Book Review by: Felicity Allen
Peter Fitzsimons, 2013, Ned Kelly: The Story of Australia’s Most Notorious Legend, Random House, Australia.
ISBN: 978 1 74275 8909.
After the books, the films and the historical articles, not to mention the ballads and plays, what more remains to be said about Ned Kelly? A great deal, it emerges, in Peter Fitzsimons’ very readable account of what was known as ‘The Outbreak’.
After father Red Kelly’s transportation to Van Diemen’s Land for seven years for stealing two pigs (worth £6), Fitzsimons traces the slowly declining fortunes of the Kelly family beginning with the hasty marriage between Red and Ellen at St Francis’ Catholic Church in Melbourne (1850). Red made enough money on the goldfields (during the Eureka Rebellion era) to buy a little farm and set up his new Australian family. As long as he could, Red continued to send money to Ireland to support his family of origin as they survived the aftermath of the Great Famine, but he was slowly overcome by the endless manual labour, recourse to alcohol – and probably lingering health problems from his time as a convict – the farm had to be sold and the family began their slow migration northwards. The description of their early life is detailed and evocative of the rough conditions in the bush and Fitzsimons has a good eye for detail. At Avenel, four of the Kelly children went to school, though it was not yet compulsory and cost 1 shilling per child per week – 4 shillings a week! At a time when money was short and the only way to earn it was heavy physical work, the Kelly parents cared enough about education to spend that amount of money on schooling for several years. Education was seen as the only way out of ‘ the cycle of poverty and lawlessness’ (p 11). Unfortunately their best efforts came undone when Red was again imprisoned (six months for possession of a cow hide) leaving ten year old Ned as the ‘man of the house’.
The family continued their migration to north-east Victoria and Fitzsimons does well to clarify that they arrived in the midst of not one but two land wars. The first – between White and Black was all but over – the second between settler and squatter was just getting started. The explanations of the legal and political background to these struggle are well done, demonstrating the stranglehold on power then enjoyed by the squattocracy who controlled most of the land. After the Eureka uprising, ordinary men started to think that they might have some rights and began the ‘Unlock the Lands’ agitation. The Land Act (1860) gave all men (and some women) the right to select small parcels of land even from the squatters’ runs. Obviously the squatters were not going to accept this tamely and reacted either directly by breaking down fences or by resorting to all sorts of ruses to ensure that the selectors got the worst land. Unfortunately a scenario of Irish upstarts struggling to get access to land owned by an English Establishment was all too familiar to many of the participants who moved to take their allotted places in the drama.
In the new country though, there were some important differences. Good feeding produced tall, vigorous opponents and even a little education gave them a self-confidence lacking among the cowed peasantry of the old country. The tendency of the Australian-born to stand up to authority struck many of the ruling class as positively unnatural. Did they not know that social class was divinely ordained, decided at birth and demanded that they respect their ‘betters’? One of the perennial questions of Kelly scholarship is the extent to which he modelled himself on Irish heroes and precursors or whether he was more influenced by King – his American stepfather – than he was by his Irish father. Certainly there’s no doubt that the old songs and stories would have been heard around the cabin fire, but what about the stories of the suffering of the Great Famine? Some of Ned’s uncles and cousins emigrated to escape it after being helped by his father’s money. Could it be that their stories acted as a ‘negative ideal’ ? The young Ned might have quietly promised himself that he would NOT be found starving on the roadside, his mouth stuffed with grass.
Certainly the Kelly family’s ability to puncture the pretensions of authority with a few sardonic words may explain some of the hostility they evoked from the police. Who can forget Ned’s crushing description of the police swarming the countryside in their attempts to catch him as ‘…’tis all double pay and country girls’ ? Indeed the remarkable incompetence of the police pursuit is something that Fitzsimons makes pitilessly clear, largely from the police’s own contemporaneous descriptions (as most readers would know, Ned Kelly’s view of police competence was sulphurous) of searches reluctantly pursued and quickly abandoned, of city officers who only searched the main roads, of the practice of keeping four (4!) constables stationed outside the Byrne household every night for months. This came to an end when Mrs Byrne noticed their tracks in a creek bed. The final climactic scene at the Glenrowan Inn is normally played for the drama of the returning outlaw in his menacing armour, but Fitzsimons directs us to the pressing question of why the police made no attempt to negotiate a peaceful surrender, or at the very least, the release of the hostages. If they had not managed to think of this for themselves, the heroic Father Gibney suggested it a number of times and offered to parlay. The police response was to set fire to the Inn, without negotiation, and without regard to the life of one severely wounded hostage, well-known to be still in the Inn. He was eventually rescued from the flames by local men rushing forward with Father Gibney. Only the determination of one Constable – Hugh Bracken – saved Kelly’s life when he was a critically wounded and disarmed captive. After the affair was over a Royal Commission was held on the circumstances leading to the Kelly outbreak, but no one seems to have thought of investigating the incident which started it all off – the arrest of Ned’s mother Ellen, on the word of an officer (Fitzpatrick) discharged from the force shortly afterwards – for perjury!
