Quirky Australia – The Great Ned Kelly Debate

Old Melbourne Gaol

A lot of things confused me about Australia. Paying $4 for a 20oz. Diet Coke, the nonchalant attitude towards the myriad poisonous things that can cause instant death just to name a couple. But what really threw me for a proverbial loop was the admiration of the outlaw Ned Kelly.

For the uninitiated, Kelly is an Australian folk hero famous for his criminal resistance to British colonial rule. In short, Kelly had a violent confrontation with authorities in Glenrowan, Australia in 1880 during which he dramatically donned a suit of homemade armor. Having killed several policemen, he was captured and eventually hung for murder. To many Australians though he’s more than just a ruthless murderer, he’s a cultural icon.

This is where I get lost. I understand that he symbolizes the Australian spirit and why he’s even become a political symbol. But he was a criminal, and a bad one. He killed several people and didn’t really seem to care about it. If this happened in 1980 instead of 1880, he’d be labeled a ruthless serial killer or domestic terrorist.

While his martyrdom confuses me, I got to experience it firsthand while we were in Melbourne. Coincidentally, it was announced that authorities had finally located the lost remains of Kelly while we were in town. (I forgot to mention that his body was stolen from the Old Melbourne Gaol) This wasn’t just a casual human interest story, it was breaking news in Melbourne. The evening news that night even aired a special about how the forensic scientists determined the remains were indeed Kelly’s. That’s why I had to snicker when I saw the following headline this week:

Not Ned’s head but a Ripper tale all the same

To be clear, most of the remains were Kelly’s, all except the head. (only in Australia) It turns out that the head actually belongs to another convicted killer, Frederick Bailey Deeming, who was executed in Australia in 1892 for killing his wife, and was claimed by some to be Jack the Ripper.

So, in a strange antipodean way, it seems that the Kelly mystery is still at large. The majority of the bushranger’s remains have been positively identified, all except for his head. I think that’s for the best though, it keeps the spirit of Kelly alive in Australia and until they find that damned head, there will be mountains of rumor and speculation, which is ultimately what I think everyone enjoys the most.

What do you think? Is Kelly really a big deal, or not so much?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

5 thoughts on “Quirky Australia – The Great Ned Kelly Debate”

  1. Agree with ya on this one man. I really didn’t understand why he was so famous other then he had some pretty kick-ass homemade body armor… other then that what did he really do to be famous? At least Jesse James robbed banks and was known to give it back to local farmers who the bank had took their land. That makes more sense to me.

  2. YES Ned is a big deal! He means alot to a whole lot of people.It is very ignorant of you to dismiss Ned as a ‘ruthless murderer’.Why don’t you bother to actually read about Ned’s story.There is a huge difference between murder & self defence.

    @ the above comment.You say Jesse James robbed banks & gave the money to poor farmers? Well if you bothered reading a little about Ned before judging him,you would know that he & his mates did exactly that.

  3. Totally agree. I just don’t get it. It makes you want to pat Australians on the head (as you would with a little kid) and say “You’re so cute”.

  4. I understand your confusion Matt, but IMO it’s too easy just to dismiss Kelly as a criminal and leave it at that. You really need a bit of context to understand the power of the Kelly story – taking into account a young British colony with a lot of very poor Irish settlers who have strong memories of English oppression at home and are experiencing a fair measure of it in Australia as well. Thus Kelly’s family is seen as harassed by the police, and the Kelly Gang as folk heroes standing up for the downtrodden. You know that old saying – one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

    On top of that, it’s just a damn good story, especially with the home-made armour and the shoot-out at the end; people are drawn to Kelly’s bravado, even if they don’t necessarily approve of all his actions. No-one actually thinks he was a saint, buit there are plenty of shades of grey to the story.

    Well worth driving through Victoria’s High Country region if you come back some time and following the Ned Kelly Touring Route, which does give you both sides of the story. I researched it in 2008 for a travel article, and blogged about it here; http://aerohaveno.blogspot.com/2008/04/shadowing-ned-kelly.html

    Tim Richards
    (travel writer with a BA degree in Australian history! :))

  5. In the US we idolize the American cowboy outlaws, like Billy the Kid. He seemed like a pretty remorseless killer too, no? But I agree, if all these guys were living in present day we would hear the victims’ stories and would be less apt to see them as heroes!

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