By Dave Munro
According to Miles Kemp of The Advertiser and published via News Corporations AdelaideNow on June 17 2011 “People with Ned Kelly tattoos are nearly eight times more likely to have been murdered”. This insightful piece of information was provided to the public because “University of Adelaide Professor Roger Byard studied the causes of death of 20 South Australian men aged between 20-67 years who had tattoos of Ned Kelly or about Kelly.” My first thought was not, “wow eight times” but “really a study of 20 men and that constitutes a study and makes the media”.
Not everyone agrees with Ned’s folk hero status, David Penberthy also from AdelaideNow, was quite blunt in his assessment on January 17 2013 when he said “Ned Kelly’s no hero – unless you count heroes as police-shooting, bank-robbing dogs”. Response to the appeal of Kelly is polar opposite for many people as was seen by reading through the comments to Penberthys article.
It did, however, get me thinking. What is it about Ned Kelly that has captured the imagination of Australians, particularly men and especially “us”.
There is some confusion as to Ned’s date of birth but according to the Victorian State Library he was born in June 1855 at Beveridge, Victoria one of eight children to John “Red” Kelly and Ellen Quinn. As a boy Ned saved another boy from drowning – the boy’s family awarded him a green silk sash in recognition of his bravery. Ned was wearing this sash under his armor at the siege at Glenrowan.
Ned first came to the attention of the police at the age of 14 for allegedly assaulting a Chinese man and then at 15, suspected of being an accomplice to bushranger Harry Power. Though both of these charges were later dismissed they had brought Ned to the attention of the police. To quote Rose Tattoo in Scarred for Life…I spent some time a guest of the state, I got out and wanted to go straight, people don’t forgive, the force don’t forget, I was jailed for crimes I did not commit.”
That attention resonates with many disenfranchised people. You have tattoos and piercings so you are this sort of person. You dress a certain way, your hair is different, your taste in music is wrong, your friends are the wrong crowd, and you live in a “rough area”. We are judged all the time by what some parts of society see as the norm and any variation is not acceptable. Who has not been pulled over while riding their motorcycle or cruising around in someone’s pride and joy for no apparent reason. Now put a patch on your back and go for a ride.
Imagine living in the 1800’s in Australia and being born of Irish stock. You are already seen as lower class and come to the attention of the police. You feel that your family is being persecuted and after being pushed for some time begin to push back. I am not making excuses for criminal activity just putting myself in those shoes. There are reasons why people do certain things and react certain ways. We are a product of our upbringing and events that happen in our lives. It is far too simplistic and naïve to tell someone to just do this or react like that.
Ned Kelly attempted to explain his lot to the people in “The Jerilderie Letter”. Circumstances dictated that this would not happen; in fact the entire contents of the letter were not published until 1930, by The Melbourne Herald, decades after his death.
If Ned Kelly was just a murderer and a thief why does his legend persist? Why did an estimated 30,000 (some reports say 60,000) people sign a petition for mercy and why were there demonstrations against his hanging?
Was it a battle of the squatters and the selectors, the haves and the have not’s?
Ned Kelly was seen then and now by many as someone who stood up against oppression and corruption and was forced into his circumstances.
The Jerilderie letter, all 7,391 words of it, is seen as a significant document in Australian history. Quotes abound in the legend of Ned Kelly, the most famous of which is “Such is Life”. The argument is that his actual last words, as the rope was put around his neck were “Ah well, I suppose it has come to this.” An equally poignant phrase.
There is no doubt the imagery is great, the figure in armor shooting it out with corrupt forces. The stuff that Hollywood movies are made of. The dialogue with Judge Redmond Barry upon his sentencing is fascinating, after Barry pronounced the sentence of death ending with, “May the Lord have mercy on your soul”, Kelly replied, “I will go further than that, and say I will see you there where I go.”
Kelly was executed on November 11, 1880. Barry died 12 days later on 23 November at his home in East Melbourne, not far from the scene of Kelly’s demise. Barry was thought to have died of a lung infection.
In Australia, 2013, we still have disenfranchised people. People still rebel against what they see as a heavy handed government. We are told that we have to believe in certain things, that the climate is changing, that guns are bad and no one should have them, and that “bikies” are the scourge of the earth and not to be trusted. If we do not agree with this dogma then we are radicals and there is something wrong with us.
A succession of State governments has tried to control the population with draconian terrorism based legislation. To make these laws more palatable they and their propaganda arm, the mass media, have labeled these laws “bikie laws”. The South Australian governments Serious and Organised Crime (Control) Act, 2008 was the first of these. The fact is these laws do not mention the words, bikie, biker or even motorcyclist anywhere in their pages. They can be used against any group in society who is declared to be a danger.
The SOCCA laws were contested by motorcycle clubs in South Australia and were found to be unconstitutional. The same thing has happened in New South Wales. Queensland is having their turn now.
Are these laws a distraction, or is there something more sinister on the agenda?
The laws allow for secret evidence that cannot be questioned or even viewed by the defendants’ legal team. There is a push to remove the right to remain silent.
What is wrong with our current laws that demands such a dramatic gift of power be given to our authorities?
The argument from the opposing camp is that we already have laws in place; it is illegal to deal in drugs, shoot people and steal. Use those laws and sentencing to their fullest extent. There is no argument that criminals should not be punished however do not punish people for association or what they wear.
The battle for this legislation will continue. Each state attorney-general’s department has a presence at each hearing and notes are taken. There will no doubt soon be a national push for laws, under the guise of another name, which will have a stranglehold on our population. I believe it is something for everyone to fear.
“No people in history have ever survived who thought they could protect their freedom by making themselves inoffensive to their enemies.”….Dean Acheson.
Mork…and yes I do have a Ned Kelly tattoo.