Australian hero or notorious criminal - who is the real Ned Kelly?

Australian hero or notorious criminal - who is the real Ned Kelly?

Australian hero or notorious criminal - who is the real Ned Kelly?

Updated 19 March 2014, 11:22 AEDT

His legendary handmade helmet with a letter-box slot has become an Australian icon. Australians are still fascinated with Ned Kelly 134 years after he was hanged.

The bushranger has inspired numerous artists such as Surrealist painter Sidney Nolan and Expressionist painter Albert Lee Tucker in the early 50s.

Today Melbourne’s artistic community still celebrates Ned Kelly’s rebellious spirit – perhaps in part due to the fact that Melbourne is where he was jailed and hanged in November, 1880, for three counts of murder.

More than a century later Australia still hasn’t decided whether Ned Kelly was a cold blooded criminal or an Australian folk hero.

Born in regional Victoria, Kelly and his brothers formed a gang that travelled the bush, robbing banks and farmhouses.

The late 19th century was a time of great tension between Irish settlers, who were largely poor, and the police, who tended to be of English descent.

Kelly and his gang were Irish Catholics, who not only outsmarted the police, but stood up for the rights of their family and others like them.  This led many to regard Ned in particular as a hero. But he was also a menace, a murderer and thief.

When he was finally captured, he was wearing an imposing suit of homemade armour. It was a remarkable sight that made a lasting impression on those who saw it and the country as a whole.

When it comes to the debate around Kelly, Melbourne artist and historian Maree Coote knows which side she's on. She calls him a “freedom fighter," and she’s found an inexhaustible source of inspiration in his life. We caught up with her at her gallery in South Melbourne.


A version of this article is also available in French - Ned Kelly: justicier au grand coeur ou assassin sans scrupules?