Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

Will the real Ned Kelly please stand up?

Ned Kelly

I recently did this recording of a song about Ned Kelly written by Australian singer Trevor Lucas in the 1970s. The song was performed by Fotheringay in the UK (played here without Trevor, who passed in 1989) and later picked up back in Australia by Redgum.

I had heard this song some 25 years ago at a local musical production about Ned Kelly in Queensland. I’m not sure who wrote the musical, or if it was associated with Redgum or Trevor Lucas, but this song featured in it.

Like any folk hero, the stories that sprung up about the bushranger Edward Kelly during his criminal career and soon after his hanging in Melbourne in November 1880 were not always factual. The idea and image of Ned Kelly has continued to be used by various parts of society for all manner of reasons.

Most recently a 2019 film dramatization of Ned’s life, The True History of the Kelly Gang, was aired on Stan and a small cinema release in 2020.

I’m writing this blog post because someone commented on my video upload with this:

“The song is well done, but the words are based on a load of mythological nonsense, that does not reveal the true nature of Ned Kelly.”

And then again on someone else’s comment:

But the words are based on fictitious rubbish.”

I thought it would be instructional to go through the lyrics of the Trevor Lucas songs and have a look for this ‘fictitious rubbish and mythological nonsense’.

I won’t bother with the chorus, as it doesn’t really say anything disputable. But will go through the verses.

Verse 1

Eighteen-hundred and seventy-eight,
Was the year I remember so well.
They put my father in an early grave
And slung my mother in gaol.
Now I don’t know what’s right or wrong
But they hung Christ on nails.
Six kids at home and two on the breast:
They wouldn’t even give her bail.

So was Ned Kelly’s mother made a widow by the police and trying to raise six children and refused bail? The fact that Ned was one of 7 children is not in dispute, and the story of his father John ‘Red’ Kelly being deported from Ireland for stealing pigs is also not up for debate. This excerpt:

“the officer in charge of that district . . . should endeavor, whenever they committed any paltry crime, to bring them to justice and send them to Pentridge even on a paltry sentence, the object being to take prestige away from them, which was as good an effect as being sent to prison with very heavy sentences, because the prestige those men get up there from what is termed their flashness helped them to keep together, and that is a very good way of taking the flashness out of them.”

(Perth Mirror, 11 July 1953)

of direction from the Assistant Chief Commissioner to Police in the area that the Kellys settled in makes it very clear that the effort to keep them and those like them in poverty was carefully thought out. The impact on Ned, his brothers, sisters, father and mother was very real. To be of a convict background, and Irish, in the Australia of the 1870s meant that a peaceful life, surviving off the fruit of honest labour, was near impossible.

Update: Thanks to Sam’s post below, here is a link to an instance of Ellen Kelly being given bail from May 1878. Of course, this doesn’t prove that she was not refused bail on another occasion, given her frequent run-ins with the police.

Verse 2

You know I wrote a letter ’bout Stringy Bark Creek
So they would understand
That I might be a bushranger
But I’m not a murdering man.
I didn’t want to shoot Kennedy
Or that copper Lonigan.
He alone could have saved his life
By throwing down his gun.

There is no debate here, the Jerilderie Letter is real, copies exist and it has been analysed in detail. You can read the full text of the letter here. A brief excerpt below, which confirms that in at least Ned’s own mind, he saw his life played out as part of the ongoing English oppression of the Irish people.

What would England do if America declared war and hoisted a green flag as it is all Irishmen that has got command army forts of her batterys, even her very life guards and beef tasters are Irish. Would they not slew round and fight her with their own arms for the sake of the color they dare not wear for years and to reinstate it and rise old Erin’s isle once more from the pressure and tyrannism of the English yoke, and which has kept in poverty and starvation and caused them to wear the enemy’s coat. What else can England expect, is there not big fat necked unicorns enough paid to torment and drive me to do things which I don’t wish to do without the public assisting them.

