Ned Kelly
Updated August 12, 2002

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Book News - Interview and Review

'TELL 'EM I DIED GAME The Legend of Ned Kelly'
Dr. Graham Seal

Publisher: Hyland House Publishing
RRP: $24.95 (paperback)
Publication: Available in bookstores now
It can be ordered directly through The Australian Book Group ph. 03 5625 4290 or email (small postage & handling fee applies).


The following is an Interview with author Dr.Graham Seal, folklorist and cultural historian. Dr. Seal is Deputy Director of Australian Studies at Curtin University of Technology in Perth. His other works include; The Outlaw Legend: a Cultural Tradition in Britain, America and Australia and the Encyclopedia of Folk Heroes.

Q. Firstly Graham, congratulations on your book 'Tell em I died game'. I enjoyed reading it and consider it a quality addition to anyone's Kelly collection. Was it the current surge in Kelly popularity and demand that inspired you to revise and re-release your work?
[Graham Seal] Thanks Nicky. Yes, to some extent it was the resurrection of Ned as a national icon after a few quiet years, though he never goes away altogether, of course! Also I'd had some further thoughts about it all since 1980 and felt the urge to get them down.

Q. You say in your book that as far as the legend of Ned Kelly is concerned it does not matter if he was a larrikin criminal, or a hero. Do you think the ongoing debate and 'side taking' on the issue manages to enhance or detract from the Kelly legend?
[Graham Seal] I think the debate is an essential element of Ned's longevity. As I say in the new last chapter his contradictions and his dual status as hero and villain neatly encapsulate our own contradictions - we have a romantic image of the bush but mostly live in cities; our mythologies are strong on anti-authoritarianism, but we are an exceptionally governed and law abiding mob and we espouse the 'fair go', yet there are demonstrably many who do not receive that, including but not restricted to indigenous peoples and asylum seekers.

Q. Given that you believe that the 'truth' is not that relevant to the Kelly legend, do you think the lack of clarity over historical 'facts', enables people to adjust their ideas of Ned to keep the legend relevant?
[Graham Seal] Mythmaking works by selecting and enhancing from historical events and producing a story or version that appeals to people for a variety of reasons, often fulfilling their needs. Certainly this is what I was trying to show regarding Ned Kelly's legend. Once the cultural processes of mythmaking and legendry get going the truth - whatever that might be - takes back seat.

Q. You note how Ned is described variously at different times in history - that the characteristics valued by society at any given time are used to depict and, or admire him. However you have not gone into much detail on the anti-Ned literature, such as that of Ned's contemporary Frances Hare, or the modern writings of Edgar Penzig. Do you think a national folk hero such as Ned Kelly needs such voices speaking against him in order to keep his supporters passionate in his defense? Is such 'anti-hero' sentiment essential to maintaining hero status?
[Graham Seal] Yes, this goes back to the earlier answer about Ned being an icon who combines the hero and the villain (actually quite common with folk heroes, especially those of the outlaw variety). In our case, he combines certain contradictions that resonate strongly of our national identity.

Q. You address the idea that Aaron Sherritt was "cast in the role of traitor", and claim his guilt or innocence is no more relevant to the Kelly story than Ned's. Without Aaron as the turncoat, do you think the police would have been sufficiently 'villainous' enough for the legend to retain its force?
[Graham Seal] From the perspective of folklore there has to be a traitor in outlaw hero stories. Sherritt - actually a very complex character - filled the role nicely. I don't think the police needed much help to be cast as, to say the least, heavy-handed! The Royal Commission that was held after the execution made it quite clear that there were major problems in the Victoria Police at that time and in the policing of n-e of Victoria. It is also very difficult to see the actions of the police at Glenrowan in a positive light.

Q. You explain how over time Kate Kelly has been seen as the prevailing 'heroine' of the story. The more recent public perception of her importance seems to have waned, and been spread more between her, Maggie Skillion (nee Kelly) and various love interests of Ned. Why do you think this has occurred within the myth?
[Graham Seal] Yes, that's an interesting point that I could have considered more. Again from a folkloric perspective, the helpful heroine is a stock standard of outlaw and some other types of hero traditions. While it was clearly Maggie who did most of the heroic stuff the younger and more publicity-conscious (took after her brother Ned there) Kate got the guernsey. I think the work done on the Kelly's in the last 20 years or so by scholars like Ian Jones and John McQuilton have contributed to a reassessment of Maggie's role, though I would argue that as far as folklore is concerned it matters little which sister it was, as long as there is a helpful heroine!

Q. You assert that the Kellys were not actually as motivated by Irish sentiments as is widely portrayed, but that they "...had no other means of expressing their anger than through the inherited images and clichés of Irish nationalism." How important do you think the Irish influence is over the Kelly legend? Do you believe the legend would have been so widely accepted if, from the outset, the gang had expressed an 'Australian sentiment' instead?
[Graham Seal] The Irish heritage was extremely important, of course, as it comes out in Ned's own words in the Jerilderie Letter and elsewhere. But his problems, and those of people like him were very much of that time and place and his actions, even though informed by the language and grievances of Irishism, were responses to the local situation. Given the resonances of Irishism in Australia, especially in those days, and the widespread conflicts associated with free selection (to which bushranging was one response), Ned didn't need to articulate an Australian-ness, his actions were perceived as relating to Australian issues.

