Christmas with the Kellys

Oh, Paddy dear, and did you hear
The news that’s going round,
On the head of bold Ned Kelly
They have placed two thousand pound.
And on Steve Hart, Joe Byrne and Dan
Two thousand more they’d give,
But if the price was doubled, boys,
The Kelly Gang would live.

The above lines are taken from one of the multitude of songs and ballads that surround the Kelly Gang. The Kellys, Byrne and Hart is one of the longest and almost historically accurate. It was taken from a book I was reading on the Kelly gang in a suburb of Melbourne known as South Yarra longing to get out into the bush. At the heart of the Kelly story there are many qualities of an epic drama. There are the obvious comparisons to other folk hero bandits who champion the rights of the poor and down trodden like Robin Hood. The main outline of Ned’s story is that a strong minded man seeks revenge for the wrongs committed against his family. He is out to destroy a despotic system of persecution which is kept intact by corrupt law enforcement officers. With the help of his brother, Dan, and two solid companions, Steve Hart and Joe Byrne they defy the forces of law and order, they evade capture and in the final conflict they are seen to be fighting to their very last breath. In the process of this, they also attract widespread sympathy, particularly among the Irish community. They encouraged the Kellys to act as the focus point of protest against those that held power.
I was not impressed with Melbourne, besides I hadn’t crossed the planet to sit in another big city. The Christmas period was rapidly approaching and the thought of celebrating a Northern hemisphere Winter feast at the height of the Australian Summer would surely be too much of strange cultural mishmash for my head to cope with. I therefore decided that a road trip was in order, I would visit as many sites associated with my heroes as possible. So with my friend at the wheel of a ‘Toorak tractor’ i.e. a four wheel drive off-road vehicle that is driven by the fashionable, never taken anywhere that might pick up a piece of dust and never taken out of the posh area of Toorak where that modern icon of Australian culture, Dame Edna Everidge once lived before she was famous. With plenty of camping gear, plenty of ‘tucker’ and a case of Jameson’s just in case of emergencies, we headed north away from Melbourne with all its big city blues.


Once the traffic had thinned and we were heading towards Wallen, we neared the tiny town of Beveridge, the site of the first Kelly homestead. It is only twenty-five miles from Melbourne. To reach it you have to drive along a grey gravel track that takes you around the town. It is shaded by a few ‘ghost gum’ trees and it cuts through what looks to be excellent land for raising horses and a young family. When we reached the house, I was completely amazed to find the place still standing, although it was in a state of disrepair. It was built by John ‘Red’ Kelly, the father of Ned, after his release from prison. It was certainly built to last the effects of this alien landscape. There is a fantastic curving chimney on the western side of the tin-roofed shack that would look more at home on an ancient Irish cottage. The property is surrounded by a chain-link fence which proved no barrier to an intrepid reporter like myself. There was a chair on the stoop. It looked rather comfortable so I sat down on it, closing my eyes and transporting my thoughts back in time.
Red Kelly had been a gamekeeper in the county of Tipperary who was convicted in 1841 of stealing either one or two pigs. For his crime he was transported to the living hell of Van Diemen’s Land, now known as the state of Tasmania. Life in the prison fortress in Hobart was often short and brutal and has been the site of many massacres. Besides those that died acclimatising themselves to their new life in the prison colony, there have been large-scale exterminations of the indigenous Australians, to such an extent that not one full blooded Tasmanian aborigine exists today. In more recent times, Hobart saw a crazed gunman go on a killing rampage executing many tourists and winning the dubious distinction of becoming Australia’s greatest mass-murderer. Maybe the evil surrounding Hobart is deeply impregnated. John, however, managed to survive. I imagine he was made of pretty strong stuff. It is interesting to bear in mind that John’s mother was a relative of William F. Cody whose forebears had emigrated to the United States. William F. Cody was better known as ‘Buffalo Bill’.
After serving his sentence, he decided to start a family and avoid the notice of the authorities. Beveridge and its environs was an unhealthy place for an ex-convict. There was much antagonism between the ‘settlers’ of small holdings and ‘squatters’ with their large properties. There were many prosecutions of branding cleanskins and slaughtering strayed stock. The young Kelly family were among those accused of such practices. The family of ten members therefore decided that by moving further into the hinterland, their chances of not being arrested would increase ten fold. They headed north-east, to the end of the Strathbogie Ranges in the hills above Greta, near Glenrowan. Unfortunately, the move proved too much for John and he died in 1866 leaving Edward (Ned), his eldest son, at the head of a poverty stricken family.


After getting side tracked for a few days by various events that were unscheduled, we decided our next destination would be the town of Euroa, the scene of a spectacular robbery carried out by the newly formed Kelly gang but I’m going to let the ballad tell the story:

‘Twas in November, ‘seventy-eight,
When the Kelly Gang came down
Just after shooting Kennedy
In famed Euroa town;
Blood horses they were all upon,
Revolvers in their hand,
They took the township by surprise
And gold was their demand.

