Victoria Police’s honour roll in Melbourne is just a short walk from Federation Square and down St Kilda Road. It contains the list of all members who died on duty. Included are Michael Kennedy, Thomas Lonigan and Michael Scanlan, who were murdered at Stringybark Creek on October 18, 1878 by the Kelly Gang.
Kennedy, 36, Lonigan, 36, and Scanlan, 34, have suffered the fate of most victims of crime — they have been almost forgotten. Not so their murderer, Ned Kelly (1854-80), and his gang members — brother Dan Kelly, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart. Ned Kelly is one of the most famous Australians and the Kelly Gang lives on in our memory through books, films, songs and portraits, and in the surviving dramatic armour that they wore.
Since around the end of World War II, Kelly has been presented as a hero by writers such as Ian Jones, John McQuilton, John Molony, Justin Corfield, Peter Carey and Peter FitzSimons. Yet the Kelly myth has been challenged on occasion, most notably by Alex McDermott and Doug Morrissey.
Morrissey’s Ned Kelly: A Lawless Life (Connor Court, 2015) was shortlisted in the 2016 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Australian History. Historian John Hirst, who died last year, supervised Morrissey’s PhD thesis about three decades ago and edited his book for publication in 2015.
In October last year, Morrissey objected to Heritage Victoria’s decision to spend $1 million restoring the house where Kelly was born to Ellen and John Kelly in Beveridge, Victoria.
Richard Wynne, the Victorian Minister for Planning, declared at the time: “John Kelly built this home from what he could find in the bush and it represents an extraordinary and controversial part of Victoria’s history: the story of outlaw son, Ned.”
But Ned Kelly was not just an outlaw. He was what would be called today a cop killer.
And John Kelly was not just another home builder. Transported from Ireland for stealing pigs and convicted in Victoria for cattle duffing, John Kelly was a professional thief.
Morrissey also wrote to federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham objecting to the entry on Ned Kelly in the “About Australia” segment on the Australia.gov.au website. It reads, in part: “Ned Kelly’s … pleas for justice to end discrimination against poor Irish settlers did end up opening the eyes of people. Ned Kelly in his armour came to symbolise a fight by a flawed hero, a convicted criminal, for ‘justice and liberty’ and ‘innocent people’.”
Obviously, Birmingham cannot be held responsible for everything that appears on the “About Australia” website. Even so, Morrissey has done valuable work in demonstrating how a thuggish thief who became a police murderer can come to be described as a mere “flawed hero” on the website of a government that is responsible for the Australian Federal Police.
In fact, Kelly was born into a criminal family that preyed on their neighbours who had obtained selector (that is, small farming) slots in northeast Victoria. In the main, the Kellys did not steal from the rich squatters but rather from relatively poor selectors who were trying to make an honest living.
Moreover, there is no evidence that at the time of starting his criminal career Ned Kelly was a Fenian. In other words, he did not embrace the Irish revolutionary cause. In any event, most of the small farmers of Irish Catholic background in Victoria supported the kind of gradual reform leading to Home Rule embraced in Ireland by the likes of Daniel O’Connell (a Catholic) and Charles Stewart Parnell (a Protestant).
In short, the Kelly Gang in the 1870s acted in much the same way as their counterparts in the early 21st century. They were violence-prone, narcissistic thugs who were into horse and cattle theft, robbery under arms and the kidnapping of civilians in the course of criminal activities along with murder.
As with many a criminal gang, eventually the offenders come face-to-face with the police. And so it came to pass at Stringybark Creek in October 1878. The killing of the lightly armed Kennedy, Lonigan and Scanlan was brutal and cowardly; the murderers even stole from the bodies of their victims. Lonigan, a father of four, was killed, shot in the back, while attempting to find cover. Kennedy, a father of six, was cold-bloodedly shot by Ned Kelly as he lay wounded. A note Kennedy wrote to his wife was destroyed by the Kelly Gang.
When it came to victims, Kelly did not distinguish between those of Irish Catholic background and others. Kennedy and Scanlan were Catholics, Lonigan was a Protestant.
The idea that the Kelly Gang was a revolutionary group intent on establishing an independent republic nation in northeast Victoria is but a myth that in recent years has been kicked along by the likes of Carey and FitzSimons. However, if the Kelly Gang was a nationalist movement then it was into terrorism.
Kelly’s last stand occurred at the Victorian town of Glenrowan in June 1880. There the Kelly Gang kidnapped the town’s occupants and held them against their will. Then Kelly and his gang attempted to derail the train headed for Glenrowan that contained police and civilians. If the Kelly Gang’s intent was political, then this was an act of attempted political terrorism.
For all his faults, Kelly was invariably courageous and a brilliant self-promoter in word and deed. The problem with so many of the Kelly Gang fan club, including Carey and FitzSimons, is that they believe what Kelly said in his Cameron Letter (1878), Jerilderie Letter (1879) and elsewhere. But Kelly was a congenital liar whose accounts warrant critical scrutiny.
It is unreasonable to expect that the Kelly Gang be expunged from Australian history. But it is only proper that Kelly’s crimes be accurately acknowledged at historic sites and on websites. This is all the more important as we await the publication of Grantlee Kieza’s Mrs Kelly: The Astonishing Life of Ned Kelly’s Mother next month, which may or may not perpetuate the Kelly myth. Ellen Kelly was also a convicted criminal.