The Memory of Edward Ned Kelly Analysed

Posted: 2014-07-11 04:28:00 GMT Updated: 2014-07-11 04:29:58 GMT
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Edward Ned Kelly was an Irish Australian bushranger who was born in June 1854 and executed on the 11 of November 1880. After his execution it was strongly believed that the memory of Ned Kelly and his criminal activities would soon fade away in the same manner as his gang did. Yet Ned Kelly was made into a national icon during the twentieth century. It was this remodelling of social memory that sparked this research enquiry into answering the questions “How has Edward Ned Kelly’s memory been preserved throughout the twentieth century in Australia?” and “Is it possible to gain an untainted image of the famous bushranger?”. To do this the research analyses how Ned Kelly was portrayed in films, paintings, novels, and popular media throughout the twentieth century.

Ned Kelly was charged with the murder of three police officers, robbery of two banks and stealing a horse. In addition to this Ned Kelly was known to be a supporter of the Republican movement for he wrote The Declaration of the Republic of North Eastern Victoria. Thus it could be concluded that Ned Kelly was first and foremost a criminal as well as a radical who fought for the rights of the minor Irish community. However, according to Ryan, Ned Kelly films created the feeling that Ned Kelly was a hero and in some cases even classed as a saint.

In 1906 the longest narrative film produced in Australia was opened on Boxing Day called The story of Kelly Gang produced by J and N Tait. However, only the last nine minutes of this movie still remain as the rest was lost over time. Extra footage was released in 1910 which sparked great interest in the theme of bushrangers. In 1912 the interest escalated dramatically which resulted in the New South Wales Police Department putting a ban on Ned Kelly films as they romanticised the life of outlaws. However, this ban did not stop producers like Southwell producing further films about the iconic bushranger. These were called The Kelly Gang (1920), When the Kellys Were Out (1923) and When the Kellys Rode (1934). Unfortunately Southwell’s films were greatly criticised by historians especially by Weston Bate as historically inaccurate film. However, the renowned film director John Ford argued that “when the legend becomes a fact, print the legend” because the public are more interested in the legend than raw facts. In this vain Ned Kelly’s image was taken up by the film industry during the twentieth century as an appropriate icon in order to represent the romantic nature of pioneering during the nineteenth century. As a result the Ned Kelly films influenced the creation of various interpretations of Ned Kelly’s story.

In the late 1940’s and into the 1950’s Sidney Nolan painted twenty six images that were a representation of Ned Kelly’s life. Nolan’s paintings were an interpretation of facts that came from his grandfather, who was a police officer at the time of Ned Kelly’s gang, as well as various letters that Ned Kelly dictated to his friend Joe. These letters became known as the Jerilderie Letters as it was the name of the town in which Ned Kelly tried unsuccessfully to have these letters published by the local newspaper. These letters themselves have become as famous as Ned Kelly for these were personal accounts by Ned Kelly trying to explain his side of the story. Thus the Kelly series should not be seen as a blend of an autobiography and that of a biography as disputed by Andrew Sayers.

Nolan’s simplified image of Ned Kelly as a slotted black square atop a horse became an icon within Australia history. This simplification of who Ned Kelly was, was greatly distorted as Nolan tried to put across his own painting style. Sayers argued that this misrepresentation was due to the influence by famous nineteenth century painter Henri Rousseau.

Nolan did not expect his twenty-six painting series to be so heavily relied on as the true story of Ned Kelly. Nolan rejected the idea that the Kelly’s series was mainly about retelling the historical moments of the famous bush ranger. Whilst this questions the true intention of the paintings the legacy that was left by Nolan when he died in 1992 was never disputed. Nolan stated that the primary reason for the Kelly series was to depict the Australian landscape in a way that was never before seen. Nolan believed that the paintings of Ned Kelly would show the connectedness and distinctiveness in relation to culture and place. Thus Nolan created a simple visual icon that all Australians could understand. According to Deborah Hart, Senior Curator at National Gallery of Australia:

“In the Ned Kelly series Nolan gave us a fresh and highly distinctive way of thinking about place and the stories that inform the fabric of our nation. His works transport the viewer on a journey with humour, irony and pathos, and great artistic bravura.”

In 1948 Max Brown tried to grasp the nature of this clash between public memory and raw historical material when he wrote Australian Son; the true story of Ned Kelly. This publication was scrutinised by Martin Flanagan. Flanagan suggested that there were two versions of Ned Kelly’s story. One in the archives of newspapers and the other depicted through the study of songs. According to Flanagan, newspapers portrayed Ned Kelly as a villain and an outlaw who deserved his punishment. On the other hand songs have been written which portrayed him as a hero. The line between these two views has somewhat been blurred as a lot of the collective memory has been manipulated to the extent that there was a limit to reliable historical sources about Ned Kelly. . This was strongly argued by Brown when he stated:

"The hands of the dead had reached out to keep the silence. Already I knew there were gaps in the Kelly history I could not mend, as well as major issues concerning which accounts were opposed. Time, class interest and perversity had done their job, I realised, finally, that the truth I once regarded as absolute was largely relative."