Ned Kelly walked into the bank,
A cheque all in his hand,
For to have it changed to money
Now of Scott he did demand.
And when that he refused him,
He looked at him straight
Said, “See here, my name’s Ned Kelly,
And this here man’s me mate.”

With pistols pointing at his nut
Poor Scott did stand amazed;
His stick he would have liked to cut,
But was with funk half crazed.
The poor cashier with real fear
Stood trembling at the knees,
But at last they both seen ‘twas no use
And handed out the keys.

The safe was quickly gutted then
The drawers turned out as well,
The Kellys being quite polite
Like any noble swell.
With flimsies, gold and silver coin,
The threepennies and all,
Amounting to two thousand pounds,
They made a glorious haul.

“Now hand out all your firearms,”
The robber boldly said,
“And all your ammunition-
Or a bullet through your head.
Now jump into this here buggy
And we will take you for a drive;
Your wife and family, too, must come,
So make them look alive!”

They drove them to a station
About five miles away,
Where twenty other people
Had been bailed up all the day.
The owner of the station
And the men in his employ,
And a few unwary travellers,
Their company did enjoy.

An Indian hawker fell in, too
As everybody knows;
He came in handy to the gang
By fitting them with clothes.
Then with their worn out clothing
they made a few bonfires
And then destroyed the telegraph
By cutting down the wires.

Throughout the whole affair, my boys,
They never fired a shot.
The way they worked was splendid
And never shall be forgot.
Where they’ve gone to is a mystery,
And the troopers cannot tell;
Until I hear from them again,
I’ll bid you all farewell.

It was about three in the afternoon when we entered present day Euroa and the place looked like a film set for Nevil Shute’s book, On the Beach for the entire place was deserted as if a secret government experiment had gone wrong and the townsfolk had been evacuated. We cruised the neat orderly streets and found nobody let alone any sign that Ned and the boys had once been visitors. I soon grew depressed by the apparent desertion of Euroa and I turned my thoughts to how did they end up here robbing banks in the first place? I can understand that the myth of the Kelly gang provides a concrete locus for nostalgic Australians, particularly those of Irish descent, yet they were bandits extracting other people's wealth at the end of a barrel. In today’s Australia, the vast empty spaces of ‘the outback’ and the symbolism inherent in the Ned Kelly story, reminds many of an imaginary heroic past, a place of lost virtue of those who struck out when the constraints of civilisation became too much. To others, however, such as the rabid Manning Clark in his scholarly History of Australia:

“Ned Kelly was a wild ass of a man, snarling, roaring and frothing like a ferocious beast when the tamer entered the cage. Mad Ireland had fashioned a man who consumed his vast gifts in an insensate war against property and on all the props of bourgeois civilisation – the police, the bankers, the squatters, the teachers, the preachers, the railway and the electric telegraph.”

