An overview of the 2010 Ned Kelly Beechworth Weekend
Evidently I like Australia and, it might be argued, I also have scant regard for my carbon footprint. Flying around the world again is going to mean a LOT of trips to the recycling centre. On a push bike.
Will I go and see the four suits of armour together-perhaps for the only time in my life time- or NOT? I had seen Ned’s in the State Library, Melbourne, marvelled at how it was all put together and was so imposing. Seen my own eyes reflected in that of Dan’s helmet in Dublin, and cried at the both boys still being held captive in the Police Museum. Joe’s of course had been elusive, perhaps fittingly. A prop to another man’s ego but in any case as ever Joe in hiding, slipping through the night with not many to see him, even if that is in an Ikea bag in the boot of a car rather than on a grey mare.
But to see them all together? I wondered if they were intending on reinforcing the roof wherever the venue would turn out to be. Of course there was no choice to be made really so me and my trusty companions, well we set our sights on Beechworth and the 130th Anniversary. The prospect of the Ironoutlaw shindig at the Hibernian of course only overshadowed by the presence of 4 iron men, and what a thought that was!
The journey to Beechworth this time took some interesting twists not touched on during my last visit. The tumble down house at Beveridge, the muddy field in Avenel echoing to the chorus of ‘Is this where it was you think?’, Euroa and its interesting town planning which seems to amount to, as Brad suggested, demolishing historical buildings in order to put up a ‘previously on this site…’plaques. That said the museum itself was fascinating if bloody freezing, notable for its folk art and past life recreations as well as THAT doorstep. I won’t post the pictures of me sitting on it with a big grin, for reasons of taste.
But the meandering road also brought us to Stringybark Creek, albeit through private land and Mount Samaria on account of a GPS with a sense of humour. I am sure Brad’s wouldn’t dream of leading us astray :p Still, the vagaries of the system got us some ‘oh my god there is mud all over the hire car’ excitement and into the Bush. I stood for minutes at a time recording the sounds of birds I have never heard before, the rustle of eucalyptus leaves in the wind and the occasional shout from one of my fellow travellers finding an unexpected wombat hole.
Stringybark Creek was appropriately empty, cold and wet and portentous. Trust a Pom to be sightseeing in the rain eh? But it made my heart squeeze for those young men so far from a warm hearth and hearty meal on the cold nights. I guess whiskey and opium went some way to dull the sharpness.
The antidote of Bullock Creek warmed our spirits, though we were laughed at by a whole flock of kookaburras as we tripped and slipped through the trees in our inappropriately bright footwear to find a clearing down the end of the track, past the fallen tree and hopefully before sinking into the creek. Eureka!…Or at least near enough. Indiana has nothing on us. We were helped on our way by the photos by Joe Dipisa- clearly he knew what he was dealing with and therefore the need for visual aids. Going in the winter however has its benefits, despite the noise we made I was quite confident that the snakes would still be sleeping! Not so much the giant elk thing, but we only saw pictures of that in the Tatong Tavern afterwards as we had a stiff drink to calm nerves after the drive. They do good chips there, should you be passing.
Benalla and Glenrowan had to be visited of course, part of the build up to the weekend that stretched out in front of us. Flowers for Joe in the former and that familiar queasiness in the latter. No sign of the Ned soap-on-a-rope so far though- I guess there is a gap in the market still to fill. That said I bought the best memento of the trip there- an iron Nolan-esque bottle opener from the blacksmith next to the Inn. AND I am still digesting the bushranger damper from the Billy Tea Rooms some time later so I suppose that counts too!
We declined the invitation to have a picture taken in the mock up Glenrowan Inn bar that forms part of the wine outlet at the end of town, pulled faces at the animatronics show, stood between the legs of Ned Kelly and wished we could walk into the grass that now covers the site of Mrs Jones’ place. I don’t know what should be done with the site, if indeed you were asking which I suspect not, but all the same the wilderness that is still there cries out for something- a simple memorial garden, somewhere to sit and contemplate the past but look to the future- anything really other than the emptiness behind a fence. I do want to go and sit in there, raise a hip flask to Mrs Jones, to those that died and to many more years. Maybe next time.
But Beechworth beckoned and we were not to be disappointed. A tantalising glimpse on the Friday night through an open door revealed that the armour was really there…this was it!
