curiously named House of the Dead on The Liffey, but to my disappointment the Letter had returned south the day before we arrived. In rather longer hand, I travelled all that long way to let my rebel heart follow the footprints of four outlaws. The trail being long cold I wanted to see how Australia presented these anti heroes to the modern citizen, and also to be truthful I wanted to kick up my larrikin heels. I only had 2 weeks in Oz and that, I knew before I even stepped on the plane, would be no where near enough, even if my tracking skills were better than that of Captain Standish’s. As it was my travels surpassed my most enthusiastic anticipation and threw up many unexpected delights, as well as a woefully inadequate baggage allowance.

Before I start, by way of a disclaimer and an apology combined: All sleights of hand, flights of fantasy, hiking boots trampling on matters best requiring slippers, not to mention historical mistakes, omissions and offensive opinions, are my own entirely. If you need me to say sorry, consider it said.

Let me set the scene. 3 companions, a brand new spanking silver hire car with extra insurance on account not of the danger of ambush but loose gravel, a large CD carrier bulging with mostly 70’s rock music, a boot load of duty free spirits of the alcoholic kind (the other sort not needing vehicular transport as far as I know,) a touring map of Kelly country and a head full of outlaw dreams. ‘You shall be the fellowship…’ ah wrong film. No joking, this was a trip literally of a lifetime for me. No kids, a credit card and a full tank.

Bursting out of Melbourne and onto the Hume Highway was my first view of an Australia I have only ever seen in my dreams, oh ok and the Steve Irwin shows on Discovery Channel that my kids insist on watching, but maybe I shouldn’t mention that. This was more than could possibly be envisaged. Orange dirt, gum trees, and a bigger sky than back home somehow, like you can see the edge of the earth. A smell like oil and sun and baked earth. Yeah yeah, so this isn’t the Outback, but all the same it sort of stretched my eyes to the distant hills.

Drawn by the first of our cemetery pit stops and the thought of lunch, we pulled off into Avenel and the flat wide streets of a sleepy place. We searched for some time amongst the sad collections of whole families, children who died one after another in many a fell swoop. Eventually we found Red Kelly, the small white fence and the silk flowers had put us off the scent initially but hey, he at least has a marker. Having rather solemnly nodded to Ned’s father we followed the handy brown signs to the Shelton’s Royal Mail Hotel. It is For Sale, run down and kind of sinking into the mud (that is not a surveyors report I hasten to add but an emotional observation!) and not for the last time it crossed my mind that I could just send a telegram home ‘…am staying...send funds…give my love to the children’. I am sure I could rival Mrs Shelton’s breakfasts, I am just not so sure who would come looking for a room.

As we stared down at the forlorn Hughes Creek, its current I suspect hardly enough to drag along a dead rat never mind a live boy, and if it is not sacrilege, well even if it is, I heard Heath Ledger in my head. “I was the hero of Hughes Creek; I can still see the glint in me Dad’s eye…”, and the swirl of fact, fiction and fantasy began to accelerate in my head. We had a glint too after the gorgeous lunch and couple of glasses at the vineyard down the road. But it was my first glance of a history partially embraced.

A to B. Benalla and our first overnight stop. Perhaps it was sort of strange to start at the end, at least for Joe, but taking the bull by the horns we went straight to the graveyard and sat in the sun in amongst the flowers and flags, the stones and tokens left behind by visitors to this peaceful lonely grave. There is even a cup for grog on those chilly nights. Hopeless romantic me? Yep. It made me smile to see how the violence and insult, the haste of a dark night, a cart and a mistreated body has been turned around. It seems that despite the best efforts of the British Government Joe is remembered by people and in ways that he, his family, friends and supporters could not have imagined. And perhaps that is true of all of the places that we saw.

The Benalla museum is understated and homey, a quiet acceptance of history. Without fanfare one steps into a lock up to be confronted by Ned’s sash, still blood stained, pulled out of the dirt by a passer by and just THERE. I was thankful to be able to see such a reminder of a life saved, such a personal item, but it took me aback too. An important part of Australian history so humbly displayed, and maybe that is how it should be, there is no fancy wrapping paper here.

Then there is that bloody door. I might have perhaps considered myself accustomed to it; those two photographs of Joe Byrne are everywhere aren’t they? ‘The Lieutenant of the Kelly gang, serene in death’ I always liked that way of expressing it, though one might also add some less poetic words to the describe those responsible for hanging a man up as a trophy. Seeing the door right in front of me though, leaned up against a wall, easy as you like to just walk up to it and touch it, well it took my breath away.

