Rebels who knew the end was coming, but stood up anyway

In Nazareth in 2011, I went to a small stone church thought to have been the synagogue where Jesus made his first public appearance after returning from the desert.

In Nazareth in 2011, I went to a small stone church thought to have been the synagogue where Jesus made his first public appearance after returning from the desert. What he had to say so riled the locals they took him to a nearby cliff-top to throw him off.

Our guide said that in the Gospel of Luke it is written that Jesus evaded his pursuers by flying to a nearby mountain. It was more than 40 years since I'd read the gospels, but I didn't remember that part. And I was intrigued.

Nothing makes a story come alive like going to the place it's from. In a market in Tel Aviv I bought a Bible, initially just to read the relevant verse in Luke and establish whether Jesus was said to have flown. It actually says, hardly less mysteriously, that he "turned and passed among them", but by now I was starting to get seriously interested, not in the religion but in this man who has proved such a historical force.

I ended up reading all four gospels and was struck by what a rebel Jesus was. Here was a man who recognised no one's authority but his own and that of an invisible entity he called his father. While portrayed through the ages as a gentle man of peace, he could be hard (instructing a would-be follower to abandon his father's funeral and follow him forthwith) and was prepared to create conflict (Matthew 10:35 - "For I have come to turn a man against his father").

Putting theological issues to one side, I was surprised to find that the person the fearless Jewish rebel reminded me of was Ned Kelly. Recently I was asked to describe Ned to an American audience. The word outlaw summons images of people such as Jesse James and Billy the Kid. Ned was that and more.

Ned's support came from two main groups - poor Irish Catholics, of whom there were plenty in the young colony of Victoria, and a generation of colonial youth who were not cowed by authority in the way their convict parents had been. Ned carried the defiance of his generation like a banner and, in time, Ned and this spirit of defiance would be identified by some as emblematic of the Australian character.

Ned's father, Red Kelly, an Irish Catholic from Tipperary, had been broken by the convict system. Not so his young wife, 18-year-old Ellen Quinn. The Quinns were not a product of convict culture; they were a product of Northern Ireland's culture with its bitter Catholic-Protestant divide. Red Kelly, tall and good-looking, died when Ned was 12. Thereafter, Ned, tall and good-looking like his father but fierce like his mother, was the man of the house. Soon after his father's death, Ned saved the life of a youth drowning in a creek (the grandfather of Essendon footballer Bluey Shelton) and was rewarded with a green sash.

Between the Kellys and the police there was constant friction. What is called the Kelly outbreak started in 1878, when a drunken trooper visited the Kelly shanty at Greta and made a pass at Ned's 15-year-old sister. It is likely that everyone lied about what happened next. The trooper claimed Ned shot at him, Ned claimed he wasn't there. The government issued a warrant for Ned and, for hitting the trooper with a shovel, an Irish Protestant judge named Redmond Barry gave his mother Ellen Kelly three years' hard labour, separating her from her newborn baby.

Ned's story is a mother-and-son story. The Jerilderie letter, Ned's manifesto, ends with him thundering: "I am a widow's son outlawed and my orders must be obeyed." Ned initially offered to surrender if his mother was set free. Later, he planned kidnapping the governor of the colony and offering him in exchange for his mother.

Ned, as he was to show, thought big and had the audacity and physical wherewithal to pull off his plans. He was a skilful bushman, a great horseman, a crack shot and a bare-knuckle fighting champion. Four armed troopers discarded their uniforms and, with canvas body bags on their horses, went into the bush after Ned and his 16-year-old brother Dan. Ned shot three of them dead.

For the next two years, Ned and his three companions - the Kelly gang - stuck-up towns and robbed banks. The old convict regimes had struck terror into people's hearts when they talked about the certainty of the law. To the delight of one portion of the populace and the dread of another, Ned made the law look foolish and impotent.

It was Aboriginal trackers who flushed Ned out of the bush and forced him to make a stand. Employing a tactic the Boers would use in South Africa against the British 15 years later, Ned planned to derail a train just north of the tiny northern Victoria town of Glenrowan. He then provoked the police into coming after him by shooting a man under police protection the gang deemed an informer. And here, I am compelled to state, there's a sense in which Ned loses me.

Shooting an unarmed man is not, in my view, shooting in self-defence and at this point the Kelly story crosses a boundary and moves into the province of political violence or the sort of acts condoned in war. But perhaps Ned would say he was at war - there's evidence that an uprising was planned to erupt around the Glenrowan action aimed at creating a Republic of North-eastern Victoria.