The vision of Australian society in 1880 is both clear and disturbing especially as Fitzsimons’ focus includes groups not normally seen – Aboriginals and women – but the results are not for the fainthearted. Famously, black trackers were brought down from Queensland to pursue the gang, led by Stanhope O’Connor whose other claim to fame was leading his native troopers in the massacre of 28 unarmed members of the Guugu-Yimidhirr tribe at Cape Bedford (1879). While many people know of the massacre, it was a surprise to learn why O’Connor did it as he seemed to get on well with Aboriginal people. Fitzsimons explains
On a previous occasion when Sub-Inspector O’Connor had tried to negotiate with the Aboriginal people, he had been severely criticised by the pastoralists, who had just wanted them all killed, and this time he and his native troopers had just got on with it.
A lesson well learned! His murderous actions at Cape Bedford led to him being highly commended by the Queensland government. Although the six trackers were promised a share of the reward and exposed to considerable danger (one died), they never received any money at all for their work on the interesting grounds that they would not know how to use it. Their descendants are still pursuing the claim.
As for the women in the story, their traditional role as supporters and helpers is very clear, particularly Ned’s unladlylike sisters who rode their horses astride (gasp!) instead of side-saddle in the approved 19th century manner. Men’s attitudes to women are exposed: all women over 40 are routinely referred to by those involved as ‘old’ and/or ‘wrinkled’, which they probably were after a life of constant childbirth, hard work and sun exposure. The careful attention to the lives of women certainly reveals where Ned got his fighting spirit – from Ellen and not from Red who was always willing to be the peacemaker. As a 33-year-old widow she was fined £2 with 5 shillings costs for assaulting her sister-in-law. A few months later Ellen was charged with using Abusive and Threatening language and fined 40 shillings – like mother like son. In a subsequent five-year period she was charged with Furious Riding, Stealing a Saddle, Assault, Drunk and Disorderly and Using Obscene Language, but she did get off the charge of sly grogging (on a technicality). Not bad going for someone who was by then an ‘old lady’ in her culture. Fitzsimons certainly shows that there was more to Ellen than the standard depiction of the martyred woman, arrested with her 12th baby in her arms, but the possible influence of this tough, rebarbative character on her eldest son is not really developed. Not only Ellen Kelly, who gave as good as she got, came in for rough treatment. The common view that the 19th century was a fairly courtly time when women were respected and sheltered is shattered by the vision of Sergeant Steele shooting at Margaret Reardon as she tried to flee the bullet riddled Glenrowan Inn – baby in her arms. He roared
Put up your hands or I will shoot you like a bloody dog!
at a woman trying desperately not to drop her baby. As it was, the baby survived but the shawl had bullet holes in it.
In summary, Fitzsimons appears to have achieved that difficult task – writing a reasonably even-handed account of the life of this divisive and charismatic man. He gives a careful account of the constant harassment of the family by the local police and points out that Ned made serious attempts to go straight and had considerable potential, attaining the position of foreman in a timber mill at one point. Nevertheless he acknowledges the unpredictability and the terrifying violence of both Ned and the rest of his gang. It’s possible to make a case for self defence (and Ned did) in the shooting of Constable Lonigan, tricky for Sergeant Kennedy, though. It’s not, however, possible to defend the cold blooded assassination of Aaron Sherritt for informing on any grounds. Although Kelly was not present, there is no doubt that Sherritt was shot dead in front of his pregnant teenage wife with Kelly’s full knowledge. At moments like these the gang seem to have been channelling the actions of The Ribbon Men or their equally dreaded opponents – the Peep O’Day boys.
Who should read this book? Kelly fans, obviously, but I would recommend it for any ‘Tough on Crime’ protagonist. The human and financial cost of variously transporting, imprisoning, pursuing and hanging Ned and the rest of his family could have easily been averted by the exercise of compassion and even handed justice. Was the tough on crime approach really worth it?