In 1879, Ned Kelly dictated what came to be known as the Jerilderie Letter to Joe Byrne, a member of his infamous gang. Stretching to almost 8,000 words, the document defended Kelly and his associates’ criminal actions. It also attacked, in jagged language, the Australian police force as a corrupt and dangerous institution. “It takes a rogue to catch a rogue and a man that knows nothing about roguery would never enter the force,” Kelly wrote.
Born around 1854/5 in Victoria, Kelly committed various crimes as a teenager, many of them under the wing of career criminal Harry Power. Yet it was an attack on a policeman at the Kelly family home (in the year before the Jerilderie Letter was written) and his mother’s subsequent incarceration for her involvement, that set him on the path to true notoriety.
Following the assault on the officer, the Kelly Gang went on the run, with Ned and Byrne joined by Kelly’s brother, Dan, and Steve Hart. In 1878, they killed three policemen in Stringybark Creek and, as a result, were declared outlaws. The public was offered a reward for their capture, dead or alive.
In producing the Jerilderie Letter, which was written while the gang were on the run and committing further violent acts and bank robberies, Kelly attempted to justify their actions in killing the officers, while threatening further bloodshed: “I will not exactly show them what cold-blooded murder is but wholesale and retail slaughter, something different to shooting three troopers in self-defence and robbing a bank.” He hoped to have the letter published in full, but only a summary ever made it to print.
Kelly is a folk hero in Australia, albeit a divisive one owing to the severity of his crimes. As the Australian novelist Peter Carey put it recently, “while we had no Thomas Jefferson, our imaginary founding father was a convicted murderer named Ned Kelly.” For some he is beyond the pale, but that hasn’t stopped him becoming both an anti-establishment hero and tourist attraction. In the town of Glenrowan, the scene of Kelly’s final shootout with police before he was captured and hanged, a giant (and rather hideous) statue of him stands.
Carey used the Jerilderie Letter as inspiration for his 2001 Booker Prize-winning novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, which took the unruly voice of that screed and extended it into an imagined autobiography written by the man himself.
An excellent film version of the book, directed by Justin Kurzel, is released in cinemas this week. Kurzel announced himself just under a decade ago with the utterly terrifying Snowtown, a film about John Bunting, a more recent Aussie killer. As he did with the monstrous Bunting, Kurzel brings Kelly and his story to the screen in disquieting, violent and gripping fashion. The film is full of arresting images that turn the Australian Outback into its very own Wild West. British actor George MacKay is both tough and vulnerable as Ned and a supporting cast that includes Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult and Earl Cave (son of revered Australian rock musician Nick) are excellent alongside him.
One of the defining features of the Jerilderie Letter, copies of which have become important artefacts of Australian history, is Kelly’s regular invocation of his Irishness. He was the son of John “Red” Kelly, a Catholic from County Tipperary who was transported to Australia for stealing two pigs. In the letter Kelly constantly refers to the old country, writing of “the pressure and tyrannism of the English yoke”. He describes a police officer as a “traitor to his country ancestors and religion as they were all Catholics before the Saxons and Cranmore yoke held sway”.
It would have been easy for Carey, and
in turn Kurzel, to fall for Kelly’s self-aggrandising. The idea of Kelly as an Aussie-Irish folk hero fighting back against the cruel British colonisers makes for a neat story. Thankfully, neither author nor director were seduced by this sentimental line, searching instead for complexity and ambiguity in the Kelly myth, and finding it.
Dr Sophie Cooper, a social historian of the Irish diaspora in Australia and America during the 19th century, says it is right not to define Kelly’s legacy as a colonial or religious struggle. She says that, while there was a degree of “stereotyping and negative portrayals” of the Irish in Australia at the time and “fearmongering of Catholics being more loyal to the pope than their own country”, in reality Irish people were present in all strata of society, with strong representation in the middle class. Some were in positions of political power. Others worked as judges and lawyers. There were even a large number of Irish police officers, a fact Kelly himself acknowledges in the Jerilderie Letter, as does Kurzel’s film. The first character we see in the movie is Charlie Hunnam’s Sergeant O’Neill.
Catholics were not restricted from practising their religion, either. “There were Catholic churches and Kelly and his siblings were all christened,” says Dr Cooper. “In Ireland at the time you couldn’t have bells in a Catholic church, so as soon as the Catholics with money got to Australia, church bells were ringing all the time.
“If there was a problem for Catholicism, it was that there weren’t enough priests. Around the 1840s there were only about nine priests in Victoria. So the problem wasn’t that there weren’t churches or legal spiritual repression. There just wasn’t the personnel. In the 1860s and 70s things changed and more priests came out.”
Kelly himself, in dictating the Jerilderie Letter, certainly “saw himself in the Irish rebel tradition, and that idea of being anti-police and the state”, says Dr Cooper. Clearly the outlaw was attempting to invoke public sympathy, painting himself as a kind of Robin Hood of the Bush, and he was supported by many. But Kelly’s crimes would not have endeared him to those under threat from his gang, and, as Dr Cooper points out, “a lot of the landowners that the Kelly Gang were terrorising were Irish themselves.”
Kelly was not the “flawed hero” he was described as by an Australian government website a couple of years ago. He was a violent criminal, and the genesis of his criminality can be understood in a variety of ways. His poverty-stricken upbringing in a society divided sharply along class lines was surely a factor, as was his introduction to crime under the appalling Harry Power (played by Russell Crowe in the film). That he was on a revenge mission against officials who he felt had wronged his family explains much, too. The struggle that Kelly expressed in terms of his Irish heritage and faith, whether sincerely or purely for propaganda reasons, is just one part of this maelstrom.
True History of the Kelly Gang grasps this point. On screen, we see how Ned Kelly himself and the world around him built up the myth of the Aussie-Irish rebel hero, and that the truth about him is more multi-faceted and grubbier than that romantic myth allows. True History of the Kelly Gang might not be strictly “true”, but it certainly feels like it could be.
Will Gore is a freelance journalist. True History of the Kelly Gang (cert 18, 125 mins) is released in the UK today (February 28) and is scheduled for release in the US on April 24