Kelly funeral fails to bury the myths

THE fascination with Australia’s most famous outlaw won’t end when his descendants finally bring him home.

Ned Kelly — anti-establishment hero or cold-blooded criminal — was hanged aged 25 after a run of exploits that have become an entrenched part of the nation’s story.

But many details of his life are sketchy, unsubstantiated or at odds with the often patchy official reports of the time.

Kelly’s exact birth year, for instance — 1854 or 1855 — is unclear, and even his oft-quoted last words – “Such is life” – are uncertain. By some accounts, his final utterance was the less poetic “Ah well, I suppose it has come to this.”

Born in Victoria to an Irish convict father (Red Kelly, who died when Ned was 10), the young Ned’s first known brush with the police came at age 14, when he was charged with assault and robbery but not convicted.

At 16, a clash with a police officer over a stolen horse saw him jailed for three years with hard labour.

The legend of Ned Kelly the bushranger was forged in his last two years, before his execution at the Melbourne Gaol for shooting dead three policemen while on the run.

After the police killings, Kelly and his gang went on to commit a series of brazen bank robberies and made their last stand against police at Glenrowan, where Kelly donned the home-made metal armour that is now a powerful symbol in Australian art.

The romance of the Kelly legend also rests in part on a 7000-word manifesto explaining his behaviour and decrying the treatment of his family and other Irish Catholics by the police and English and Irish Protestants — the so-called Jerilderie letter.

But for Anthony Griffiths, great-grandson of Kelly’s sister Grace, laying his ancestor to rest is about “Edward”, the man, not Ned, the bushranger.

“It’s not about glorifying anything he did or didn’t do. It’s simply about a family funeral,” Mr Griffiths said.

“It does give a real sense of closure to a lot of family members.”

Former Pentridge Prison chaplain Professor Peter Norden, who is close to the Kelly family, tells in a written eulogy of how Ned, aged 10, rescued seven-year-old Dick Shelton from a swollen creek and the boy’s parents presented Kelly with a lavish silk sash to show their gratitude.

The deed speaks volumes about the nature of the man Ned Kelly was, Prof Norden says.

Joanne Griffiths, Kelly’s great grand-niece, says while she’s proud of her heritage, the aura of the Kelly name is sometimes difficult for the family as people can be quick to make ill-informed, unfeeling judgments.

“We’re well aware that quite often if you stick your head out, it gets taken off, so we’d rather keep these things to ourselves,” Ms Griffiths said.

If there’s one group struggling to reflect wistfully on Kelly’s life and times, it’s the police.

The Police Association Victoria assistant secretary Bruce McKenzie says Kelly’s family is entitled to give him a proper burial but he longs for an end to the public’s glorification of serious criminals.

“We would hope his grave site doesn’t become a shrine or a tourist mecca,” he said.

Just as Kelly’s life story has pieces missing, his burial in an unmarked grave is also incomplete.

While his remains were confirmed by DNA testing in 2011, his skull has remained missing since it was stolen from an Old Melbourne Gaol display case in 1978.

Now, more than 132 years after the bushranger’s execution, his family have been finally able to fulfil his dying wish, that he be buried in consecrated ground by family and loved ones.