(Jerilderie Letter)

Verse 3

You know they took Ned Kelly
And they hung him in the Melbourne Gaol.
He fought so very bravely
Dressed in iron mail.
But no man single-handed
Can hope to break the bars.
It’s a thousand like Ned Kelly
Who’ll hoist the flag of stars.

Or course Ned Kelly was hung at Old Melbourne Jail on 11 November 1880. Saying that he had ‘iron mail’ is a poetic license stretch as his armour was plate metal, most likely ‘bush forged’ from stolen plough mould boards.

Whether Ned Kelly was brave, or fought bravely, is a matter of opinion. It is clear from history that Ned’s life was a result of English power and money seeking to ensure that the children of Irish convicts could never prosper in the country.

Conclusion

I am no historical scholar, or expert on Ned Kelly, but I have read many of the stories, plays and song that appeared in Australian newspapers in the 140 years since his death, and feel I can say with some confidence that the accusation that this particular ballad is ‘fictitious rubbish’ is absolutely false. I am happy to look at any evidence presented to the contrary.

 

18 thoughts on “Will the real Ned Kelly please stand up?

  1. I wrote those comments, and I stand by them 100%. Let me address some of the words in that song and your comments.
    “They put my father in an early grave” Who is they? I presume that is a reference to police. John Red Kelly drank himself to death. He put himself into that early grave.
    “Wouldn’t even give her bail” Ellen Kelly WAS granted bail.

    The area was well known as a criminal enclave and police were trying to stem the flow of criminal activity, when Supt Nicolson said, bring them to justice.

    Kelly claims that he didn’t want to shoot Kennedy, or Lonigan. Here is the evidence from Constable McIntyre given at Kelly’s trial for murder. It states clearly that Ned Kelly murdered Lonigan as soon as he moved. He did not have a weapon in hand at that time.

    I was standing with my face to the fire and my back to the spear grass, when suddenly a number of voices from the spear grass sang out, ” Bail up, hold up your hands.” Turning quickly round, I saw four men, each armed with a gun, and pointing these weapons at Lonigan and me. The prisoner, who was one of the men, had the right-hand position, and he had his gun pointed at my chest. I, being unarmed, at once threw my arms out horizontally. Lonigan was in my rear and to my left. Saw the prisoner move his rifle, bringing it in a line with Lonigan, and fire. By glancing round I saw that the shot had taken effect on Lonigan, for he fell. A few seconds afterwards he ex-claimed, “Oh, Christ, I’m shot.” The four men then advanced on me”.

    Dr. Samuel’s, who did the PM on Kennedy, said in evidence at Kelly’s trial that Sgt Kennedy was standing erect when Kelly blasted him in the chest with a 12 gauge shotgun at point-blank range, killing him instantly. Kelly said that Kennedy told him he had 5 young children and his wife was pregnant, and he begged for his life. Kelly murdered him in the most callous way. Kelly claimed he was badly wounded

    He then robbed all the valuables from the sergeant’s corpse.

    You are certainly no expert on Ned Kelly, as your comments show Daniel. Information on this website presents many articles by professional historians that smash the myths, lies and fiction that the song-writer has used to pen this song. nedkelly.info

    Below is a comment from a local paper that shows exactly how the public felt about this vicious murdering criminal.

    From the Singleton Argus and Upper Hunter General Advocate 7 July 1880 page 2, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/82897038
    “The destruction of the Kelly gang is a great blessing. It has spread throughout the country a sense of relief hardly expressible in words. Had society been ridded of a horde of hyenas, wolves, and tigers, thirsting for human blood, the joy would scarcely have been greater than that felt at the hunting down of this band of unmitigated ruffians and murderers. For two years has the country, infested by those men, been living in a state of terror and panic, subject at every and any minute to their depreciations, cruelties, and. crimes. … To such brigands police, peaceful citizens, and even children are alike enemies, if found on the track of their nefarious doings; and if, in the late sanguinary encounter, where children were actually exposed by them to the shots of the besiegers; no women fell victims to their murderous deeds, it is because the circumstances of the case did not require their sacrifice. … Like demons they have lived, and like demons they have died. Never perhaps in the long and sanguinary history of bushranging, has Colonial Society been cursed with four fiends of so black a dye.”

