Essay by Germaine Greer

The Jerilderie Letter was written for publication, but it is not a work of literature. It is not history either as it makes no claim to objectivity. It has been called a confession, but it is not one, because the writer expresses no shame, no guilt and no repentance. It is kin to the speeches that once condemned men were allowed to make when they mounted the scaffold where they were to die, in which they told their versions of the events that had led them to that point. The letter’s author, notorious bushranger Ned Kelly, knew when he composed it that he was certain to hang.

Ned was the eldest son of John Kelly, an Irishman transported for seven years for stealing two pigs. John served his sentence and came good, married free settler’s daughter Ellen Quinn and had with her five daughters and three sons. Trouble caught up with him again, he served another term and died a broken man aged only 46. Ellen and her children were left destitute and had to move to a hut on a selection taken up by her father at Eleven Mile Creek near Greta. Ned was first arrested when he was fourteen for assault, but the charge was eventually dismissed. He was arrested again a year later, on suspicion of being an accomplice of the bushranger Harry Power and again the charge was dismissed. The events recounted in the Jerilderie Letter begin at this point, but they include neither of these arrests, nor do they mention that on the second occasion Kelly apparently co-operated with the police. The one document that we have in Kelly’s own hand is a letter to Sergeant James Babington of the Kyneton police asking for his assistance, in terms that suggest that Kelly had some claim on him and his superior Charles Hope Nicolson who would one day lead the police pursuit that led to the showdown at Glenrowan.

The Jerilderie Letter was composed not long before 9 December 1878 when the Kelly gang robbed the National Bank at Euroa. The usual account is that Kelly dictated the letter to Joe Byrne, but this is simply the corollary of the mistaken belief that Kelly was illiterate. The Babington letter, which was not discovered till 1985,  shows that Kelly could write a fairly legible hand and could form a sentence, but his spelling is very uncertain, ‘posabel’ for ‘possible’ for example. When the other three members of the Kelly gang went into Euroa, Byrne was left to keep guard over hostages at a neighbouring sheep station, some of whom would later say they saw him working on some sort of document. Clearly he was not then taking Kelly’s dictation. Sophisticated analysis of the handwriting, which can now be seen on line via the digitised copy of the document made by the State Library of Victoria, indicates that it was written in fourteen stages. It’s hard to imagine Kelly picking up his impassioned narrative on fourteen separate occasions. We should probably conclude that Kelly did write the original, probably in pencil, and with many crossings out, and that he asked Joe Byrne to make a fair copy of it in ink, which meant using a pen with a steel nib and dipping it into a bottle of ink, neither things that bushrangers carried as a rule. We don’t know whether Byrne did any rewriting. Certainly, a single, if inconsistent, very individual voice, emerges from the letter.

As Peter Carey said in 2001, when he won the Booker Prize for The True History of the Kelly Gang, the Jerilderie Letter ‘is an extraordinary document, the passionate voice of a man who is writing to explain his life, save his life, his reputation … And all the time there is this original voice – uneducated but intelligent, funny and then angry, and with a line of Irish invective that would have made Paul Keating envious. His language came in a great, furious rush that could not but remind you of far more literary Irish writers.’

The only way to make sense of the Jerilderie Letter is to read it aloud, feeling for its breath and its heartbeat. The text can be set out as a blank verse poem, as if it were a dramatic monologue, say, with pauses, and leaps, and wild swerves of tone. It gradually builds up to break-neck speed, wild denunciation driven by indignation and contempt, here given full rein by a criminal who, as far as law-abiding people are concerned, has no business feeling either. Its cadences are southern Irish (Kelly’s father came from Tipperary) rather than present-day Australian.

The letter is, as the Irish say, blarney; the Irish are a nation of story-tellers who pride themselves on being able to prove that black is white. Though it gives an extremely partisan account of Kelly’s activities there is no resisting its central idea, mainly because of the way Kelly develops it. He is, and he knows he is, ‘talking the leg off an iron pot’. Kelly was a horse-thief, a bushranger and a bank robber, but he will show that the people who thought they had the right to judge him, hunt him down and kill him were very much worse than he was. The authorities understood at once that the Jerilderie Letter was dangerous; Kelly had identified the enemies of the people as ‘a parcel of big ugly fat-necked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow hipped splaw-footed sons of Irish bailiffs or english landlords’. These are the worst scourges of Irish life, in the Old Country or in the Antipodes. In the letter Kelly creates a version of himself as a charismatic Irish hero, a Cuchulain come again, generous, honest, strong, noble and brave. The contrast between the dashing young outlaws and their grotesque persecutors is so cleverly managed that we almost forget that it is artifice.

