One of the Gang
I take pleasure in telling people that I’m related to Ned Kelly. The response is predominantly along the lines of today’s: “Shut the front door? How far back?” He’s my great great great grandfather. “Holy smokes! Quick, put the valuables away in case it’s hereditary. Lol!” It is surprisingly not that often just “Really?!” and never “Who?”
It’s a claim that to some is legitimised by the ubiquity of the name, both literally—in the sheer number of Kellys in Australia—as well as in popular cultural memory. My great great great grandfather’s story is one told with the events of the two years leading up to his death in 1880, generally emphasising the backdrop of the bush and settler struggles in nineteenth century regional Victoria and his catchy costume design.
"Like any good myth, the drama, action, tragedy and heroism have lent themselves to a lot of creative re-interpretation..."
Like any good myth, the drama, action, tragedy and heroism have lent themselves to a lot of creative re-interpretation (the pinnacle of which has to be the 2015 musical adaptation!). Over the last one hundred and thirty five years, the violent events leading up to his capture and execution have also been crowbarred into a “user friendly” national narrative.That’s the accidental brilliance of what remains from my great great great grandfather’s short but eventful life: just enough content for a theatrical narrative, with ample space for appropriation and manipulation.
In the expansion of this tale, to monumental mythic proportions, truths have been omitted, appropriated and re-invented to reflect a range of political and cultural needs, both on the left and the right. (My great great great grandfather’s Irish heritage, for example—the root of much of his mistreatment at the hands of the dominant British settlers who perceived him as from both a sub-class and sub-race—has been swept aside in the fostering of national sentiment; in the absorption of this as a key story of white Australia’s origins. And yet this same point sees his actions also taken up as a symbol of the fight against oppression). However, without Sidney Nolan’s accidentally intentional translation of my great great great grandfather’s story from popular culture yarn into high culture iconography in the 1940s, it is possible his notoriety may have been less celebrated, even buried in the pages Australia’s settler history books like other non-sporting figures.