Updated October 21, 2005

Apart from presenting my historical research and analyses in the history sections, I occassionally like to offer the odd editorial, which you can read in this section..

Nicky Cowie


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Ned Kelly's armour - Enduring Aussie Icon

When the Kelly gang planned, made and wore their armour, it was done for pragmatic reasons alone. It was an attempt at invulnerability, at personal immortality. Despite its apparent failure to protect the gang members in the physical sense, it has paradoxically managed to make them immortal in a mythological sense. It was the armour that transformed as it were, the Kelly gang members from mortal blood and bone - into legend.

Ned Kelly's armour - (pictured right)
Photo by State Library of Victoria

Almost immediately after Glenrowan there was demand that the armour be displayed for the general public. It instantly captured Australia's imagination and held it. Its rough and amateurish appearance shows, at a glance, that the wealthy authorities did not make this instrument of battle. It is presumably this characteristic that first engages us and makes us curious to learn more. Even at its newest, the armour was 'old-fashioned' in design and idea. Personal body armour had been used for centuries, but had long ago been discarded as obsolete. Therefore at the time it was made, it was a modern day innovation that had been entirely drawn from the past. Perhaps in this incongruity it has managed a timeless quality and appeal.

Over the years the armour has endured as a symbol. Ian Jones in his book (A Short Life) speaks of the armour as a symbol even at its conception, for he writes, "Farmers had been denied land; the idle plough was to become a weapon." Indeed these poetic words no doubt capture the essence of the armour's initial attraction for colonial Australians. Despite Australia's sometimes harsh and unyielding countryside, it was a nation successfully established from battling settlers and 'cocky' farmers. The symbol of the farmer's tool used as a means of rebellion against the authorities could no doubt be related to and possibly even applauded.

Yet the Australia of today is vastly different to the Australia of colonial times, so why then has the armour's unique appeal endured? In modern times it would be fair to claim that the vast majority of Australians would instantly recognize the symbol of the armour. However it would also be fair to claim that the majority of those that do, would perhaps not know that it was made from plough mouldboards. They most likely would also be unfamiliar with the circumstances that lead to its conception. Therefore the reason for its enduring fascination must surely lie elsewhere. It is not uncommon to hear an Australian say that Ned must surely have been "a little bit mad" to don such armour and go in fighting against the odds, but instead of denouncing him for it, this concept seems to inspire awe. In fact Ned Kelly is widely considered by modern society as the archetypical Australian hero, i.e. the anti-hero. Ned perceived injustice against his family and fought it. He was the proverbial underdog who would not lie down. It is conceivably this that the armour symbolizes - the fighting spirit that is so admired in Australians of all generations.
The Kelly armour has become internationally recognized due in large degree to Sidney Nolan's famous Kelly series of paintings. He paints a faceless man, a man often part of the horse he rides. The blackened helmet in particular claims attention. For many Australians it is not simply recognition of a familiar symbol, but there is an additional sense of patriotic pride. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Kelly armour, in particular the one of Nolan's paintings, is one of the strongest symbols we have as a nation. The opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics demonstrated this.

Ned Kelly and Horse- (pictured above)
Sir Sidney Nolan, 1946 - Nolan Gallery

To individual Australians regardless of whether loved or loathed, the Kelly armour represents many and varied things. Over time the helmet has managed to symbolize the legendary name of Ned Kelly - but it is a name without a face. The armour has endured as an iconic Australian symbol, in much the same way that the man inside the armour, has become legend.

Ned was an Australian "native" who conceivably typified what Australians admire most in one of their own. Ned wore the armour while making a courageous 'last stand'. The armour is possibly the best insight we have into Ned Kelly's character - implacable and strong, carefully deliberate, yet impulsive, defiant and fearless. He wore it walking into a battle that he knew he could not win, and in doing so inspired the tributary phrase 'as game as Ned Kelly'. Thus to many Australian's the armour seemingly represents rebelliousness and bravery. It also perhaps manages to encapsulate that very Australian tendency of fighting for a cause even when it is already lost - just in case.

 

First published March 6th, 2002

For historical information on the Kelly armour go to ARMOUR

 

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