Was Ned Kelly An Aussie Hero Or A Murderous Thug?

Descendants of key players try to sort fact from myth

Leo Kennedy has a very personal connection to legendary bushranger Ned Kelly.

Leo’s great-grandfather was Sergeant Michael Kennedy, one of three policemen killed in the infamous shoot-out with the Kelly Gang at Stringybark Creek in 1878.

Having spent time researching the story, Leo says common perceptions of Ned Kelly as a downtrodden battler fighting back against oppression is a mischaracterisation. In fact he has a far terser description of the outlaw.

“I think murderer. Attempted terrorist. Thug.”

Leo’s published a book, Black Snake, which challenges the legend of Ned Kelly, and instead puts the point of view of the people killed by the gang of outlaws.

The impact of Michael’s confrontation with Ned has echoed down through the generations. At school, Leo was teased due to his connection with the Kelly story, and the belief that his great-grandfather and the other troopers were persecuting the Kelly Gang.

“It’s actually hurt our family a lot,” Leo says. “We’re told get over it, what are you worried about now, its 140 years on. But when you’re confronted with something that’s not true and your ancestor’s made out to be the bad guy, when he was murdered on the job, it’s very hard to take.”

Leo’s research has led him to conclude that far from the shoot-out taking place after a brutal manhunt aiming to capture the Kellys “dead or alive”, the police were caught largely unawares and were mostly unarmed.

And he believes that Ned shot one of them through the eye, in cold blood.

It’s not a version of history that Ned’s great-grand-niece Joanne Griffiths buys into.

“He was always a gentleman. Treated women and children very well, that’s all recorded,” Joanne says of Ned.

But having met Leo while he was writing the book, she has some sympathy for his view that the true story has been taken out of the hands of the families who are impacted.

Joanne and her family fought hard to reclaim Ned’s remains and in 2013, held a funeral for him, burying him in an unmarked grave.

But still, with Ned having been turned into an icon, and his story turned into a stream of merchandise, Joanne feels that her family has had their history taken away from them.

“Every time you see another product or another thing, it’s just like a piece of you is taken,” she says.

“The Kelly descendants are also victims,” Leo says. “Different to the police victims, but by the same token, still victims of the acts of four violent young men.

“I hope in time that they tell their version to be frank.

“We’ve had 140 years of myth so I think it’s about time for the real story and the truth to come out.”

Leo’s book Black Snake is out now through Affirm Press.