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Australian bushranger Ned Kelly

2006-04-27 16:17

  Why would an Australian bushranger with a bucket on his head go to the trouble of chasing all the snakes out of Ireland?

  Well, I now know he didn't.

  That good deed was performed by St Patrick, whose honour we drink to and drink to again on March 17 each year.

  But for many years I really thought that Ned Kelly, bushranger and folk-hero, rid Ireland of its snakes. It was one of my abiding childhood puzzles. It was right up there with wondering how the heck babies got out of their mothers' tummies, proof perhaps that I carry some strong Irish genes myself (a greater young thinker perhaps would have wondered how the baby got in there in the first place).

  I am, I have to declare, the great grandson of a cobbler from Tyrone in Ireland, Bernard Martin.

  About 38 per cent of Australian population purports to be of Irish origin, and I suspect the island state Tasmania, where I come from, is even more Irish. We had a steady influx of Irish immigrants from the start - most of them aboard convict ships from Britain sent to Van Diemen's Land, as Tasmania was known then. One of these was John "Red" Kelly, Ned Kelly's father, from Clonbrogan in County Tipperary. He was transported in 1841 for stealing two pigs.

  People on the other side of the world probably know little about Ned Kelly. Their schools probably taught them about Robin Hood, who stole from the rich to give to the poor, and Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who took from the poor and gave to the rich.

  But Ned Kelly made a big, big impression on me.

  My first four years of schooling were spent at Catholic schools, where we had nuns with Irish names like Sister Bernadette and priests with Irish accents and names like Father O'Grady. My classmates included several children named Shamus, three Brendans and four Eileens.

  "For the love of God, John Martin, are you listening?" asked Sister Maria one day when I was seven and she was telling the class about St Patrick of Ireland.

  "Er, um, yes, Sister, of course," I fibbed, even though my head was still on the last class, an Australian history lesson.

  "Can you tell me, then, who chased all the snakes out of Ireland?" she asked in her Irish brogue.

  "Yes, er, um, Ned Kelly did," I said.

  That's when she gave me what I mistakenly thought was a cardboard facsimile of a Ned Kelly helmet which I wore with great pride at the front of the class for the rest of the day. I now suspect, however, that it actually had nothing to do with Ned Kelly but was in fact a dunce's hat. It was a punishment, not a reward for answering correctly, and could probably explain the extra mirth among my classmates that day.

  I also now know a bit more about St Patrick (389-461). He is the patron saint of Ireland, a bishop and missionary, who returned to Ireland to spread Christianity after spending six years there as a shepherd slave after being carried off from his home in south-western British by Irish marauders when he was 16. But did he bear them any ill will? No.

  Not only did he introduce the shamrock as a teaching tool for the Holy Trinity, he chased all the snakes out of Ireland.

  Think about that.

  Where did all those snakes go?

  My theory is Van Diemen's Land, perhaps aboard some of those convict ships.

  We have lots of snakes in Tasmania: tiger snakes, black snakes, brown snakes, copperhead snakes and whip snakes.

  I think it is probable that John "Red" Kelly could not wait to escape this snake-infested island when he had served out his seven-year sentence.

  In 1948-'49, soon after he became a free man, he crossed Bass Strait to Port Philip Colony, now Melbourne and headed inland and worked as a carpenter around Donnybrook and Kilmore, an area with many Irish settlers.

  In 1850, he met Ellen Quinn, who had come out with her family as a girl from Ballymena, County Antrim, and they were married.

  They had seven children, including Edward, who became known as Ned.

  The Kelly family was very poor. John Kelly died when Ned was 12 and the family became widely suspected as cattle and horse thieves. There were many run-ins with the law and in 1878, Ned's mother was arrested a jailed for three years.

  Ned, his younger brother Dan and their mates Steve Hart and Joe Byrne were outraged by this. They fled into the bush and became of bushrangers.

  So the legend of the Kelly gang began.

  In the bush, Ned was seen as a people's hero. The authorities felt differently about the Kelly gang, however, and put a 500-pound bounty on their heads after they shot dead three policemen in a shootout at a place called Stringybark Creek.

  But the gang's exploits grew in daring. In 1879, they raided the New South Wales town of Jerilderie, rounding up all the police and menfolk in the local pub.

  In 1880, police cornered the Kelly gang in the Glenrowan hotel (anyone else noticed that Irish people tend to hole themselves up in pubs a lot?) and riddled the building with bullets.

  In the morning, Ned emerged from the hotel, clad in the home-made armour and helmet for which he has become best known even though he was only known to wear it once, that occasion, and it did not prove to be very successful.

  The armour was made from mouldboards from ploughs, stolen and donated from the Greta area, but it had some of the types of design flaws that give the Irish a bad name.

  With the helmet on, Ned could see only straight ahead, his side vision was impaired, which meant that aiming a gun was very difficult.

  Even with the armour, not all his body was protected and Ned was brought down in a hail of bullets.

  With their main target captured, the police ordered the hotel be burnt. The charred remains was of other three gang members was discovered later.

  Early on November 11, 1880, Ned Kelly was hanged in Melbourne Gaol.

  There were conflicting reports about his last words.

  The Argus newspaper claimed he said: "Ah well, I suppose it has come to this."

  The Herald claimed he said "Such is life."

  My theory is that he looked his executioner, Elijah Upjohn, in the eye and said: "Top of the mornin' to you."

  Whatever, let's raise a glass or two for Ned on March 17 too.

  Heck, it's St Patrick's Day. We're allowed to turn ourselves a little green.

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