On Christmas morning the sun was already scorching the vehicle and its contents. The cheese had turned to a perverted fondue on the back seat and we seriously had to find some shade before we reached sauna temperatures. We therefore headed in a south-easterly direction in search of the site of one of the definitive moments in the criminal career of the Kelly boys: Stringybark Creek. We arrived in a sharecropper shantytown called Merton. I asked a local for directions to the site of the killing. He informed me that I might not want to stay there overnight as, “There is nothing there, unless your interested in watching flies, drink, fighting, and chasing your pretty friend.” I was not to be dissuaded. We found the location thanks to a pencil map given to us by a more helpful local.
The creek itself was obscured by scrub and speargrass. Several hundred metres across the creek there is a metal bas-relief of the Kelly armour attached to what is supposedly ‘The Kelly Tree’. The actual site or a very good candidate for it was located by the author Ian Jones in 1993 and I had a copy of his excellent and unbiased Ned Kelly; A Short Life. Very close to the spot where we had pitched our tent three Irishmen lost their lives. I poured some Jameson’s for the memory of Constables Thomas Lonigan and Michael Scanlon and Sergeant Michael Kennedy who were gunned down here in an ambush by Ned Kelly. A fourth member of the police posse, a Scot called McIntyre escaped by taking shelter in a wombat hole overnight and the next day he reached Mansfield to raise the alarm. The rewards had now increased to 500 on any member of the gang, dead or alive. This tragic outburst of violence rather than causing widespread revulsion only increased Ned’s popularity and songs from the bush which praised him on his horsemanship, his marksmanship and his courage still kept appearing. The phrase ‘game as Ned Kelly’ became a part of the national idiom.
What events led to the ambush at Stringybark? It is recorded that when Police Superintendent Nicholson visited the widow Ellen Kelly and her starving children, he officially recommended that the family should be ‘…rooted out of the neighbourhood… and sent to Pentridge, (a notorious prison), even on a paltry sentence, as a good way of taking the flashness out of them.’ It is no wonder that the Kelly clan developed a deep loathing of the police force, who, in their eyes were no more than poorly mounted immigrants with no idea about bushcraft. These officers of the law carried out bullying tactics and an official policy of harassment. In 1870, at the age of fifteen Ned received his first sentence for supposedly beating a Chinese hawker with a cane. The following year, soon after he gained freedom, he was arrested because of a mare that had been stolen from the vicinity of Mansfield. Ned pleaded that he did not know that the horse had been stolen and the person who admitted stealing the horse was given a sentence of eighteen months. The real injustice of the affair was that Ned, for his part, was given three years. In 1877, Dan Kelly who was just sixteen years old, found himself jailed for criminal damage but the chief witness against him was soon prosecuted for perjury.
In 1878, things turned from bad to worse. One night after a heavy drinking binge a newly recruited constable called Fitzpatrick came to the Kellys’ home in an attempt to arrest Dan on a charge of horse stealing. There are many conflicting arguments as to what happened on that fateful night. Fitzpatrick claimed that Ned had shot at him from the doorway after he had entered the house to make his arrest. The Kellys claimed that Ned was not even present being 400 miles away in New South Wales. They counter claimed that Fitzpatrick with his breath reeking of alcohol tried man-handling young daughter, Kate, and a scuffle broke out that resulted in Fitzpatrick inflicting a slight flesh wound to his wrist after discharging his own gun. Indeed, a forensic expert of the day testified that the wound could only be self inflicted. Ned’s mother Ellen is said to have finally quietened down the drunken policeman by laying him low with a finely placed shovel. Fitzpatrick was later dismissed for misconduct on an unrelated case.
The day following this incident, Ellen was arrested on a charge of aiding and abetting the attempted murder of an officer of the law. For Dan, who had now ‘gone bush’, and Ned this became known to them as the ‘causative cause’ for the formation of the Kelly gang. Ellen was tried and sent to prison for three years. Rewards for their capture of 100 were placed on the heads of Dan and Ned. The lads even offered to hand themselves in if their mother was guaranteed a suspension of her sentence but the authorities replied that they could make no such bargain.


I’ll be honest, the early morning search around the country for the Kelly residence or its locale was a disaster that ended in utter failure. To be awoken on Boxing Day morning by the screech of cockaatoos and the laughter of a Kookaburra is not my idea of paradise. I felt hungover and a dull image of that awful performance by Mick Jagger playing at being Ned kept popping into my mind. I was feeling haunted by that dreadful Irish accent that he employed to add (wince) authenticity to the character. Once the early morning mist had dissipated, we found ourselves sprinting along furrowed farm dirt tracks that led nowhere. I saw few trees and buildings let alone any marker as to where we were. We lurched and bumped from one connecting road to another. We fishtailed when we hit red gravel and we twisted 90 degrees when we hit wet spots. My friend, ever the intrepid Australian, lead-footed it, triple-clutched and honked lost dogs out of the way. When dusk came we camped in defeat on the Broken River, two broken seekers. The Kellys remained as elusive as they had been in life.


Now when they robbed Euroa bank
They said that they’d be run down,
But now they’ve robbed another one
That’s in Jerilderie town.
That’s in Jerilderie town, my boys,
And we’re here to take their part,
And shout again, “Long may they reign,
The Kellys, Byrne and Hart!”

On the long drive north out of Victoria, across the Murray river, to reach Jerilderie in New South Wales, I had plenty of time to read Ned’s 'Letter from Jerilderie'. From his father, Ned had drunk in with his mother’s milk stories of profound bitterness about Irish subjection to the Anglo-Irish and English. He was therefore filled with a burning pride in Ireland. He would have been aware of the comparisons he was drawing to the image of Michael Dwyer who led a band of cavaliers through the Wicklow hills for five years after the failure of the rebellion of 1798. But I’ll let you make your own mind up by quoting the letter:

“It will pay the government to give those people who are suffering innocence justice and liberty if not I will be compelled to show some colonial stratagem which will open the eyes not only the Victorian Police and inhabitants but also the whole British army. No doubt they will acknowledge that their hounds are barking at the wrong stump, and that Fitzpatrick will be the cause of greater slaughter than St Patrick was to the snakes and toads in Ireland… …many a blooming Irishman rather than subdue to the Saxon yoke, were flogged to death and died in servile chains but true to the shamrock and a credit to Paddy’s Land. What would England do if America declared war and hoisted a green flag as it is all Irishmen that has got command of her forts and batteries? Even her very lifeguards and beef tasters (Beefeaters) are Irish. Would they not slew round and fight with their own arms for the sake of the colour they dare not wear for years and to reinstate it and raise old Erin’s Isle once more from the pressure of tyranism of the English yoke which has kept it in poverty and starvation and caused them to wear the enemy’s coat? What else can England expect…”

