Finally we’re telling truth about murderer Ned Kelly
This year marks the 140th anniversary of the Stringybark Creek police murders and in December, Chief Commissioner of Police Graham Ashton, John Bradley the Secretary of the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning and descendants of the murdered policemen will gather at the Stringybark Creek reserve near Mansfield to dedicate the historic murder scene as a police memorial site.
The reserve contains new factually accurate signage, a walking track which includes for the first time the remote spot where Sergeant Kennedy was murdered. Three memorial plinths with photographs and family statements from the descendants of each policemen, pay homage to intrepid lawmen doing their duty "when confronted by armed criminals in the Wombat Ranges".
Ned Kelly claims he acted in self-defence, ambushing and murdering three policemen and holding a fourth hostage.
Constables Thomas Lonigan and Michael Scanlan were gunned down without a gun in their hand. Sergeant Michael Kennedy was pursued through the bush for a quarter of a mile and interrogated for two hours, before Ned took his life away with a shotgun blast to the chest. Constable Thomas McIntyre managed to escape the carnage and raised the alarm. Ned acted impulsively and with reckless disregard for life. The "fair fight" he later bragged about was a cowardly ambush of policemen taken by surprise and given no time to react.
The Kelly myth, and Ned in his Jerilderie Letter (1879) written three months after the bloody Stringybark Creek massacre, portray the police force and individual policemen as oppressive, corrupt and working for a tyrannical colonial government. A colonial government intent on upholding the English Protestant ascendancy and crushing the long-suffering Catholic Irish in Australia. Protestant versus Catholic, rich versus poor, squatter versus selector and the police supporting the status quo.
This is a caricature of the police and the colonial situation which when examined objectively collapses under the weight of abundant factual evidence.
Ned and his gang of horse thieves were Australian born sons of Irish immigrants. The Stringybark Creek policemen they ambushed were born and bred in Ireland. Three of them were baptised Catholics and one was a Protestant. None of them came from privileged Anglo-Irish roots, nor were their poor but decent living families well off.
As penniless, young men with an immigrant's dream to succeed, they emigrated from Ireland to start a new life. To own land, to get married and raise a family in a country brimming with golden opportunity. Hard working and law-abiding young Irishmen intent on improving their lot in life. All four valued their ancestral religion be it Catholic or Protestant and they attended church on Sunday.
Ned's Irish relatives the Kellys, Quinns and Lloyds began their colonial life on an equal footing with the Stringybark Creek policemen. They expressed a different attitude and squandered their chance to succeed by engaging in riotous behaviour, shanty good times and serious crime. They were career criminal predators; a villainous law-breaking minority terrorising the community, whose affinity with crime came before racial and religious considerations. The majority of colonial policemen who pursued Ned and his gang were Irish Catholics raised in the same anti English and "love of Ireland" tradition as Ned himself. They too longed for Ireland's freedom from English rule.
James Whitty and Thomas Byrne Moyhu Irishmen, Ned criticises in his Jerilderie Letter as greedy landowners oppressing selectors and impounding their livestock. In reality both men were respected leaders of the Moyhu community deeply involved in Catholic Church and Irish affairs. They championed Catholics rights in the colony and organised fundraisers for Irish political and charitable causes. In October 1881, their daughters Kate Whitty and Jane Byrne, acknowledged their strong Irish roots in a published letter to the Catholic Advocate newspaper. They praised Miss Parnell "for the sacrifice she is making for the poor and homeless evicted families in Ireland and assured her that although we never saw the Emerald Isle, our love for it is as strong as our parents".
Ned and his relatives drank beer and railed against the "Saxon Yoke". They did nothing beyond drunken bragging to either free Ireland or stand up for Catholicism. Kelly apologists point to Ned's Glenrowan plan to wreck a train and slaughter its passengers as the spark of Irish colonial rebellion. Yet the majority of Irish men and women in Ireland and Australia looked to the granting of Home Rule to solve Ireland's problems. It was not until the Easter Rebellion in 1916 that the men of violence triumphed changing the Irish political landscape.
This upcoming ceremony next month will mark the beginning of a new era in how Stringybark Creek will be remembered. Ned's notoriety as a horse thief, bank robber and murderer of policemen will no longer be the focus of Stringybark Creek remembrance. From that day forward, the murdered policemen will be accorded the honour and respect due them.
Doug Morrissey is a historian and author of Ned Kelly: Selectors, Squatters and Stock Thieves, published by Connor Court.