The letter begins ‘Dear Sir,’ like any letter to the editor of a newspaper, and goes on ‘I wish to acquaint you with some of the occurrences of the present past and future’. The phrasing is mildly oracular and we might suspect that the author is somewhat above himself. Kelly then steps straight into his narrative, with no attempt to set a scene or fire the imagination. ‘In or about the spring of 1870 the ground was very soft a hawker named Gould got his waggon bogged between Greta and my mother’s house on the eleven mile creek.’ We have been given a time, a year and a place, in so matter of fact a way that we are not moved to question. Kelly then allows himself a touch of bushman’s droll hyperbole; ‘The ground was that rotten it would bog a duck in places’.

The reader has to concentrate to follow the course of events now recounted; a horse belonging to a Mr Johns got another horse belonging to a hawker called McCormack to go away with it; Mr Gould sent his boy to fetch back the runaway horse only to be accused of making unauthorised use of it. The narrative continues in the same terse way: ‘That same day me and my uncle was cutting calves, Gould wrapped up a note and a pair of the calves’ testicles and gave them to me to give to Mrs McCormack’. Offence having been taken it was duly returned.

Kelly tells us that McCormack responded by calling him a liar and saying ‘he could welt me or any of my breed’. The expression suggests an unstated cause of division between the two but for the moment it will not be explained. Kelly says that though he was only ‘about 14 years of age’ he accepted the challenge and prepared to fight the older man. Then Mrs McCormack hit his horse with ‘a bullock’s shin’, the horse jumped forward and the boy accidentally knocked McCormack down. McCormack (an ex-policeman himself) goes for the police; he and his wife make sworn statements that result in the boy’s being given six months gaol. An improbable account will always be strengthened by the inclusion of specific details that are of no forensic relevance, hence the bullock’s shin. This technique has been used for a certain kind of would-be convincing but actually unlikely narrative ever since the Norse sagas. The true theme of the letter, the oppression of heroic battlers by a crew of criminal bludgers, now becoming apparent, the narrator is emerging as a being of a different order from his oppressors.

Six months later Kelly comes home from prison, and lends a man a mare to replace one he las lost. Kelly finds the lost mare which is in fact stolen, and is apprehended by Constable Hall, who tries to shoot him. Kelly trips him up and lets ‘him take a mouthful of dust now and then as he was as helpless as a big guano after leaving a dead bullock or a horse’. (For ‘guano’ read ‘goanna’.) The bush simile tells us that Hall is as bloated and fat as a gorged monitor lizard and cannot get out of his own way. Kelly could not defend himself adequately because he was bound over to keep the peace and his sureties would have lost their money. The strong, generous and considerate hero finds himself once again undermined and undone by crooked bumbledom.

As the finale to his account of how he is unjustly convicted of receiving stolen goods and spends three years in Beechworth prison, and his brother is convicted of assaulting a woman, Kelly utters his first overtly political statement: ‘There never was such a thing as Justice in English laws but any amount of injustice to be had’. The battlers are now identified as Irish battlers, persecuted by British bludgers and their quislings. Kelly will develop the Irish theme way beyond his family’s actual allegiance to the Catholic cause; his parents were not married in a Catholic church and their children were probably not baptised. Kelly has already told us that he is an expert horsethief; what he is letting us know at this point is that the representatives of law and order steal more horses than he ever did. Because they cannot keep up with him, or catch him by legal means, they fake the evidence and perjure themselves, with impunity. The question is not unvexed; Kelly father and son had both tried to work with the police and were betrayed.

So we learn that while Kelly was in gaol all the horses in his possession were stolen by another policeman, Constable Flood, and sold to the navvies working on the new railway line. ‘One bay cob he stole and sold four different times’. After leaving prison Kelly tells us he went timber-getting. All the details check out. Kelly was going straight, but he was constantly suspected of cattle stealing. Meanwhile two graziers are catching any horses they find around their holding and taking them to the pound in Oxley, which is causing extreme hardship to poor farmers who have no way of getting to Oxley to redeem their horses and no way of paying the fine. Kelly and his mother’s new husband George King take the impounded horses away and sell them. Kelly makes no claim that he returned the horses to the poor farmers who owned them. He does not present himself as a Robin Hood. The closest he comes to robbing the rich to pay the poor is burning the paperwork that kept the selectors in hock to the banks, and standing all the bystanders drinks on the proceeds of the gang’s robberies, neither actions that he recounts in the letter.

Kelly tells of the visit of PC Alexander Fitzpatrick to Mrs Kelly’s house to arrest his brother Dan as if he wasn’t there. As a result of her attempts to defend her daughters from Fitzpatrick’s drunken incursion, Mrs Kelly was accused of attempted murder, arrested, kept in gaol for six months, convicted and sentenced to three years. There are those who have sought to prove that Kelly was in fact present, in which case we have to ask why he would have left it to his mother to attack Fitzpatrick. Do we believe that he wasn’t there?