Very early on the 8th of February 1879, Steve, Dan, Joe and Ned captured the Post and Telegraph in the small town of Jerilderie. They then proceeded to isolate it from the outside world by cutting the wires. During this precise raid, they captured three policemen and rounded up all the men folk whom they kept under observation in the parlour of the Royal Mail Hotel which also acted as a branch office of the Bank of New South Wales. While the booty was being collected, Ned entertained his captive audience with a display of his wit and civility. He ordered free drinks for everybody and returned to the Rev. Gribble a pocket watch of sentimental value that had been taken by Steve Hart. He appeared to win the admiration of the very people that he was robbing. Today, the townspeople of Jerilderie live a quiet and uneventful life but here, outside the state of Victoria in New South Wales, they don’t mind a geek like myself asking a lot of really dumb questions. Maybe it was because I had come from Old South Wales to ask these dumb questions.


Glenrowan is the place where the gang came to play out the penultimate scene in the entire drama. The Kellys’ final showdown with the authorities ended inevitably in blood and fire. Ned, though badly mauled, was captured and taken to Melbourne for trial. When Ellen was allowed to see him before he was hanged on the 11th of November 1880, she cried, “Mind you die like a Kelly, Ned!” The judge who presided over his case was an Irish-born son of a general called Sir Redmond Barry. He belonged to a class that ‘feared and detested the bog-Irish’. The historian Paul de Serville accurately summed up the contrast between the two men – the two faces of Ireland and the two faces of Australia – as being ‘almost too symmetrical for comfort’. The Herald newspaper reported that his final words were ‘Such is Life!’
Modern Glenrowan has reduced the myth of their heroic last stand to a farcical level. If Glenrowan had not been wrapped up in the Kelly mythology, then I think it would have died a long time ago. It truly broke my heart to be surprised by a 50ft plastic Ned in full armour and toting an impossible shotgun as we came out of the bush and into the town. Surely I had entered the nightmare side of the Australian dream. Welcome to Ned’s Theme Park. Any ghosts that might have survived through the years would have moved out long ago. There was a computer generated hall where robots re-enacted the authorised version of what took place here. Did I want to witness the Kelly slaying in glorious 3D? Or should I cross the street and enter kitsch heaven and buy some ‘Game As Ned’ stuff? I decided that maybe alcohol could take away reality for a while and so I entered a pub that looked over the railway track where the police had arrived.
The effects of a weak Australian beer and the air-conditioning soon had me in a more reasonable state of mind and I found myself staring at a huge blow-up of the contemporary Illustrated Australian picture of Ned in full battle mode. In it he wears the famous beaten plowshare mask, breastplate and one,0 wisely, over the privates. Over these, he is wearing a drover’s all weather riding coat. He has one foot on a log and he is unloading his pistol at two policemen who are jumping for cover. It was one of those policemen who finally disabled Ned with a shotgun blast to the knees. It has recently been rediscovered that the entire gang, not only Ned, had their own personal body armour. Plough shares had been disappearing from farm steads all along the Broken River. I ordered a Jameson’s and stared out of the tinted windows at the carnival outside and drank deeply to the memory of Steve Hart, Joe Byrne and Dan Kelly. As the spirits moved around my system, I realised that I had to get away from this plastic town as soon as possible before I grew a Ned-like beard and started bugging the tourists.
There was one small consolation for me, however. A few miles out of Glenrowan, I asked my Australian interpreter and driver to slow down as I thought that there was a log on the road. We pulled up in front of a giant Guano lizard that was sunning itself on the tarmac. We politely honked the horn and it gracefully shifted its enormous, prehistoric body into a field of ripening golden corn. There is a synchronistic angle to this yarn, only moments before our encounter with this monster I had read this line from 'The Jerilderie Letter' in which Ned described the Victorian Police Constabulary ‘…as helpless as a big goanna after leaving a dead bullock or a horse…' I interpreted this as a sure thing that here in Kelly country, that Ned’s ghost, like in a painting by Sidney Nolan, will forever cross and re-cross the sun-baked wilderness.

As high above the mountains,
So beautiful and grand,
Our young Australian heroes
In bold defiance stand, my boys,
The heroes of today,
So let us stand together, boys,
And shout again “Hooray!”*

*Taken from Six Authentic Songs From the Kelly Country, edited by John Meredith.

: Paddy Murphy, Cardiff. Paddy’s grandfather was born 14 miles from Cork. He retired to Cardiff during the 1920s to work on the railway after serving in the British army in India.

Another article by Paddy Murphy

Published in The Green Dragon No 9,Winter 1999/2000

Christmas Box