Trying To Discuss Ned Kelly

While Australia is a very comfortable place to visit, I did have some uncomfortable moments; generally pertaining to Ned Kelly, and my attempts to have conversations with locals about him.

Ned Kelly is probably Australia’s most notorious figure. According to Bill Bryson, Australians love Ned Kelly, and Bryson can’t imagine why, because Kelly was a criminal, he stole, he shot police officers, why on earth would you revere such a person.

But I had a different experience than Bryson. I found my conversations cloaked in discomfort. What was I projecting onto this figure? What expectations and beliefs was I holding onto with regard to Ned Kelly? Had I seen the Heath Ledger movie and fallen in love with a romantic notion of the outlaw? (Nope and nope, just so you know.) Also, there is the uncomfortable fact that Australia was originally a penal colony, and perhaps perceiving Ned Kelly to be an Australian hero further reinforces the “prisoner island” stereotype.

I’ve still never watched a movie about Ned Kelly, which might be why I’m so fascinated. Instead, I simply stumbled into my fascination by way of Peter Carey’s writing. I had read 30 Days in Sydney, and had found Carey’s writing so unexpectedly moving that I wanted more. Enter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang.

In reading this book, I became quite devastated. The back of the book mentions that it is full of pathos… they’re not kidding. There were many times I was reading through tears of empathy and frustration. And I had no idea how loaded the subject of Ned Kelly was until I set foot down under and opened my big mouth.

Namely, on a walking tour of Melbourne. Our guide was just 19 years old, and when I asked him if he had read Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, he was exceptionally defensive. “There are a lot of books about Ned Kelly, and I don’t know that I would call any of them TRUE,” he responded.

“HEY!” I was getting defensive too. “That’s the title of Peter Carey’s book. The one that won awards and is on display in the State Library. No other book is in that display. Are you aware I’m talking about a book title, and that I know it’s fiction?”

He was not aware. Nor did he become aware. He had evidently not heard of this book, and the phrase “true history” seemed to have put him off his game. He could not digest any more words from me.

To simply sum up the book now, with my mottled memory… Kelly’s family were Irish Catholics, and seemed to have always been criminals. Young Kelly’s father died when Ned was only 12, and his mother apprenticed him to bushranger (criminal who hides in the bush) Harry Power when he was just 14, which led directly to his first run-in with the law. Having been born and raised in poverty, small details like his first pair of rubber-sided boots blew him away with pride and gratitude.

Over time, he left Harry Power, and was joined by his best friend Joe Byrne, his brother Dan Kelly, and Dan’s best friend Steve Hart — and this was the Kelly Gang. Together, they robbed banks and burned the mortgage papers of small-scale farmers. And shot three police officers. At this point they were now outlaws and could be shot dead by anyone.

Kelly had been “a man of letters” — that is to say, despite the fact that he was largely unschooled, he felt that if he could only explain himself via very long letters, all would be understood. He wanted people to know why he did what he did. He wrote a very long letter to a constable, believing he would be pardoned:

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This is just a part of Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter.

I find it very moving, that Kelly believed a letter could change his fate.

It was from that letter that Carey picked up on the “voice” of Ned Kelly and expanded it into the novel in which Kelly explains his entire life to his unborn daughter as the law closes in around him. Punctuated with earnest language, like lines such as, “I were very afraid.”

I was enthralled… and so you can imagine how excited I was to learn that WE COULD SEE NED KELLY’S ARMOUR AT THE STATE LIBRARY.

Wait. Armour???

Yes. At the very end of his career as a bushranger, he knew he would soon be shot at from all sides… so he had this makeshift armour made… I think out of farming implements, actually. The purpose was to deflect bullets. I never thought I’d actually see it. The truth is, I thought the legend of Ned Kelly’s armour was just that: a legend. A weird story someone made up. But it exists, and it’s in the Melbourne State Library, where they have a display entitled The Changing Face of Victoria.



This is what Ned Kelly wore when he was captured at long last by the Victorian police. He was wearing this armour when his brother, best friend, and Steve Hart were shot and killed. Kelly was captured, and hanged for murder at the Old Melbourne Gaol. I tried to imagine what he saw through that little slit for eyes… could he turn his head? Did he see or hear his mates die? That must have been crushing… along with the weight of that extremely heavy armour (41.4 kg).

The State Library also has Ned Kelly’s death mask… his face at the very end. Many people believe his last words were, “Such is life.” But others feel he said, “Ah well, I suppose it has come to this.” Either way… you can see his acceptance of his ultimate fate here… at age 25.


I was delighted to see that there was also a display dedicated to Peter Carey’s book! Here is the laptop on which he wrote the True History of the Kelly Gang. And manuscripts and notes from his editor. As a writer (of sorts), I found this fascinating in a more visceral way. It’s kind of surreal to see the laptop the book was written on. (But also, I’m just a bit of an intense dork sometimes.)

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Despite Aussie’s discomfort with discussing Ned Kelly on the street, this historical figure seems to be fixed in many people’s subconscious. In Sydney, we visited the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and found paintings depicting Kelly’s Last Stand:


So paranoid, peering out of the heavy metal helmet.


So sad, so accepting of the end.

I think this is mainly a testament to the power of story. I didn’t care at all about Ned Kelly until I read that book, and Peter Carey’s words took me on a journey, exploring what Kelly may have been seeing, feeling, and thinking. And I’m glad I read it, because it gave me a sort of touchstone to history when I was in Melbourne, it formed a connection in my brain… for good or ill.


8 responses to “Trying To Discuss Ned Kelly

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