I remember reading about Ned Kelly in primary school; about how he was an outlaw and became involved in a shoot-out with the police. He made himself a suit of armour to protect himself from the police bullets but neglected to cover his legs. The police shot him in the shins and he was taken captive.
I hadn’t realised that Kelly was Australian until I was reminded of the story by an Aussie friend living in Edinburgh. This was shortly before I moved to Melbourne and at that point I was far more interested in raising funds for my travel than I was in Australia’s folk heroes.
It was only once I got here that I realised how idolised he is by Australians, or at least by Victorians. You can see Kelly artefacts in a number of locations in Melbourne and go on Ned Kelly tours. His name and images of the iconic bucket-helmet appear outside fast food joints and even in art. Recently I visited the Heide Museum of Modern Art where I saw one of Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings: an alien looking bucket-head silhouette popping up in an Australian bush landscape.
Kelly’s popularity stems from him being a bit of an underdog. Coming from an Irish Australian family he was persecuted by the police and often in trouble for things he did and didn’t do. There’s no doubt he was a criminal; he and his gang robbed banks, but the perception is of him being a kind of Robin Hood character, stealing from the rich to help the poor. I’m not sure how much truth there is in this. Either way, the story of Ned Kelly’s Last Stand, the 12 hour shoot-out which eventually saw him captured, has become an Australian legend and won Kelly hoards of admirers.
In early November this year while I was staying out in regional Victoria with Peter and Karoline I saw a report on the news saying that the Victorian government had agreed to release Ned Kelly’s remains to his descendants. All sorts of people had an opinion on this, from a tourist in Kelly’s hometown of Glenrowan who said “Good on him” to descendants of both Kelly and a policeman killed by the Kelly Gang.
The descendant of the policeman thought it was outrageous the way that Kelly had been glorified. A spokesperson from Glenrowan Tourist Centre said that it didn’t really matter if Kelly was good or bad, it was history. He added that he hoped the remains wouldn’t be buried in Glenrowan because he was concerned about grave robbers. “Ned Kelly fans are fanatics and there are too many of them!” He suggested cremation. Kelly’s descendant, however, said that he wanted to give Kelly a dignified burial next to his mother, who is in an unmarked grave in Glenrowan.
There are many appealing things about the story of Kelly’s remains. It’s astonishing that people still care so deeply about the fate of Kelly’s bones more than 130 years after his death by hanging. I can’t think of an analogous case in the UK. Generally being descended from a criminal is considered a bad thing back home, and not something to dwell upon.
Karoline had been following the saga of Kelly’s remains for longer than I had and she told me that they had only recently discovered the bones in a mass grave at Pentridge Prison. They were identified by DNA testing. Again, I am astonished by how strongly people must feel about Ned Kelly to put so much time and money into finding his remains.
A final interesting bit of trivia is that his skull is still missing. It’s a complicated tale involving a theft from Melbourne Gaol, a missing tooth and plenty of forensic studies. A few years ago someone in Western Australia claimed to have the skull but DNA testing showed that it was not a match. That means it’s still out there somewhere, perhaps sitting on someone’s mantelpiece with a burning candle inside forming a grim shrine to Kelly.