True History of the Kelly Gang
Knopf, 355 pp., $25.00
Does the man in the shiny blue suit still sing “The Wild Colonial Boy” at Irish weddings? Anyone who was a child in Ireland in the middle of the last century will remember this ubiquitous and somewhat mysterious figure. In those days, marriage in Ireland was for life, whether you liked it or not, divorce not being available. Weddings were important occasions, usually held in hotel ballrooms, with a hundred or more guests, an invariable meal of chicken and ham, much drinking, dancing, and singing. The man in the shiny blue suit, who wore a belt and suspenders, and whose provenance was uncertain—somebody’s uncle, perhaps?—would choose his moment with finesse, waiting for a lull in the proceedings to take his stance dramatically beside the piano and launch into his song. And as he sang, with forceful earnestness, his large pink face perspiring and his throat sinews straining, we guests would seem to feel the heat of the Antipodean plains, and smell the scents of strange, unheard-of fauna, and see the mighty figure of the Bushranger galloping toward us.
The Wild Colonial Boy of the song is Jack Duggan, who was “born and bred in Ireland, in a place called Castlemaine,” before he left for Australia. The more famous Ned Kelly, the protagonist of Peter Carey’s new novel, was a native Australian, born in 1855 in what was then the Colony of Victoria in the southeast corner of that vast continent. His father was an Irishman, a native of County Tipperary, who had got into trouble with the law and had been transported to Van Dieman’s land; his sentence served, he moved over to Australia and settled down to subsistence farming and horse-rearing in Victoria. John “Red” Kelly’s wife was Ellen née Quinn, “dark haired and slender the prettiest figure on a horse he ever saw,” Peter Carey writes, but from a family with a wild streak: “She were a Quinn and the police would never leave the Quinns alone.”
Young Ned, then, had rebellion and violence in his blood. After many clashes with the forces of authority, he took to the bush and became a full-time outlaw, gunning down policemen, and, with his brother and two friends, stealing horses and robbing banks all across Victoria and New South Wales. By the time of his capture at the age of twenty-five he was a legendary figure in Australia, hated and feared by the authorities and regarded by the poor Irish settlers as their very own Robin Hood. Despite the protection of his famous homemade iron armor, he was shot and wounded in a police siege in the town of Glenrowan, was captured and taken to Melbourne, where he was tried and eventually hanged. He was just short of his twenty-sixth birthday.
The story of Ned Kelly has haunted the imaginations of more than one artist. Most notably, the series of paintings on the Kelly theme by the late Sidney Nolan made the strangely fascinating image …