Ned Kelly: A Lawless Life by Doug Morrissey
Connor Court Publishing, January 15th, 2015
One of the proofs of our fallen world is the way wicked people are so often celebrated. Whether reframed as misunderstood or acclaimed while ignorantly (and often deliberately) forgetting their crimes; it can be found across all human cultures. It is particularly evident at the national level where there are plenty of examples including Ghengis Khan, Mao Zedong and Vladimir Lenin. Even the relatively young Australia has succumbed to this through the stock thief turned bushranger — Ned Kelly.
What is interesting about Ned Kelly is that unlike the examples above, he contributed nothing to Australia’s national greatness.* He was in most ways that matter, an unexceptional man living in what would be an otherwise little known area of Victoria. Yet, because of how his brief bit of notoriety has been aggrandised by sympathisers, he is now often thought of as a national folk hero in the same vein to Robin Hood. Ned Kelly: A Lawless Life debunks this efficiently by dispensing with the romanticism that generally surrounds his life.
What prompted my reading of this was when I happened to find it while doing a library search. I had began watching the 2003 Ned Kelly film but had to turn it off as it was so obviously ahistorical. This book was the perfect antidote.
Doug Morrissey is an expert on both the time and region where Kelly lived which means he has researched the people that lived there and the lives they lived. Unlike genuine legends, there is plenty of documentation about this region. This is not a narrative history though it does deal chronologically with the well-known incidents in Kelly’s short criminal life and the realities. Although there is certainly speculation where direct evidence is lacking, a lot of what Morrissey suggests is a whole lot more plausible than what is claimed by Kelly’s admirers. In fact, I don’t think it is unfair to suggest that most admirers start by assuming everything Kelly claims in his Jerilderie letter is true though presumably not the inconvenient parts he contradicted in other recorded statements. The letter can be read (or listened to) in its entirety here.
If anyone has ever had the acquaintance of a criminal or just a pathological liar, you would have personal experience with just how brazen they can be in their deceit. I have personally witnessed people lie when the contradictory evidence is directly in front of them. I’ve also witnessed people unashamedly change their lie to another lie when evidence contradicting the first is presented. For a hardened criminal who is willing to take from others and especially one willing to hurt of murder others, lying is comparatively easy. It is little wonder that people are reluctant to believe them though even the most hardened liars will tell the truth when it suits them. Ned Kelly on the facts everybody accepts did indeed rob and murder so lying wouldn’t be a difficult sin to add. Especially, as Morrissey shows, that it could (and often did) get him off crimes he had committed when evidence sufficient for court could not be brought forward.
The books opening puts it much better than I could:
The criminal mind has a peculiar cast; it has great powers of dissimulation. Nearly every ruffian it may be said has something of the histrionic art about him and the constant effort of these men is to posture when under the public eye as generous, large-hearted beings, persecuted by a wicked police but really entitled to the sympathy of their fellows. The practice is an instinct with them. They pose as injured innocents, as naturally as a girl attitudinises before a mirror. The account these scoundrels give of themselves affords a further proof of the truth of the elementary lesson that thieving and lying go hand in hand and this does not cease when the thief becomes a murderer. The ‘Kelly lot’ or ‘Greta gang’ have lived from their infancy the common life of low thieves, pilfering by night and trusting to get off if detected by false swearing at the police court by day. Men of this sort are never at a loss for a plausible lie to put themselves in a good position. They have lived in an atmosphere of deceit and consequently every statement in which they figure to advantage should be scrutinised to see who it emanates from and if it comes from them or their sympathisers the gloss should be taken off. The ruffians stand in a very different light to that in which they desire to be represented.
The Argus, 16th December 1878 (quoted from the book)
Rather than going back and fourth with hearsay, Morrissey goes through the available documents and meticulously presents the evidence. Where evidence is lacking, he makes what I judge to be reasonable conjectures. One of the most interesting things he does is show how people in similar circumstances to Kelly’s family actually lived:
In Greta, Glenrowan, Lurg, Laceby and Moyhu less than half of the selector population (45%) mortgaged their properties to the banks or local moneylenders, while 55% never felt the necessity to do so.
Only a small percentage of selectors (10%) residing in the above land parishes regularly fell behind in their rent payments. Roughly half (48%) never fell into rent arrears and of those who did only 18% did so more than twice. Surprisingly, 60% of selectors never fell into rent arrears at al during the crucial three year licence period when conditions were at their toughest and cash scarce.
and his mother eventually…
…survived the land selection process and in 1892 gained freehold title to her 88 acre property some 23 years after taking up the land in 1867
Mrs Kelly’s Selection, 17-18
So while Kelly certainly had a rough upbringing, he was far from alone and (more importantly), the vast majority of his neighbours didn’t become thieves or murderers. Had he and his brothers spent more time working the land they had instead of stealing livestock and fighting in bars, they would have also been among the humble list of struggling families remembered only by God and social historians.
Morrissey also gives a needed human aspect to the police who were murdered by giving information about their families and lives. One who left a young family and another who had nobody at all having not lived long enough to build a family. And had his final plan with his gang to attack police by derailing their train and shooting the survivors been successful, his body count would have been all the more awful.
This is part of Morrissey’s conclusion:
Ned Kelly was a man of many parts. He lived the life of a larrikin horse and cattle thief, used the rhetoric of a poor man’s hero, publicly spoke of his respect for people’s lives and yet never hesitated to threaten the lives of those who got in his way. Of his chief enemies the police, he killed three and planned to massacre a whole contingent. He was physically tough, a good bushman, handy with a rifle and an accomplished horseman. He was charismatic in his relationships with other people, a natural-born leader whose judgement was often impaired by impulsive and reckless behaviour. He provided vicarious thrill for a public hungry for sensation and entertainment.
He was egomaniacal in behaviour and attitude, a wild man who would brook no opposition from friend or enemy insisting his order must be obeyed. He was subject to huge mood swings from sentimentality to towering rage that bordered on paranoia. He was a narcissist, with little regard for other people’s feelings and a grandiose self-confidence in his own abilities; he was excessively opinionated with a glib, garrulous charm, setting unrealistic goals for himself while remaining vulnerable to the slightest criticism. If challenged or threatened, Ned reacted with violent threats and wild boasting. His rage at those he called his enemies led to plans and fantasies of terrible revenge.
Conclusion, p 159-160
Celebrating Kelly means maginalising the struggles of people who grew up in similar circumstances who didn’t lie, cheat and murder; as even Ned’s most ardent admirers must admit he did. Billions of people have lived and died poor without doing any of this. Even the most positive interpretation of Ned Kelly leaves little to admire.
That said, I don’t mind that he is remembered. There is something larger than life about his use of armour and the terror he caused in his short time on earth. But one can do this while stopping short of trying to lift him up as someone greater than he was. He certainly wasn’t going to usher in a greater society for all through his deeds as some of the more fanciful of his admirers have claimed. In the end he was a bushranger and his life ended much the same way as the vast majority of men who took that path: an early grave through a violent end. Unfortunately the book probably won’t do much to dull Kelly’s false legend in the short term but it would be good if his work and any that builds on it slowly chips away at Ned Kelly’s underserved national status over time.
Something I must also mention is that of the “larrikin” which has become something of a national term of endearment. In reality, the origin of the term points to anti-social and troublesome men of little worth. Much like the Ned Kelly myth, this is not something we should be celebrating.
*Whether or not you agree with their methods, their ideology or anything else, these men truly did leave a mark on their respective nations. From this standpoint alone it is understandable why they are so remembered.