Q.What do you think of the way Ned is portrayed in schools, and do you think this has/will change over time? Every Aussie school kid learns about the bushranger Ned Kelly. Is the schoolroom where opinion on Ned is generally formed? Do you think it is it the nursery for the persistence of the legend?
[Graham Seal] Is he portrayed in schools? My impression is that Australian history, culture, etc have just about disappeared from secondary curricula altogether!

Q. What role, if any, do you see the 'information age' playing in the future of the legend of Ned Kelly?
[Graham Seal] I really think that Ned has staying power as a national icon. Until we undergo some fundamental changes to the ways we think about ourselves Ned will continue to appeal and to be reworked and adapted to new circumstances, generation after generation.

Q. Do you think Ned would recognize himself in the legend?
[Graham Seal] That's a good question: yes, I think that his character and his actions, whatever we might think of them, were such that they were appropriate to the genesis of his legend. He was noted by his peers before the outbreak and his bushranger actions (which he made sure were good 'spin') were carried out in accordance with the moral code of the outlaw hero, which was familiar to the many who supported and sympathised with him and which acted as guidelines for what was OK and what was not. How many other bushrangers were not celebrated as heroes - an awful lot.
Thank you very much for your time Graham, I wish you all the best with the release of the book.

Copyright Bailup 2002


"Ned Kelly's story is the timeless tale of the hero, the man who transcends the often brutal or mundane realities of his existence to become a symbol of something larger than himself."

The words 'Tell em I died game' were not actually spoken by Ned Kelly, but Graham Seal's book explores the idea that they may as well have been. This book is a revised edition of his 1980 book Ned Kelly in Popular Tradition, and he has updated and extended his original work. Graham concentrates not on the historical facts of Kelly's life (although he has recorded them fairly accurately), but rather on Ned Kelly the 'legend' and 'folk hero'. He examines why Ned has become such an enduring icon in Australia, his native country. Why it is that as a nation Australia holds a criminal up as our national hero, and why the fact that Ned killed police does not impact on his folk hero status. He addresses such elusive questions very well, and presents his ideas in a comprehensive and entirely readable style. His approach to the Kelly legend overall is thought-provoking and refreshing.

Graham explains that there is a common theme in all legends and how this one has all the essential ingredients. In order for a legend to be complete it requires a hero, a heroine, and a 'traitor', and he asserts that the 'truth' of their stories is broadly irrelevant when it comes to the legend. Graham makes a good case for how Ned Kelly fits nicely into the traditional tale of what makes a good folk hero, and that he had personal qualities that are important to the making of his legend. He argues that Ned was wholly aware of the 'ideal' heroic figure and was mindful to adhere to it.

Graham investigates the history not of Ned Kelly 'the man', but of Ned Kelly 'the legend', sourcing its origins to the themes found in folk songs and ballads since Ned's lifetime. He traces how the legend has changed and grown over time, and explores the relevance of various forms of oral folklore and balladry. By differentiating between the weighty voice of the authorities and the enduring and powerful oral voice of the common people, he explains their relative importance and impact on the legend. We see the evolution, he explains, of Ned Kelly's popular image, through oral and media, songs, books, films, tourism, art and even politics.

Those interested in the Irish-Australian aspect of the Kelly story may find his views particularly worthy of consideration. Graham expresses an unusual and interesting opinion when addressing the relevance of the Irish influence on the Kellys and in particular its relevance to the Kelly mythology.

Comparing the two editions: The updated version has an extra chapter mostly on the current happenings of Ned the legend, the title has changed (interestingly being the same one used by Bill Wannan for his book on bushrangers) and the cover design is new. The publisher is still Hyland House Melbourne. The forward by Russell Ward is acknowledged as being unchanged. Main events have been moved from the back to the front of this edition. Various Kelly cartoons of the day are not included in the new version, also omitted was a letter dictated to a warder by Ned. He includes copies of the Cameron and Jerilderie letters - as they were originally written. There is enough new text to warrant buying the updated version, (even assuming you could find the original).

Even Graham's bibliographical notes at the end of the book are an interesting read, and good reference source managing a fair précis of a century of literature on the Kelly legend. The topic explored in the book is one that is not often investigated so thoroughly. This aspect of the Kelly phenomena addresses the flipside to the 'factual' research most Kelly historians focus on (including us here at Bailup), and therefore provides a good balance to the more traditional approach to historical research.

I recommend this book as well worth adding to any Kelly collection.

Thanks to D. White for providing me with the information for the comparison of the 2 editions.


Review and interview first published 12th of August 2002

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