By Frank O’Shea
The photograph was owned by Ellen Kelly, Ned’s mother and passed on to her family after her death in 1923. It shows two young men working as lumberjacks. The year is 1874 and the suggestion is that the man on the right is 19-year old Ned Kelly. There are reasonable guesses as to who the other man could be, although it can be said with some certainty that it is not his brother Dan, as claimed by some, because he would have been only 13 at the time. The state of photography in 1874 was such that it is thought this is a copy made some years later.
There are half a dozen known photos of Ned Kelly, including police mugshots and one taken before he was hanged and that he asked to be sent to his mother. The significance of this new photograph is that if it can be proved to be genuine, it would show him as a young man, before he achieved his later notoriety.
The Kelly family descendants asked Matt Shore, the founder of the Ned Kelly Vault at Beechworth to tell them if it is likely to be a photograph of Uncle Ned as they believed it to be. Shore gave it to Gale Spring of RMIT, an specialist on photography who has been called as an expert witness in a number of high-profile court cases. His conclusion was that he would give it ‘a soft eight out of ten’ as being genuine. Not sure what that ‘soft’ means, but if an expert says that he is 80 per cent sure that this is a picture of Ned Kelly, that is a strong endorsement.
The story behind the photograph appeared in a comprehensive article in the Weekend Australian in December. Later online comments and discussions inspired by the article showed that opinions on Ned Kelly still divide Australia deeply. Was he a kind of Aussie Robin Hood or was he just a small time rural thug with a gun? His Irish roots are always mentioned, as are the Irish origins of the policemen who lost their lives in gun battles with him.
The book Ned Kelly: A Lawless Life by Dr Doug Morrissey of La Trobe University strenuously challenges the most common view of Kelly as a defender of the weak against intimidation by police and squatters. He takes to task writers like Ian Jones, John McQuilton, John Molony and Peter Fitzsimons in a forthright attack on the Kelly legend. The book was reviewed in the November edition of The Irish Echo, the review ending,
There are too many books on Ned Kelly to expect any one to be the final word. It would be reasonable to assume that the real man was somewhere between the hero-saint of one side and the worthless bully presented here.
As for the photograph, perhaps the strongest evidence for its provenance is the fact that Ellen Kelly treasured it and believed that it showed her son.
Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tinteán collective.