  2. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts Sam. I wonder if Red Kelly would have drunk himself to death if he was able to provide for his family and keep an honest job without harassment by the local police and accusations by protestant land owners?

    I did find a record of bail for Ellen in May 1878, but doubt that was the only time she was charged. Will update the article above.

    The July 1880 article you quoted reads like something that the Left folks might write about Kyle Rittenhouse, or the Right might say about George Floyd. I don’t put much stock in the rantings of a public who have been whipped into a frenzy by one side or the other.

  3. There are very few ‘provable facts’ in relation to any thing that happened 140 years ago, in a time when we know the press was untrustworthy, when Police, Judges and Medical Examiners were corrupt, when anyone accused of a crime had little to no capacity to publicly defend themselves.

    I am fascinated to know what drives your personal crusade against Ned and the Irish in Australia.

    1. Daniel, you are making fictitious made up comments that are not true. You are claiming that all the papers were untrustworthy, the police were corrupt, as were the judges and medical examiners. Your comment is seriously unrealistic, and is your way to hide the serious criminal that Kelly was.
      You are obviously unaware that many of the cases were heard by JP’s. On many occasions, members of the Kelly’s, Quinn’s and Lloyd’s family were found not guilty when they were before the Courts. Family members gave perjured evidence on numerous occasions to get their relatives off. I point out that those three families had extensive criminal records and court appearances.
      My concern is for our children to learn the truth about a vicious, murderous criminal. One or two Kelly fans have written a load of fictitious nonsense that is being torn down by professional historians, and so it should be, as it gives a seriously erroneous view of this criminal Your comment suggesting I have a crusade against the Irish in Australia is made without a shred of evidence anywhere. I advised you that 82% of the police were Irish in Victoria. Two of the early Victoria premiers were Irish. I have not made any derogatory remark about the Irish at all. You have made up that nonsense in a poor attempt to hide the real facts about a serious criminal.
      I point out that the three police that Kelly murdered at Stringybark Creek were ALL Irish. Constable Fitzpatrick that Kelly wounded at Ellen’s home was Irish. Aaron Sherritt that the gang murdered in front of his 16 yr old pregnant wife was Irish. Need I go on?
      As previously stated, the IRISH police officers were acting responsibly regarding Kelly’s serious criminality, nothing more nothing less.

  4. I also point out to you, Daniel, that the comment presented from Supt Nicolson to the police of that region, is not the full comment. The most salient points have been excluded. Why have these words been excluded? What is missed are these words.

    “that without oppressing the people, or worrying them in any way,”

    Read it yourself. http://nedkelly.info/Royal-Commission.pdf Q1028.
    You are not telling the true story, are you, Daniel.

  5. I can now advise that the seven councils that control The Ned Kelly Touring Route in Northeast, Victoria, have removed most of the myths that you, Daniel, proudly, but falsely claim, are true. They engaged a professional historian from Sydney, and he has removed all the myths.
    The State Library of Victoria have removed all the Kelly myths, that you claim are true.
    The Victorian IBAC has removed a paper that claimed the police were corrupt, and many were sacked as a result of the Royal Commission into Victoria Police held in 1881. They engaged a professional historian when I pointed out that what was claimed in that paper was mythological nonsense. The paper was removed and will not be re-instated.
    The National Museum of Australia have also taken down all the Kelly myths, and had them reviewed by a professional historian. They will not be re-instated.
    You ARE following the mythological nonsense that Kelly fans wrote in books, that are not true in any sense.
    In lauding a vicious low life criminal, Ned Kelly, you have been conned into believing fiction and myths. Are you intelligent enough to recognise that?