By his own account Kelly came back to Victoria to find Dan who was digging for gold on Bullock Creek and was told ‘how the police used to be blowing that they would not ask [him] to stand they would shoot [him] first and then cry surrender’. Such a manhunt would have been illegal; once more Kelly’s story turns on whether we believe him or not. Dan has more to say. He tells his brother ‘how [the police] used to rush into the house upset all the milk dishes break tins of eggs empty the flour out of the bags on to the ground and even the meat out of the cask and destroy all the provisions and shove the girls in front of them into the rooms like dogs so if anyone was there they would shoot the girls first’.

The pace of the narrative has increased; one shocking statement follows on another until Kelly caps it with his own reflection, ‘they knew well I was not there or I would have scattered their blood and brains like rain’. Our Irish boy is now goaded beyond endurance. ‘I would manure the Eleven mile with their bloated carcasses and yet remember there is not one drop of murderous blood in my Veins.’ The contradiction could hardly be more audacious. The question is whether Kelly can get away with it. He returns to the theme of the persecution and terrorising of his family breaking off – as if to howl – ‘if I hear any more of it I will not exactly show them what cold blooded murder is but wholesale and retail slaughter’. In medieval epic literature this is what is known as a ‘vaunt’, a rhetorical statement of the hero’s almost supernatural power.

How we understand the rest of the story depends on whether we believe that the police meant to shoot Kelly and his brother ‘down like dogs’, and that depends on whether we also believe that the police were too frightened and too incompetent to manage an arrest in due form. Kelly recounts the sequence of events in what must have been a very confused situation with astounding (and possibly fictitious) clarity. He expects his reader to agree that the killing of the policemen ‘cannot be called wilful murder’ because he was compelled to shoot them or ‘lie down’ and let them shoot him. The function of the interpolated ‘lie down’ is worth assessing.

Kelly moves from this to a wholesale condemnation of the police ‘who for a lazy loafing cowardly bilit left the ash corner deserted the shamrock, the emblem of true wit and beauty to serve under a flag and nation that has destroyed massacreed and murdered their forefathers’. We can only wonder if Kelly really believed his own version of history; certainly he had no better information to mitigate his vision of the Catholic Irish as an innocent, tortured and brutalised people. Kelly declares war on the colonial administration, as if he and his three comrades would have been capable of raising an army. We have to ask ourselves whether he was delusional by this stage. Perhaps he wasn’t; as he awaited his execution in Melbourne Gaol, more than 30,000 people signed a petition that his life be spared.

With its extraordinary combination of anguish and drollery, the Jerilderie Letter is a precious part of our Australian inheritance, and we almost lost it. The ‘Sir’ it was addressed to was Samuel Gill, editor and printer of the Jerilderie Herald who went missing when the gang came into town to rob the Bank of New South Wales on 9 February 1879, so Kelly gave the letter to Edwin Living, a bank employee, with orders to deliver it to Gill. Instead Living travelled to Melbourne where he delivered the letter to his employers who showed it to the police. The police told them not to make it public.

That might have been the last that was ever heard of the letter, but on his way to catch the train to Melbourne, to rest his horse Living stopped overnight at the Lauriston Hotel eight miles from Deniliquin, where he allowed the publican John Hanlon not only to read the letter but to make his own copy. When Kelly went on trial in Melbourne in  July 1880, the original was made available to the government as part of the prosecution case against Kelly, and a copy was made for the record. Kelly’s defence counsel refused to allow the inclusion of the letter as evidence and the copy was simply lodged in the Public Record Office where it remains to this day. Living must have taken the original back to Jerilderie again; when John V. Barry provided the Ned Kelly entry for the Australian Dictionary of Biography in 1974, he thought its whereabouts were not known.

In fact several people did know where the letter was. In 1969 Ian Jones, one of many biographers of Ned Kelly, was shown the original letter by a friend of the owner, and was allowed to act as its custodian; in 1977 Jones was permitted to offer the letter to a national collection. He offered it to the Australian National Library and  the State Library of Victoria, but, astonishingly, neither was interested. In 2000, by which time the document had a saleroom valuation of a million dollars, Ian Jones’s wife, Bronwyn Binns, made a gift of it to the State Library of Victoria. On 31 July 2001, the National Library of Australia stepped up to the plate and paid $58,750 for Hanlon’s copy at Christie’s in Melbourne. So we now have three copies of the letter, none of them in Ned Kelly’s hand.

Ned Kelly’s mortal remains were buried at Melbourne Gaol in 1880, then, when the Melbourne Gaol site was redeveloped, reburied at Pentridge. They have now been buried for a third time, this time where he wanted, in the graveyard at Greta. Strangely, all but a small fragment of his skull is still missing. That and who knows what else?

© Copyright Germaine Greer 2014