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Ned Kelly's Mum | Print |  Email
Sunday, 05 December 2004
Ned Kelly may have been one of the world's best-known outlaws, but he had his mother's spirit - Antrim-born Ellen Quinn had been a little girl who just loved to be free. John Wright tells the tale.

by John Wright - Email: John@emigrant.ie

See more stories by John Wright

When Ellen Quinn was a little girl, she loved to be free. Born in County Antrim in 1832, "she was often missing from class," said a friend, "and would roam over the hills or woods after birds' nests or wild berries. She would tear her clothes hiding in some hedge when she saw someone she feared would inform on her."

Little did she know that 13 years or so later, she would be in Australia and married to a man called Kelly, and would give birth to a boy they'd call "Ned".

Ellen didn't see her son, Ned Kelly, as one of the world's best-known outlaws; to her, he was just a man protecting his family. History, as we now know, has either put him up on a pedestal as a folk hero, or denounced him as a common criminal.

Ellen's parents were James Quinn, a labourer, and Mary (born McClusky). Their life in Northern Ireland was getting by on "milk and potatoes, with the occasional bacon rind on festive occasions," says John Molony in "I am Ned Kelly." They left for Australia on the ship "England" when Ellen was 9. In 1850 she married John Kelly, who had been transported to Van Diemen's Land as a convict for stealing two pigs.

Ned Kelly was only 25 in 1880 when, wearing his famous armour, he was captured at the famous shootout with police at Glenrowan (the rest of the gang were killed), and hanged soon afterwards in Melbourne Gaol. By then, the Kelly gang (Ned, his brother Dan and two others) had shot dead 3 policemen, spent two years outwitting the police forces of Victoria and New South Wales, and supposedly "held up whole towns, robbed banks of over 4,000 pounds and murdered a police spy," says Keith McMenomy in "Ned Kelly: the Authentic Illustrated Story."

Ironically, because there's no doubt that Ned had his mother's spirit, the whole thing was almost accidental. It seems that it was Ned's uncles, on both sides of the family, who were the 'wild lot' constantly stealing cattle, drinking, getting into fights and taunting the police. Ellen even moved away from them. Trouble really arrived at Ellen's own family the day the constable (who was later sacked for perjury and drunkenness) turned up.

In 1911 a Sydney journalist called B.W. Cookson and a photographer went to the bush in Victoria to look for any survivors of the Kelly family. "In a small hut," says Keith, "they found Ellen Kelly living in poverty with several young grandchildren."

"People blame my boys for all that has happened," said Ellen. "They should blame the police. Before that black day (in 1878) when Fitzpatrick came, we were all living so happily at the old homestead…Dear little Kate! (Ned's sister) I can see her now, bustling about the place, keeping things tidy, always bright and cheerful, just like a sunbeam about the house."

He told them he'd come to arrest Dan, and then had tried to kiss Kate. "The boys tried to stop him. He was drunk, but his story was believed. He swore I hit him with a shovel. It was untrue." Ellen (at 46) was jailed for 3 years with hard labour. The Kelly gang began that day. Recalling this, she apparently "broke down and wept bitterly."

In 1923 (at 91) Ellen Kelly died. Her extraordinary life had spanned almost a century and, says Keith McMenomy, she had even seen "T-model Ford and bitumen roads."

As for Ned Kelly, whatever people said about him while she was alive, there was never any doubt in his mother's mind whose side she'd always been on.




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