We English, I know, are too fond of putting things behind glass, mostly stuff stolen around the ex-Empire it has to be said, but that aside, it is behind glass, labels and dates and glaring curators keeping beady eyes trained on you, everything screaming ‘This is important but you can’t touch!’. I am certainly not advocating such disassociation from history, but I was stunned. This icon of barbarity and vengeance was right in front of me, no fanfare, no warning. Just there.

I like Australia- it’s in your face.

No where more so than Glenrowan perhaps. We arrived of course just as the site had been cleared for the current excavations. The only modern photos I had seen of Mrs Jones’ place had been those covered in trees and bushes so the bare earth, the remains of steps, a chimney breast and an old tin bath, took me quite by surprise. The circle of CSI style orange tape had the effect of bringing it all up to date, as if one might expect the finger printers to be hard at work brushing dust from the surfaces, the siege being only yesterday. Given to a wandering imagination I sat and spent some time in that wasteland between the Inn and the station, conjuring up the smoke and the noise and the shouts. It is a heady place if you can take a step back, and despite the attempts at landscaping the site retains an uncomfortable awkwardness, almost that it doesn’t know quite how to be in the here and now after all that rage.

In need of refreshments we returned to the town, and into yet more stories and interpretations. We passed by the ‘Live’ animatronics show, I might have handed over the dollars to go see but for the ghastly model of Joe Byrne strung up by the cash register and the informative fillum on youTube. Sometimes even tourists make a stand. Instead, fortified by a Devonshire cream tea (what the hell is that about?) we visited the much more worthy ‘Kate Kelly homestead’ and its interesting collection of relics and artefacts, which are presented with some dignity at least. But not before a meeting with Gary Dean in his shop and a peek into the world of the true enthusiast. One of my companions has a Kelly library worthy of its own shelf, and she was keen to enlarge it still further with Gary’s latest edition. We were quite unaware that the man behind the counter was in fact him, not until he began to sign the copy that is.

In return for her purchase we were treated to twenty minutes or so of thoughts and theories about the escape of Dan and Steve, the whereabouts of various papers, including the diaries of Joe Byrne and the minutes of the meetings to discuss the formation of the Republic, not to mention the imminent sale of the gun that shot Aaron. It was absolutely fascinating, though I have to confess at the end I was rather embarrassed to say ‘and I will have one of these pens with the water in, and the little figure of Ned floating towards the Inn’. Am blushing now. Was for my Dad, he collects them, honest. I did look for the fabled Ned Kelly G string, but was out of luck, which is probably for the best all round frankly. Moving swiftly on…

Whatever one thinks of the theories of Dan and Steve’s escape, and I am in no position to make a judgement on the facts, I do have a concern about it all. And that is that perhaps the reality of their gruesome death, though less enticing and romantic than thoughts of their daring escape, should be looked in the face and accepted in order to let them rest. Perhaps they deserve their ultimate sacrifice at Glenrowan be recognised too. Who am I to have such an opinion? Well no one really, but true to form I have one. It nonetheless was an honour to hear the views of such an informed and highly regarded Kelly historian and author first hand.

I can read a map as well as the next directionally challenged person, and it is hard to miss the trail of the Kelly gang. Signs and information leaflets are everywhere detailing the movements of 4 young men who evaded the law for so long. In some places it seemed history sat uncomfortably between tourist attractions and still fought over allegiances and politics, cases in point being the opposite ends of the spectrum of Beechworth and Jerilderie. In the one, the tree lined affluence of designer antique shops and expensive boutiques bangs up against bank robbers and fugitives, key sites are detailed and celebrated, and yet one of their own sons lays unmarked still in the graveyard. In the other, a town duped by the Gang, a stuffed manikin sits outside a long-closed hotel and the Royal Mail serves up Kelly rump steak. Mr Gill’s residence summed it up for me in a way. Marked as a key site on the Kelly trail, the notice on the fence outside announces plans for its demolition. There is indecision out there, a step almost taken but not quite, towards elevating an outlaw to the status of more than tourist attraction and into heritage.

