Legend – Australia

Australian Legend: Ned Kelly

Rhys provided me with the following explanation of the Ned Kelly legend.

Another similar story taught in primary school was that of Ned Kelly. From what I can remember, he was a bushranger- or some type of outlaw. He headed a criminal gang robbing banks and generally breaking the law. Eventually he was killed in a shoot out with the local police. His really distinctive characteristic was a suit of armour (Australian spelling!) he wore, with the headpiece looking like a bucket with an eye slot cut out. He was portrayed like a Robin Hood type of hero. I think we also put on a play, in year 2, of Ned Kelly’s story.

Rhys has lived in Greenwich, a suburb of Sydney, his entire life. His father is American while his mother is Australian, but he has had a typical Australian upbringing. He said the legend of Ned Kelly is one that is known throughout Australia; every Australian knows who Ned Kelly was. As Rhys stated, he was a bushranger (outlaw) who roamed Australia in the second half of the 19th century. There are debates over the actual events and occurrences of some aspects of his life and his gang activity. Interestingly, Rhys says that Kelly was killed in a shootout with local police. This is inaccurate. He was captured and seriously wounded in a shootout in Glenrowan, Victoria, but he was put on trial and eventually hung.

This legend has incredible significance not only in Rhys’ life, but in the lives of every Australian. Interestingly, Kelly’s legend has different feelings among Australians. Some view him as merciless killers while others view him as an Australian hero who embodies the Australian spirit (brave, clever). Some people like him for the fact that he outsmarted and outwitted the police for two years while he was on the run, an incredible feat. He is also known for treating the poor right and helping those in need. Rhys said that he views him as an outlaw, mainly for the way that he killed people and when he thinks of Ned Kelly, that is the first thing that comes to his mind. Either way, he is a national icon in Australia and everybody knows about him. In Glenrowan, there is a Ned Kelly Memorial Museum and a seven-meter statue of Kelly in his armor holding a gun greets everybody that enters Glenrowan. There are also cutouts along a path that illustrates the happenings of Kelly’s last stand. The legend of Ned Kelly was even made into a major motion picture, called Ned Kelly in 2003.

Personally, I view Kelly as an Australian hero. I lived in Australia from 6th grade- 9th grade (March 2000-March 2004) and actually visited Glenrowan. My impression from the visit was that Kelly was someone to be celebrated. There are so many songs and literature about Kelly that it was inevitable I sang songs and read books about him in various classes. I left Australia with the feeling that Kelly was really a part of the Australian culture and people in a positive way. There is no doubt that in 1880, when he was captured, 98% of the population wanted him dead and hated him for his ruthless and merciless spirit and killings, but now people view him as an icon and hero.

The legend of Ned Kelly is mentioned in many books, particularly in A Guide to Australian Folklore, by Gwenda Beed Davey and Graham Seal (published in 2003 by Kangaroo Press, pages 168-69). Davey and Seal agree that Kelly is an Australian icon to be celebrated. They agree in the Robin Hood comparison that Rhys makes, but take it one step further by suggesting that Kelly is the “most perfect representative” of the tradition of the outlaw heroes. They also suggest that Kelly is the only outlaw hero to be a national hero. I’m still not quite sure how exactly Kelly moved from a man that was loathed by Australians when he was alive to a man that is a hero today. Perhaps his effort (and some reports tell of his goodness) and his tactics he used to escape police for two years while they were constantly pursuing him led Australians to be captivated by his story. Regardless, it is an issue that could be discussed in an entire book.