    1. So now you claim when I state the truth that what I have said is 100% correct, is weird. Everything I have said is true. If you claim otherwise, show us your proof?
      You live in a world of delusion, Daniel.
      Your comment that I may threaten violence shows how far off reality you are. My comments related to the myths, fiction and lies that you falsely believe.
      It is common modus operandi for Kelly fans to make stupid and unfounded allegations, that are inherently made up. That speaks volumes for your own lack of integrity.

  6. Just to be clear, I said that your comments here have not been removed because you HAVE NOT threatened violence.

    You have been blocked from my YouTube channel, as you don’t seem to understand that what I am interested in as a folklorist and folksinger is the growth of the myth of Ned Kelly. The facts of the story are only partially relevant to me, what is more interesting is what people thought, and still think, about the story.

    Ned Kelly was an Irishman, that was clear from his writings, and it was another Irishman, who in 1916 broke English law to reclaim Ireland for its people. Australia did not have an insignificant part to play in the forming of that rebellion. You could even say that the seeds were planted at Eureka.

    There is at least one ‘Such is Life’ sticker on the back of a ute in every town of Australia. Ned means something to people, and he will continue to do so.

  7. You obviously do not know that Ned Kelly always claimed to be ‘Australian’ and not Irish. He repeated that on numerous occasions. His ethnicity had nothing to do with the police paying attention to him. It was his criminal activities that drew police attention. As I have stated before, 82% of the police in Victoria were IRISH. The three police officers he murdered were also IRISH.
    The Irish were in general well treated in Australia. James Whitty, an Irishman, came to Victoria penniless, worked hard and did exceptionally well. Ned Kelly stole numerous horses from him.
    I also note that you have not replied to my comment asking when are you going to write a song praising the three felons who murdered the two young police officers in Qld two weeks ago.
    The circumstances were identical to what Ned Kelly did to the three police officers at Stringybark Creek.
    Do doubt you could not see the correlation between the two incidents, could you?

  8. To quote from the Jerilderie letter (page 31): ” But he would be a king to a policeman who for a lazy loafing cowardly billet left the ash corner, deserted the Shamrock, the emblem of true wit and beauty to serve under a flag and nation that has destroyed, massacred and murdered their forefathers by the greatest of torture as rolling them down hill in spiked barrels, pulling their toes and finger nails, and on the wheel and every torture imaginable.”

    Ned’s feelings towards the English (as an Irishman, not an Australian) are clear.

    The killing of Constable Rachel McCrow and Constable Matthew Arnold in Queensland this month was an act of unforgivable and unprovoked violence by conspiracy theory following murderers. There are no parallels to Stringybark and no one will be writing folk songs about them.

    1. No parallels, you say? In both circumstances, police were going about their duties peacefully and properly, and they were ambushed and murdered by criminals. There is a clear correlation between the two, in almost identical circumstances.
      This displays your appalling attitude that lauds a man who murdered three police at Stringybark Creek, yet you claim unforgivable and unprovoked violence towards McCrow and Arnold in Qld.
      Words fail me. Your attitude is appalling, and reflects on your failed integrity.

    1. Again you follow the myths promoted by Ian Jones and others, and make excuses for your improper behaviour. There was no intention to shoot the Kelly boys, and their intention was to arrest them and bring them to justice. The police had taken 2 sets of handcuffs to secure their prisoners. Constable McIntyre stated clearly after the event that there was no mention of shooting the Kelly’s, only capturing them.
      You live in a world of myths, lies and fiction, Daniel.
      More than time, you woke up to reality.

  9. Great music Dan.
    Sam wrote, “There was no mention of shooting the Kelly’s, only capturing them.”
    Yes capturing them for the reward money offered – like for that time two years’ wages for each of the Kellys. Who were the real crooks at that time?

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