by Mohammed Idris


Irish bushrangers and beyond

The true story of the Irish in Australia would not be complete without a look at Ned Kelly and his gang of bushrangers. Kelly was well-known for his anti-British sentiment, something he shared with the Irish 'rebels' transported to the colonies years before.

The Irish were generally well behaved when they arrived but several bushrangers had Irish roots, including Kelly and Martin Cash. The National Museum collection includes material relating to Kelly and bushrangers including Ben Hall, Frank Gardiner, Johnny Gilbert and Jimmy Governor

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An 1873 prison portrait of Ned Kelly, from the National Museum's collection.

The Kelly gang

Australia's most famous bushranger is Ned Kelly.

Kelly's mother, Ellen, was a free Irish immigrant. His father, 'Red', was born in County Tipperary, and transported from there in 1841.

Ned Kelly described Irish convicts as a 'credit to Paddy's land', since they had died in chains rather than submit to English rule.

Edward 'Ned' Kelly was born in 1854. As a teenager he was in trouble with the police and took to stealing horses.

Feeling driven by police harassment, and the wrongful imprisonment of his mother on perjured police evidence, Kelly fled into the bush in mid-1878. Joined there by his brother, Dan, and two others, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart, they became the Kelly gang.

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conservators prepare Joe Byrne's armour for display alongside the other three suits of Kelly gang armour. Photo: Jason McCarthy.

Verdict guilty, sentence death

Father Matthew Gibney, an Irish-born priest, rushed into the burning inn to see whether Steve Hart and Dan Kelly were still alive. He found them together, 'two beardless boys' lying dead in a back room, helmets removed. It is believed they shot each other.

When the siege of Glenrowan was over, the remains of Steve Hart and Dan Kelly lay, side by side, in a back room of the inn. Dan's sisters, Maggie and Kate, who were at the scene, were said to have cried loudly and kissed his charred bones. Dan Kelly was 19 years old, and Hart, 21.

Byrne, a capable scholar at school, was considered the most literate member of the Kelly gang. Trapped in the Glenrowan Inn, he was raising his glass to toast the gang's future when he was killed by a bullet that struck the main artery in his groin.

The Kelly story is one of the most written about in Australian history. By comparison, Kelly's trial and death sentence, as recorded in the court book, took few words: 'verdict guilty, sentence death'.

Irish-born judge Sir Redmond Barry presided over Kelly's trial. When Barry asked God to have mercy on his soul, Kelly replied, 'I will see you there when I go'. Barry died on 23 November 1880, 12 days after Ned Kelly's execution.

Installing the Kelly gang armour

The armour of the four Kelly gang members is on show for the first time outside of Victoria in the exhibition Not Just Ned.

In this video National Museum conservator David Hallam describes the 'amazing, spine-tingling' experience of working with the armour, and the physical challenges of the four-day install.

David was part of the team which documented and mounted the four suits of armour. Each piece of armour weighed 10–20 kilograms.

View a slideshow of images from the Kelly armour install

Testing the Kelly gang armour

Many stories exist about the Kelly gang armour and people have long debated whether it was made at a blacksmith's forge or in a camp fire.

A detailed analysis of the armour which belonged to Joe Byrne found this suit's manufacture was consistent with having been made over a bush fire.

A project by the National Museum of Australia, University of Canberra and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation used neutron diffraction and x-ray technology to investigate the metal.

The report found the armour was made from good quality rolled steel, similar to that found in plough-shares. It also found the armour was fabricated under a low heat for several hours.

The nature of the hammer blows and the degree to which cold-working occurred supported the notion that the armour was made by amateurs.

Read the full 2004 report 'Analyses of Joe Byrne's armour' (PDF 450kb)

Gentleman bushranger Martin Cash

Martin Cash portrait by Thomas Bock, State Library of New South Wales.

Martin Cash was one of Tasmania's most notorious and popular bushrangers. Born in County Wexford, Ireland, Cash was convicted in 1827 of housebreaking. By his own account he shot at a man who was embracing his lover.

Transported for seven years, Cash arrived in Sydney. There, he was convicted of further crimes and sentenced to seven years at Port Arthur.

Cash swam around Eaglehawk Neck with Lawrence Kavenagh and George Jones and became one of few men to escape from Port Arthur.

The trio robbed inns and the houses of well-to-do settlers without the use of unnecessary violence, earning them the reputation of 'gentlemen bushrangers'. This was

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