The plot failed because Ned performed an act of kindness. Having herded the people of Glenrowan into the local hotel - a slab hut owned by a widow called Jones - Ned released a hostage who said he had a sick wife at home. This man waved down the train and, after disgorging its troopers and a carriage full of journalists, what is called "the first volley" occurred. Ned was wounded in three places - foot, hand and arm - but escaped. His best mate, Joe Byrne, re-entered the pub, moved a toast to the Kelly gang, was shot in the thigh by a random police bullet and bled to death. This left Dan Kelly and Steve Hart, the gang's two teenagers, trapped in the hotel.

It's what happened the next morning that made Ned Kelly an Australian legend. The authorities had run the line (continued by his critics today) that Ned was a coward. Around dawn, a figure clanked out of the morning mist - no one knew who or even what it was. It was Ned, wearing 40 kilograms of armour fashioned from plough blades - a cylindrical helmet around his head and a body plate that reached his knees. One reporter wrote that he could not have been more surprised if he had been Hamlet and just seen his father's ghost.

Firing a revolver with his one good hand, Ned advanced on the small army of troopers surrounding the Glenrowan Hotel, attempting a diversion that would allow his younger brother and Hart to escape. Eventually, an English policeman shot Ned beneath the knees and he crashed to the earth.

With multiple wounds, Ned was expected to die but didn't. The Irish Protestant judge who had sentenced his mother to hard labour sentenced Ned to hang. Ned said he would see the judge in the place to which he was going and, sure enough, almost on cue, the judge died 12 days after Ned did. The night before Ned's execution, his mother visited him and famously said, "Mind you die like a Kelly." No less celebrated in Australian folklore is the line Ned is said to have uttered on the gallows: "Such is life." His mother was in the prison when he was hanged and would have heard the steel trapdoor on the gallows clang open. He was 25 years old.

Ned's head was cut off for criminal science and his skull is forever being sighted in different parts of the continent. What remained of his corpse was dumped in a hole in a corner of the prison yard. The authorities thought that was the end of Ned, but they were mistaken. He entered the language. To say someone was "as game as Ned Kelly" was to say that individual was utterly without fear. Songs are still being written about him, he is the subject of countless books and you often see his name and helmeted head in tattoos and graffiti. Ben Cousins, the first Australian football star to be defiant about his use of recreational drugs, had Such Is Life tattooed on his rippled torso.

There have been a series of films about Ned. The last, starring Australian actor Heath Ledger, was the great missed opportunity - Ledger was the actor for the role but the script was second-rate. A series of paintings about Ned completed during World War II by army deserter Sidney Nolan has the sort of prominence in Australian modernist art that Jackson Pollock's work has in the American canon.

Ned's story slips effortlessly from one culture to the next. Almost alone among white Australians, he appears in Aboriginal creation or Dreamtime stories so that the Yaralin people of the Northern Territory have a story that says Ned was captured by the English, taken back to England and murdered there. When you hear thunder, the story goes, that's Ned's anger. The song Our Sunshine, by Paul Kelly and Mick Thomas, talks of Ned's "holy rage". A Muslim Australian once told me the Islamic word for Ned is jihad.

Ned's story falls on that universal fault line that makes someone a rebel or a freedom fighter to one group and an outlaw or a terrorist to another. He is regularly attacked as a thief and murderer. Much less regularly is it recalled that a government inquiry the year after the Kelly outbreak demoted or suspended most of the police involved. But what makes Ned a legend is not that everyone sees him the same - it's that everyone sees him. Like a bushfire on the horizon casting its red glow into the night.

An old Ned Kelly song collected in Queensland in the 1890s that celebrates Ned as a champion of the poor has a verse that goes: "Thirty policemen did outdo you,/In a hotel owned by Jones/Then they captured you and hanged you/Nothing left you but the bones."

And so it was that in January of this year, 132 years after he was hanged, Ned's bones, his mortal remains, were in a polished coffin in a Catholic church in Wangaratta. Ned wore the green sash he won as a boy beneath his armour at Glenrowan. Now a green sash was on his coffin along with a sheaf of native flowers, while behind him was a statue of a large wooden cross with the body of a Jewish rebel nailed to it, and I was powerfully reminded of being in the old synagogue in Nazareth again, the one where I first sensed the presence of a man called Jesus in his native land.

Jesus and Ned have plenty of differences, but I reckon they had this much in common: they both knew how it was going to end for them, or almost certainly going to end for them, but they continued on regardless - and not timidly but in a large way. The world at large was beyond their control, but they had control of their own world in a way that only people truly prepared to put the lot on the line can ever know - and with that came a release of self so astounding, the story of what occurred took off with a life of its own.

Related Articles