Somewhat flushed, though mostly on account of sitting next to the fire in the Commercial, we arrived unfashionably early for the IO dinner at the Hibernian and spent some time squinting and taking wild guesses based on tiny facebook profile pics as to who just walked in. I couldn’t quite believe I was there frankly, still some of me spread over the Atlantic and the Pacific and feeling the effects. The Hibernian is a funny old place- I have to say that it lacks old world charm, unless the 70’s are counted, but the warm welcome (thank you) and wine soon had us slurring our way through numerous conversations and having a famously good time. We finally staggered out of there and got as far as the Town Hall steps before a nice sit down was called for. Our backs against the wood doors we toasted the outlaws returned ‘home’ and, attracted by a little sliver of light from underneath and tried to steal another peek. I suspect there may be cctv footage….But in the shiraz mists this poem by Mollie was borne, and it was a very happy thought
Then, at last on Saturday morning, 10 am, giddy with excitement we burst through the doors into the hall. It took my feverish brain a few minutes to realise the layout- that we were entering from behind and circling the armour like Custer’s last stand. Though I don’t think tomahawks and arrows would have got through the bag check.
Most of you perhaps have seen Joe’s armour, some perhaps have seen all four of them together, many I am sure are so steeped in all of this that it is just regular stuff, but I make no apologies for an emotional reaction to a momentous occasion. Having circumvented the world and endured 24 hours of airline food I think I deserved a few happy, sad, overawed wondrous tears at the very human shaped iron.
There was nothing more powerful and emotive than to stand in front of that armour all together. Hard metal that was intended to signal a revolution but in fact heralded death for four young men. You could almost hear the shouts and the gun fire and the rockets.
I, we, returned many times over the weekend, even slipping in at last knockings on the Monday morning before it was all packed up again courtesy of Bill. Sometimes to take photos, sometimes to stand and stare, sometimes to get hurried along by perhaps the least friendly visitor guide I have ever encountered, and sometimes just because I wanted to store up memories if by some chance this was the last time. It was hard to walk away.
There were many other highlights to this trip and they too were all characterised too by glimpses behind the icons and the public story into the real people that created that history. It was so good to have time to delve into the lives of some of the women who hold the bones of it all- Noelene Allen’s talk on the Saturday morning telling the life of an incredible woman whose life took her from the green of the Giants Causeway in the far north of Ireland to the hard orange flats of Greta, to visit the rain soaked resting place of Margret Byrne in the strange displacement of Albury, New South Wales.
And of course there was Ettie Hart. I am still without words to describe her beautiful journal, fleeting glimpses of pages torn and faded ink, flowers and tumbling cards, and perhaps it is best that it speak for itself. Despite the rather copious amounts of wine, I felt myself suddenly sober hearing Noeleen Lloyd reading such tender expressions from a young woman in love. Those pages are precious indeed but perhaps the delicate words hold a strength too, something about the enduring spirit of those women. I am looking forward to seeing them again one day!
There is immense passion and pride of it all that is not dissipated by time- you could see it on the faces of fathers leading their children around the exhibition, in the rousing cheer and call of “Beechworth Boy!” as Steve Bisley talked about Joe at the Last Outlaw anniversary do, in the holding of breath as the Jerilderie Letter was spoken out loud and even in the theatre of Nearly Ned’s trial. Where ever you go there are people with personal stories to tell and fire in their eyes, of who they are in this enormous tale. In Eldorado I spoke to a man who, in his own quiet way too is stoking fires, bringing the story of his town back in from the cold and into view.
There are many issues and things to be mindful of course- the telling of the truth, the spreading of the real story, protecting the rights of families and their heritage- all of those seem to me to be immensely important. I wanted to talk further with Noeleen about that- how the story can be both held safe by and for those whose personal family history is tied up with it, but at the same time extended and pushed out into the world, recognising the significance these four young men played not only in Australia’s past, but also in the present. The challenge being to hold both the personal and the public.
And perhaps the key to that is already in sight. Perhaps the armour holds that key.
Forged by your people to protect your boys, to keep them safe, symbols of fighting back, revolutionary intent, endurance, bravery and loyalty, of ingenuity, determination and will, but also manifestations of them as individuals, as real men who died in the attempt to do right by their families, their communities and themselves. Those bush fired masks provoke both a human emotive response and an iconic call to arms. That is powerful stuff.
Perhaps if we listen very hard can hear a call across a century or more. Those suits of armour should be together. I of course am home now, still some bits of leaves in the bottom of my bag, and disgracefully my case still spilling out on the floor, but the more I consider, the more I recall standing there in that room with those suits of armour, the stronger it feels. And without wanting to teach grandma to suck eggs, least of all an Australian one…. I think it is time for a campaign. Just today I heard that they are to be displayed in Canberra for several months next year- that sounds like a good starting point to raise voices for them to be home together, permanently.