Would the real Ned Kelly please speak up!

The latest movie is the fourth screen portrayal of the famous/infamous Australian bushranger


By Ray O’Hanlon

You could bet your last Aussie dollar that many of the brave firefighters battling those terrible bushfires in Australia have Irish names.

And some of them would be named Kelly.

Australia, like any country, has its political divides and social fissures.

There’s a widening one right now over the question of climate change and how it might be worsening the fires that have killed close to thirty Australians, three American firefighters, devastated millions of hectares, burned thousands of homes to the ground, and extracted a price from Australia’s flora and fauna that is virtually incalculable.

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There are older fault lines in Australia too. The brutal treatment of the continent’s aboriginal peoples is a wound that bleeds still.

Less obvious is the cultural fault line in white settler Australia that has the Anglo version of the country on one side, and the Irish on the other.

The Scottish and Welsh version would appear to have been largely merged into one or the other.

Regardless, roughly one third of Australia’s 25 million people can claim a link to Ireland, often one that can be traced back to the transportation of “convicts,” who were all too often political prisoners, or simply impoverished Irish men and women trying to survive in a ravaged land.

The “convict stain” was long a mark of shame in Australian society. These days, for not a few, it’s a badge of pride.

The shame versus pride phenomenon is a fault line that runs through the Ned Kelly story.

Ned Kelly as villain, bushranger, cold-blooded killer, is one version. Ned Kelly as Robin Hood, political revolutionary, and misjudged man is another.

All the versions have been presented in official records, newspapers, books and movies, and in the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Sydney Olympics no less.

And now there is a new movie based on a book.

The book will be familiar to Echo readers. It’s “True History of the Kelly Gang,” by double Booker Prize winner Peter Carey, Australian-born and New York-based after transporting himself from one side of the world to the other.

The new film, directed by Justin Kurzel, as one report in the Guardian newspaper put it: “detonates a punk power-chord of defiance and anarchy with this brutally violent and unflinchingly stark tale that unfolds in a scorched, alien-looking landscape.”

That description of the landscape has, lately, turned tragically true. But what of the latest Ned? “The film is adapted by Shaun Grant from Peter Carey’s Booker prize-winning novel, and it is a further variation on the legend of Ned Kelly, the 19th-century Australian outlaw and bush-ranger at war with the English colonial oppressor. Kurzel’s rock ’n’ roll Kelly has a bit more in common with the spirit of Mick Jagger’s portrayal in Tony Richardson’s 1970 film treatment than with Heath Ledger’s 2003 version.

“Kurzel’s movie draws on the traditional view of Kelly as the Jesse James or Che Guevara of Australia, but subverts the legend by presenting a vivid context of dysfunction and abuse in Kelly’s upbringing: a tragically toxic masculinity and toxic maternity.”

The 2020 screen Kelly is played both as a child and grown man, in the latter case by George MacKay who is seen in the edge-of-your-seat World War I epic, “1917.” In real life – as opposed to reel life – McKay in half Australian.

And he plays Kelly with an Aussie accent.

So what?

Well, both Jagger and Ledger portrayed Kelly with Irish accents, or at least their version of Irish accents.

And its accent that is sparking voluminous comment around the McKay Kelly.

The new Kelly movie, by the by, is actually the fourth screen tale. “The Story of the Kelly Gang” was the first in the series. It dates to 1906, was the world's first dramatic feature-length film and, of course, was silent so no argument over how the central character spoke.

Back-a-ways, when Peter Carey spoke to the Irish Echo he said of his first encounter with the Kelly tale: “I was twenty-something, just beginning to write and just beginning to read. I had just read James Joyce, so when I stumbled across this uneducated Irish voice, I woefully misread it as a literary artifact but never forgot it.”

Carey was referring to the “Jerilderie Letter,” which many interpret as a political tract penned by Ned Kelly that amounts to a virtual declaration of an Australian republic.

Carey’s reference to an “uneducated voice” is not a reference to the accent of that voice.

In one review, carried by The Conversation, Kurzel’s Kelly tale is described as being unlike other screen versions.

This one “is not hagiographic, or romantic. He does not die a social martyr, in a battle of good against bad. He does not end a figure worthy of sorrow and mourning. Earlier Kelly films were sympathetic to the character: hero worshiping Ned as the great egalitarian hero of the Australian bush.” Kurzel’s film, the review continues, “reads like a response to this framing.”

Kurzel crafts “a terrifying dystopia,” while “on an infertile, amoral Australian wasteland,” Ned “speaks in a tough, ocker accent – not the customary Irish brogue.”

Ah, the brogue.

The Kelly accent, 2020 version, was the centerpiece of a story in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Stated the report in part: “When we imagine Ned Kelly’s accent, we think of a bloke with a strong Irish brogue – addressing his gang like the leader of a revolution. But hang on, wasn’t Ned Kelly born in Australia?

“George MacKay – a Brit (with an Australian father), who stars in the film, ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ – portrays Ned with a mainstream Australian accent.

“It won’t please Keith Warren, an education officer in the Beechworth historic precinct who helps re-enact scenes from Kelly’s life every day.

“He reckons Ned had ‘a very strong Irish accent’ and that to give him an Aussie accent would be ‘historically ridiculous.’”

Warren told the Morning Herald: “His dad was from Tipperary and his mum was from County Antrim. They wouldn’t have got rid of the Irish in the family. He was very Irish. The Irish brogue they used to call it. Apples don’t fall far from the tree.”

However, the report continued: “But Dr. Bruce Moore, visiting fellow at the Australian National University School of literature, languages and linguistics, says Kelly probably had an Australian accent.

“Dr. Moore, author of ‘Speaking Our Language: The Story of Australian English,’ doubts there was enough of an ethnic enclave where Kelly grew up and went to public school in the 1860s for Kelly to have maintained his parents’ accents. The pull to fit in with school friends would have been too strong,

Stated Moore: “It’s much more likely he spoke in the kind of accent his peer group was speaking. Which would have been the Australian accent. Which had been established in the colonies, I’ve argued, by about 1830.”

Matt Shore, Kelly enthusiast and founder of the Ned Kelly Vault museum, said many actors playing Kelly, including Heath Ledger in 2003 and even Mick Jagger in 1970, favored an Irish-accented Ned.

Mr. Shore, however, believes the real Kelly had an Australian accent, but perhaps with Irish tinges.

“I can’t see how a young boy being raised in a very large Irish family wouldn’t have picked up some of the Irish lilt,” he told Morning Herald.

“But I just don’t think he would have had the thick Irish accent that’s portrayed in some films.”

So perhaps the truth of the matter sits somewhere in the middle: Kelly speaking with a combination of Irish lilt and Aussie “strine,” that being a term for regular Aussie English, an Aussie brogue if you will.

Better strine than stain.

Ned Kelly, bushranger, revolutionary, take your pick, went to the gallows in Melbourne Gaol on November 11, 1880.

His reported last words were “such is life.”

Those words have carried down the years, regardless of whatever accent they were uttered in.