By the late 1950’s Nolan was accredited with having captured the true essence of the myth that surrounded Ned Kelly. Furthermore, Nolan enabled the opportunity of Ned Kelly’s memory to grow and enter the international setting. This was solidified when Nolan’s paintings of the Abandoned Mine and Ned Kelly were listed in Quintessence Edition 2007 book 1001 Paintings you must see before you die. Additionally The First Class Marksman was sold in an auction to the National Gallery of Australia for five point four million dollars. According to Marsh, Kelly was turned from an outlaw to a national hero in 1940 when Sydney Nolan painted his depiction of Ned Kelly. Even though Nolan is a renowned artist for reviving Ned Kelly’s story into a global phenomenon the relationship between high art, popular culture and folklore impacted the history of Ned Kelly causing it to be greatly fragmented and thus detoured from the true story.

The quantity of Ned Kelly material grew into a very profitable niche during the twentieth century which allowed Ned Kelly’s legend to be kept alive, however some aspects of his story had to be sacrificed. For example it was through the film industry and commercial cinema that Ned Kelly was created into a historical outlaw due to the quality of information that was presented to the general public through films. Even in 1944 Turner argued that Australian historical films were constructed for the American market.

The tale of Ned Kelly has been written by both novelists and playwrights. The most renowned play was Douglas Stewart’s Ned Kelly first preformed in 1942 and published the following year. There was not a lot of screen production about Ned Kelly in the 1950 or 1960. In 1970’s Tony Richardson directed the film Ned Kelly. Additionally a four mini TV series The Last Outlaw (1980) and a variety of popular songs such as Midnight Oil’s, If Ned Kelly Were a King (1981) were published later in the twentieth century. These products shaped the representation of social memory in the popular sphere of society. What these later twentieth century items showed was the change from preserving Ned Kelly’s image and memory to producing a product that was able to meet the changing ideological interests of the consumers.

In 1988, George MacDonald Fraser argued that Hollywood does an accurate representation of history in a powerful medium that shapes the tourists’ views of history. However, in 1995, Rosenstone argued that commercial cinemas and the film industry greatly hindered historical works because films are only able to show one perspective of a historical story. Thus the general public are disadvantaged and hidden from the truth unintentionally. This was because films try to portray the authentic look of a historical event but at the same time construct a commercial feature film that intrigues the general public as well as produces a profit. As a result a lot of films invented, exaggerated or even deleted characters and historical incidents in the effort to make the film more interesting to the public. However, according to Warick Frost, the film makers are kept in check due to the audience’s historical knowledge.

The growth of the film industry in the twentieth century resulted in its greater influence in the history of Australia. Thus the facts were more readily available to the general public. Hence, in Robert Drewe’s novel, Our Sunshine (1991), all aspects of Ned Kelly’s life, even the most private ones, were accessible to the public but had to some degree been tampered with. The criminal aspects were greatly exaggerated to the extent that Ned Kelly’s gang was portrayed as vicious animals. Thus this novel portrayed violence, sexuality and repression that was present in the colonial trauma instead of focusing on uncovering the memory of Ned Kelly. Thus the text represented various anxieties and social problems that were present in 1880’s, like the debate about custodial rights, thus side tracking the readers away from the memory of Ned Kelly. Additionally Drewe stressed just how much the legend of Ned Kelly has been manipulated in order to conform to the national need as well as individual needs.

Another example of a popular interpretation of Ned Kelly was Peter Carey’s book, True History of the Ned Kelly Gang (2000). This novel talked about the ambivalent status of Ned Kelly as a national icon. Carey was very specific in making the connection between the archival sources, including the Jerilderie letters and the school master manuscripts, which he drew upon to put his claim forward. However, the reliability of the manuscript extracted from Ned Kelly’s schoolmaster and the Jerilderie’s letters has been disputed. Carey deliberately dissolved the boundary between oral and written sources, as well as fictional and non fictional sources and thereby allowed a balance to be maintained between the competing versions of the past. By having this structure Carey portrayed Ned Kelly within the colonial context and gave a sense of pure interpretation of Ned Kelly’s story.

In Glenrowan north east Victoria one can find a six foot statue of Ned Kelly celebrating the spot where Ned Kelly was finally caught. The memory of Ned Kelly in Mandsfield is very different. In this city a memorial was dedicated to the three brave men who lost their lives trying to apprehend Ned Kelly. Comparing these two memorials shows the extent of various memories that people have of Ned Kelly and what aspects of his life are memorialised. This was why the construction of Ned Kelly’s tale was hard as it has been so greatly deconstructed by various groups and individuals as well as political parties. According to Basu our need to know the past and representing it in commercial settings was due to the fear of forgetting the past which was produced by the postmodern ‘time space compression’.

The down side to the use of media was that the icon of Ned Kelly became de-contextualised and used for national needs instead of the preservation of historical memory. For example the opening ceremonies of the Sydney Olympic Games (2000) saw Ned Kelly being represented as a national icon. The representation of Ned Kelly in the Olympic Games was based on art and literature instead of mass media that was usually criticized for over emphasising and tainting the legend of Ned Kelly.

