Ned Kelly: Being His Own Story of His Life and Crimes
source: C. Turnbull, \’Introduction\’
Melbourne, 1942, pp. 3-5, 8-19.
Ned Kelly is the best known Australian, our only folk hero. The explorers, the administrators, the colonial politicans, are little more than names on the map. What sort of people they were the average citizen neither knows nor cares. Men of eminence nearer to our own day, Farer, Hargrave, Higginbotham, lack even that memorial. They await a popular substantiation. In a community whose vista is still cluttered with the shoddy and the second-rate only one figure is larger than life-size. It is Kelly, of whose story not one man, woman or child is wholly ignorant. many books have been written about Kelly, far more than about any other Australian.
Two epical poems relate his deeds. Films have been made about him, and a radio play, broadcast by the official stations. The phrase, \”Game as Ned Kelly,\” is part of the national idiom. Today, when the Sydney-Melbourne Express is approaching Glenrowan, staid travellers peer through the sealed windows and say, \”This is the Kelly country.\”
Surely it is a remarkable man who can thus impress himself upon the national consciousness, who in sixty years can pass into legend! This man in his lifetime and after was execrated by those who believed themselves the guardians of law and order, the custodians of truth. He was continually vilified. Contemporary accounts of the Kelly saga are marked both by inconsistency and falsehood. By officials and others Kelly was accused of frenzied cruelty, skulking cowardice and all the mean vices. Yet the people have persisted in another view. Rightly or wrongly, they have seen in Kelly those qualities which are deemed the most desirable in the Australian conception of manhood — courage, resolution, independence, loyalty, chivalry, sympathy with the poor and the ill-used. This is the Kelly, historical or otherwise, who has now attained heroic stature, about whom books are still being written, who has become forever part of the Australian story, part of the fabric of which we are all built. Is this the true Kelly?
Turnbull proceeds to describe and assess Ned\’s social circumstances, actions and character…
We Australians have a large inheritance of rebellious blood. It is not chance that the only Australian folk songs are The Wild Colonial Boy and Waltzing Matilda. The wild colonial boy was himself a bushranger; and the \”jolly\” swagman who had the jumbuck in his tucker-bag is sung of by respectable gentlemen in Rotary Clubs without apparent realisation that this song is a reflection of an unending conflict between the disinherited and the possessors, for, wherever the sympathy goes in the song, it is certainly not to the \”troopers, one, two, three.\” So we may say that, although many of the citizens who joined in the merrymaking while nominal prisoners of the Kellys would have scorned to associate themselves with the business in hand, they were not precisely upset about it.
If they were brave men who met Kelly on his own ground, however, there was a multitude of timid people in the cities whose fear of Kelly, and what they assumed Kelly to stand for, was vented in spleen and denigration unsupported by any worthy witness. Henry Giles Turner, for instance, speaks of Kelly as a \”creature\” who was \”for most of his time a poor shabby skulker, hiding from decent people, distrustful of his own comrades and relations, gorged and intoxicated one day, to go hungry for many others…\” When the end came, Turner says, for this \”abject\” specimen, \”it was with difficulty his spiritual adviser could enable him to stand erect under the gallows.\”
Turner, \”Fellow of the Institute of Bankers, London,\” as he thought it worth while to say on his title page, no doubt rightly recognised in Kelly his natural enemy. Here he has been led into plain untruth. Kelly was not a skulking creature; subsequent inquiries discovered such cowardice as there was among those whose duty it was to apprehend him. Sergeant Steele, the actual captor of Kelly who brought him down, much to Ned\’s disgust, with buckshot, says that kelly \”could easily have escaped had he so desired…. He had returned in an endeavour to save his companions.\”
H. Glenny, J.P., anything but a Kelly sympathiser, who was present at the execution, says that Kelly walked along \”without the slightest sign of fear.\” When the time came \”the hangman then walked across to the cell and pinioned the prisoner. In two minutes, the doomed man appeared and walked over to the fatal spot. The white cap was on the top of his head, and from his facial appearance, and the want of fear noticeable, I should say he met his fate boldly enough; not a shake or a tremour did he give way to.\” This statement from a man who regarded Kelly as \”a wretched felon\” is surely evidence enough. \”Mind you die like a Kelly, Ned,\” his mother is supposed to have said to him. Legend has it that he said on the scaffold, \”Ah well, I suppose it has come to this,\” and \”Such is life.\” The story of a panic-stricken collapse is a fabrication, just as is the story that Kelly raved and blasphemed after his capture. He was a stoic in his fashion; and although he did not accept death with resignation he accepted it with dignity.
In his fashion he was writing out a story that began long ago, the story of the Little Dark Rose, of the isle of the hoofprints of young horses. Kelly, a man born for leadership, of courage and brilliant organising gifts, living among the poor and the struggling in a hard country, son of a rebellious Irishman whom he saw all his days as victim of a stranger\’s law, and of an Irish-woman who cherished the old tales: could this man, being what he was, in these circumstances, have had any other end? His story has the sweep of tragedy; and it is the more ironic because many of those who became involved in it were men of Ireland, too – Barry, Michael Kennedy, of Westmeath, Thomas Lonigan, of Sligo, and Michael Scanlan, of Kerry; and many others who played one part or another, such as the Inspecting-Superintendent of Police, Sadlier.
His gifts, I think, were remarkable. Not only his deeds, but his speeches in the dock and such rude documents as that now reprinted, go toward proving it. Only a vigorous and first-class mind could have so asserted itself with so little of the help that falls to happier men. No, there is no doubt that Kelly had greatness in him, let the timid of the time denigrate him how they will.
Turnbull concludes his assessment with the following…
Now it is long since over, and we may look at Kelly without the agitations of the time, fearing neither that our horse will be stolen nor that Fenians will have at us in our beds. Kelly is a folk hero; we cannot deny it. Is that a good thing? The good that plain men do, admittedly, is oft interred with their bones; nevertheless, it is for good things done that uncommon men are remembered. It is for such actions that we remember those who have been adjudged criminals in their day. Popular instinct is right. Ths instinct has found in Kelly a type of manliness much to be esteemed — to reiterate: courage, resolution, independence, sympathy with the under-dog. The other things are forgotten.
What might Kelly have become, given opportunity and a different environment? Such speculation is fruitless. let us take him for what he was, a bigger man than those who condemned him and those who hunted him. But he was out of his time, and was foredoomed; it would be romantic to pretend otherwise. Because he was what he was he had to die. Now \”the staid course of sober and impartial justice\” desired of Barry holds sway over all this green and pleasant land; and yet Jerusalem is not built. Banks and bankers, poor men and rich, are alike under threat. Has not Kelly, whose bones not long ago were dragged up out of their gaolyard by wreckers and seized on by the mischievous and the young, something to tell us now? I believe that he has. This man, with all that he was, and for all that he did, belongs to the true Australia – not the Australia of the shams and the money-jugglers, but the Australia that sweats and suffers and fights, the Australia that, however bewildered, however betrayed, is, we like to think, still \”game as Ned Kelly.\”