An Irish Outlaw Down Under: The Life of Australia’s Most Notorious Bandit

An Irish Outlaw Down Under: The Life of Australia’s Most Notorious Bandit

Patrick Lynch - April 13, 2017

Ned Kelly is one of the greatest folk heroes in Australian history as tales of his exploits have been exaggerated and romanticized. His life was brief, violent and memorable as he challenged authority and rebelled against landlords and the police. Kelly was born in the British colony of Victoria in December 1854, the son of an Irishman (John) who was deported for theft while his mother (Ellen) was second generation Irish.

His family was extremely poor and eked out a living on the edge of more fertile land north of Melbourne. John stole horses to help feed his family but was jailed after being caught and died in prison in 1866. Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that young Ned opted for a life of crime. His first arrest came at the age of 14 when he stole 10 shillings from a Chinese man.

He learned the bushranger trade from Harry Power, and in 1870, he was charged with being an accomplice to a robbery but walked free due to lack of evidence. His luck ran out later that year when he was convicted of other crimes and sentenced to 6 months in prison. Things went from bad to worse for Kelly when he received a 3-year prison sentence soon after his release for knowingly receiving a stolen horse. During his stints in prison, Kelly gained a reputation as the champion boxer in the Beechworth district.

An Irish Outlaw Down Under: The Life of Australia’s Most Notorious Bandit

Kelly worked honestly for two years after his release from prison, and his mother married a man named George King. By 1876, Kelly had enough of the straight and narrow and helped his stepfather steal horses. The Kelly family always believed they were victims of police persecution as two of his brothers spent time in prison, so they had no qualms about breaking the law.

An Irish Outlaw Down Under: The Life of Australia’s Most Notorious Bandit
Kelly’s Armor on Display at the State Library of Victoria. Flickr

The Formation of the Kelly Gang

The events of April 15, 1878 changed Kelly’s life forever. There was a warrant out for the arrest of his brother Dan and a police trooper called Arthur Fitzpatrick went to the Kelly home to arrest the fugitive. No one knows what happened on that day, but the constable claimed that Ned Kelly fired three shots at him after another member of the family hit him with a shovel. Other reports suggest there was a brawl with no shots fired but Ned and Dan fled to the bush.

Fitzpatrick was known to be a disreputable character, and his version of events is likely false. It is even believed that Ned wasn’t at the house when the constable arrived. In fact, he was dismissed from the police force soon afterward. Nonetheless, Ellen was sentenced to three years in prison for the attempted murder of Fitzpatrick. The Kelly brothers were joined by Steve Hart and Joe Byrne while in hiding, and the foursome became the Kelly Gang. Ned had threatened to try and break his mother out of jail, but instead, he settled for issuing a warning to the authorities; and soon, the Kelly Gang made good on their promise to open the eyes of the Victorian Police.

An Irish Outlaw Down Under: The Life of Australia’s Most Notorious Bandit

The Stringybark Creek Murders & Life on the Run

The Kelly Gang created a hideout near the King River, a location that was almost impenetrable. Aided by informers who told the gang about anyone who entered the area, Kelly was able to spot the four policemen who came after them. The gang ambushed two of the police and ordered them to surrender. While Constable McIntyre surrendered, Constable Lonigan tried to draw his gun but was shot dead by Ned. Sergeant Kennedy and Constable Scanlon appeared, but both were shot dead when they tried to fire their weapons.

The Government enacted the Felon’s Apprehension Act of 1878 within days of the murders and ordered the Kelly Gang to surrender or be declared outlaws. Under the Act, citizens were authorized to shoot anyone officially declared an outlaw. The Victorian Government offered £500 reward for the capture of any member of the gang, dead or alive. On December 9, 1878, the Kelly Gang stole £2,000 from the National Bank in Euroa. As a result, the reward was increased to £1,000 per head.

Far from being worried, the emboldened gang struck again with a daring raid on the town of Jerilderie on Saturday, February 8, 1879. They captured two policemen and took their uniforms. Then they waited two days for the Bank of New South Wales to open and entered dressed as cops. They escaped with over £2,100 in notes, and during the raid, Ned handed a bank teller a written statement that was around 8,000 words long! It became known as the Jerilderie Letter and offered an explanation for the gang’s conduct. By now, the reward for the capture of the gang had increased to £8,000 or £2,000 per head.

In June 1880, Byrne and Dan Kelly visited a man named Aaron Sherritt who was a close friend of the former. However, Sherritt betrayed the gang to the police and was shot dead in his doorway by Byrne. Rather than engaging with the outlaws, the four constables assigned to guard Sherritt hid in the bedroom and used the women inside as hostages.

An Irish Outlaw Down Under: The Life of Australia’s Most Notorious Bandit
Police involved in the Glenrowan Siege. On the Wallaby

The Last Stand at Glenrowan

Although Ned Kelly had already gained notoriety for his deeds, his attempts to shoot his way out of the small town of Glenrowan guaranteed his immortality. The police pursued the gang relentlessly until June 1880 when they surrounded the gang in Glenrowan. The gang took 60 people as hostages and shielded themselves in a hotel. After a failed attempt at derailing the train that carried the police, the gang decided to shoot their way to freedom.

Ned covered himself with metal armor which included breast and back plates and a head guard; the armor weighed over 90 pounds! The rest of the gang were also protected by metal plates. The gang had very little sleep and that, along with excess consumption of alcohol, ensured their judgment was poor because they believed they were invincible. The police surrounded the hotel in the early hours of the morning and started shooting. Ned was hit in the foot, arm, and hand while Byrne was shot in the thigh and bled to death.

The badly wounded Kelly escaped from the hotel when the police set fire to it, but his brother Dan and Hart were shot dead. Ned fired his revolver and tried to escape but was eventually brought down by multiple shots to the legs. He was arrested and charged with the murder of Lonigan at Stringybark Creek. Kelly was found guilty and hanged at Melbourne Gaol on November 11, 1880. His last words were supposedly ‘such is life.’

While he was an outlaw and criminal, Kelly’s attempts to end the poor treatment of Irish settlers opened the eyes of many which is part of the reason for his legend. The armor-clad Kelly shooting at police in his fight for justice and liberty captured the imagination and ensured his place in history.