Historical films invoke heritage tourism both on a domestic level and international level. Thus there seems to be a great issue in authenticity in both tourism and in historical film. Another problem created due to film interpretation was that tourists visited sites that were used in the film but were not historically accurate. Thus these films created more income for the tourist sector and created a false historical narrative of Ned Kelly. As a result of the interpretations that filmmaker’s presentation of history in films it has been agreed that it is never absolute. Warick Frost strongly believed that films have been used to attract interest in history however the presentation of the facts caused the authenticity to be questioned. Films have the ability to create an impression of particular historical interpretations that are imbedded into the public. These interpretations of Ned Kelly that tampered with the facts and in some cases it became impossible to distinguish the facts from superfluous information used to make the presentation more appetising.

Graham Huggan suggested an explanation to why extracting the essence of Ned Kelly became a complex task. Huggan suggested that it was due to the process that occurs when social memory is reworked into a cultural myth and eventually turned into a national legend. The legends of Ned Kelly have been reinterpreted and challenged and some of these interpretations stress the criminality of Ned Kelly others stress the greater values such as self reliance and mateship which Huggan stressed were an integral part of the bushman’s code and thus Australian heritage.

The great interest in representation of memory in the twentieth century started at the conclusion of the Holocaust when the public was interested in representing personal and public anxieties that were present during that time in order to get over personal and collective trauma. The Kelly legend was created as an alternative to the memory of an individual that was at the fore front of the anti-establishment movement for the Irish minority group. Thus as stated by Huggan the reshaping of Ned Kelly was a strategy in order to preserve the authority of the national ruling elite;

“It is through the simplified and selective narratives of collective myths that historical events are rendered emotionally comprehensible and memorable. Mythic narratives are thus the well spring of nationalism and they are constantly mobilised to serve differing ideological and political interests”.

Foucault argued that in order to understand memory and how it is created one must understand the three main components, knowledge, power and subjectivity which interact with one another. Foucault labelled this type of interaction as “dispositif”. The idea of dispositif allowed the examination of a wide range of phenomena and their relation to cultural memory without being entangled in the debate of what is a text and what is not. In Australia Kelly’s legend was created in order to shift society’s focus from more significant oppositional subjects, such as oppression of minorities, so that they were ignored and never fully understood.

Additionally Ned Kelly’s memory has been employed to show the Irish struggles in keeping their own identity pure in Australia as well as the representation of the white society enforcement and the violence that surrounded the formation of the Australian identity. Jan Assmann suggested that memory was maintained through festivals, rites, epics, poems, images etc.’ In short, all forms of media. According to Basu, mediation was seen as one of the main components which enabled transmission and construction of memories. Various media types have influenced the construction of a range of memories. For example Ned Kelly’s armour has become one of the greatest icons of Australian history and has been reinvented into the commercial setting on a global scale. The helmet of Ned Kelly was featured in adverts for Weetabix and Bushel’s tea. This type of industry resulted from popular media embracing the legend of Ned Kelly and at the same time reconstructing it in a way that was accessible to the wider consumer society. According to Ian Jones the even the Yarralin Aboriginal people Northwestern Australia have absorbed the Legend of Ned Kelly as a representation of survival and an ally to the white oppression.

According to Seal, historical outlaws arose as a result of the public’s perception of a group or an individual being suppressed by a superior group as well as the belief that he or she robbed from the poor and gave it to the rich. Brian McFarlane suggested that it was impossible to get a clear factual recount of Ned Kelly that was historically accurate as Ned Kelly became a legend and all legends have an essence of utopian characteristics. The memory of Ned Kelly has been heavily contested but it has been agreed that Ned Kelly has become a National icon of Australia.

Throughout the twentieth century the memory of Ned Kelly has undergone various interpretations causing the core story to be fragmented as it was subjected numerous reviews via paintings, novels, films and popular media resulting in an icon that everyone can relate to. Thus the true story of Ned Kelly has been turned from a radical who supported the oppressed Irish minority to criminal outlaw and then finally turned into a national icon. This process took place in order to accommodate the change in society’s need as well as giving a justification for their execution of Ned Kelly. In addition to this the creation of Ned Kelly legend allowed the white society to maintain their supremacy over the minority groups in the then society. Hence the true story of Ned Kelly has been heavily tainted, and thus one cannot rely on only one source of information but an accumulation of interpretations in order to understand the significance of Ned Kelly’s story.


As a result of the feedback that I have received from my research proposal I have changed the questions slightly. In my research proposal I have stated that I would look at how the image of Ned Kelly had changed over time. However this subject looks at the twentieth century Australia thus I had to change my question so that the time frame is within the twentieth century. In addition to this I have researched Sydney Nolan as was suggested in my feedback. By researching this avenue it enabled me to structure my research essay more focused. I have also gone through closer proof reading than I have done in my research proposal thus enabling the construction of a more professional research and a better presentation. I have also looked very closely at the information that I used in order to make sure that they are relevant to answering my proposed question. In addition to this I have tried to make my argument clear and as succinct as possible as my argument was not too clear in my research proposal.

Refference List

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———. "The Robin Hood Principle: Folklore, History, and Social Bandit." Journal of Folklore Research 46, no. 1 (2009): pp. 67-89.

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