History is held in real physical places and sometimes, just sometimes, you can get to it without the trappings of anything other than your own perceptions. Thanks to the Information Office and Pat Doyle, our guide for a personalised tour of Beechworth, the Woolshed and Greta, we were set to experience a highlight of the entire trip. Knowledgeable and yet quiet, he let us just stand where Joe shot Aaron, where Hall pistol whipped Ned, where Mrs Byrne’s irises still grow and many others places where the air seems to still whisper. It was overwhelming.

Nowhere more so than Sebastapol, now cleared of course of gold digging and shanty town its bustle replaced by, amongst others, the delightful residence of Peter and Kaye Rowling. They welcomed us with friendly hospitality and enthusiasm, serving us with the most wonderful morning tea and showing us the fossicked items Peter has dug up around the area while across the valley the Kelly Caves kept a watchful eye. For some reason it was a spoon which took my imagination, an everyday item now transformed into something to wonder over. Or maybe that’s just me…It is hard to sum up the experiences of that day-of just being in those places, touching the ground and standing still to listen. Being able to cross the drought dry Reedy Creek to the site of the Byrnes selection, to see the dammed pool where Joe and Aaron annoyed a Chinaman, the water races and the nature of the land that had to be cleared, well it felt like an honour, an uncluttered, undefined honour. And I did pray for rain the day after, honest.

Just call it modern art or crap, covers most things.Just call it modern art or crap, covers most things.

There would be no greater contrast between that day and the return to Melbourne and the end of my trip. Ironically the last thing I saw was the Jerilderie Letter. Still with stones in my pocket and mud on my sandals I set out to the State Library, if I am honest I was a little blasé. “I have been to the Woolshed, stayed in the Royal Mail Jerilderie AND the Commercial in both Beechworth and Benalla, I have walked in Greta cemetery, to name just one of them, got a photo of where Larrikin Mary offered her hospitality, drunk whisky, without an ‘e’ sadly, in The Vine, Wangaratta, and cursed the police who still hold Dan and Steve’s armour hostage!” In fact seeing the letter was a lesson in humility and worth the trip all on its own

There is a fragility and strength to it that perhaps sums everything up. It is encased in glass of course, and thank god for that, much as I would like to have been able to feel the paper, its delicate beauty makes one wonder how on earth it is still here with us. Preserved as icon and past history, it also contains the seeds of the present, a shout out against oppression and injustice that still finds its echoes.

And if I came to Australia looking for Ned, Joe, Steve and Dan it is that which stands out- how the past is still the debate of the present. I found a complicated web of images, opinions, portrayals and politics, an unease of partisanship and commercialism. There is still a struggle after all this time to know quite what to do with those four young men who killed three coppers, robbed two banks and epitomised a challenge to the state, whether or not they quite intended to.

The expression for me of that unease is somewhere in the middle of the unmarked graves bar that of Joe Byrne, the crumbled homestead at Greta, the Kelly key rings and tea towels, the fluttering images of Nolan’s Ned on every lamppost in Melbourne and the heat of argument. On my first day in the city, in a tattoo parlour, an edgy 22 year old Australian explained to me that he had never heard of Ned Kelly, and in any case he wasn’t a patriot. I am sure Ned would have smiled at that- before he sat down to talk. I am positive I did a far poorer job, notwithstanding the wincing as he stuck needles in my skin, but it made me think. Most generations need their own Kelly Gang, but the challenge perhaps is to rescue their message from the ignominy of the G string and for it to add its voice to now.

Did I find what I was looking for? Yep, for myself, an English woman from the other side of the world, I savoured every contradictory physical emotive tacky inspiring compelling moment of it. Giving the boys one last toast, in Guinness of course, as I sat in the airport lounge it occurred to me that this wasn’t the end of it. I didn’t come away with any more gunpowder, but certainly some more dreams.

TALKING SENSE
While not everyone wants to read about Ned Kelly or the ANZACs or even The Great Depression, we hope they want to learn something about Australian History. From the ex-Prime Minister John Howard to a confused ex-NSW Education Minister Carmel Tebbutt (see the ex-pattern here?) a number of politicians have jumped on the teaching history bandwagon. But at what cost? From Right Wing Liberals to the multitude of State Governments, seems everyone has an agenda. We'd like to let the readers decide what is worth learning. Here at IronOutlaw.com we present the facts, the fiction and everything in between. It all adds to the experience and hopefully makes History an exciting place to be while also proving it needn't always have to be written by the victors.
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