Ned Kelly was a charismatic hero who lived a short life as a murderous criminal hunted by the authorities.
What is the definition of a hero? What about a heroic act? When we ask these types of questions, we inevitably enter a murky area where morality and ethics show their limits. Let’s say a hero is a person that effectively acts against evil, and their actions can include typically bad things like violence to achieve a greater good. But that’s where the thing gets tricky, because violence will always negatively affect someone, and in the eyes of others, a hero can also be a villain, a criminal, or a monster. It all depends on the point of view we choose and on the truths we’re willing to accept as such. Time can also change someone’s status as hero or villain. A great example of this ambiguity is the story of Ned Kelly, a charismatic hero in Australian history who lived a short life as a murderous criminal hunted by the authorities.
He was born in 1855, in a time when European convicts were still being transported to prison colonies in Australia. Ned’s Irish father was one of them. This cultural background and the living conditions of poor Irish immigrants shaped Ned’s ideology as he grew up. The initial signs of his rebellious nature manifested when he was 14 and started sharing his youthful fantasies about being a bushranger as he committed his first petty crimes. At the time, a bushranger was a convict that not only had the audacity to escape law enforcement, but was also skillful enough to hide in the hazardous Australian bush. Of course, those fantasies about risk and adventure are perfectly normal for a kid, but the young Ned Kelly quickly approached them as a real ambition.
Kelly first became a thief to support his family after his father’s death. When he turned 16, he met Harry Power, the man that taught him everything about how to survive the dangers of the Australian bush and life as an outlaw. Harry Power was a known bushranger himself, and after they were both arrested and Ned was quickly released, he started his own path as a bushranger as well. It all officially began when Ned’s brother, Dan, shot an officer as he tried to arrest them for stealing horses. Together, they escaped to the bush and hid so well in the impenetrable hills that the police’s hostility against them grew larger. When Joe Byrne and Steve Hart joined them as bushrangers, they started committing more ambitious crimes like bank robbery, and the four of them became the Kelly Gang after they basically pissed the whole government off.
In 1878, the thing got real. After Ned Kelly killed a police officer who attempted to capture him at Stringybark Creek, the government enacted the Felons’ Apprehension Act, which allowed officers, and even other citizens, to fire at individuals who were considered outlaws, like Kelly and the rest of the gang. A year later, Kelly wrote and published a letter opposing the Act and expressed the reasons behind his actions: a personal fight against injustice and the oppression of Irish and poor people. Thanks to his long letter, many people realized that his violent crimes were his reaction against the authorities’ cruelty towards the underprivileged.
The end of the Kelly Gang happened in 1880. In Glenrowan, Victoria, 60 people were taken as hostages by the gang in a hotel. Their plan was to lure the police and derail the train that transported them. The plan failed, and innocent blood was shed at the Glenrowan Hotel as the police attacked the gang without caring for the safety of the hostages. During the attack, Joe Byrne, Steve Hart, and Dan Kelly were killed. Kelly, wearing his armor because he knew authorities were ready to kill him too, managed to unexpectedly shoot from a different angle. Thanks to his astonishing resistance, his intimidating armor and his shooting skills, he scared the police and almost succeeded. But in the end he was shot in the legs and arrested while wounded.
Soon after, when he was 25 years old, he was convicted for murdering the police officer at Stringybark Creek and executed. Over a century later, he’s remembered both as a hero and a criminal whose life serves as reminder that doing the right thing isn't the easiest or even a lawful path.
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