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.
‘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.
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.
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.
Another article by Paddy Murphy
Published in The Green Dragon No 9,Winter 1999/2000