Professor Molony, I would like to take this opportunity to
thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to visit with us
here at Glenrowan1880. It is truly an honour.
For those who perhaps are not familiar with your academic career,
I will take a moment to give just a few of your impressive credentials
if I may.
John Neylon Molony has previously been Professor of History and Manning
Clark Professor of Australian History at the Australian National
University, Canberra, Keith Cameron Professor of Australian History at
University College, Dublin and Foundation Research Professor of the
Australian Catholic University. He is currently Visiting Fellow,
Australian Dictionary of Biography, at the Australian National
Now on to my questions.
DAVE WHITE: Professor Molony, your book, “I am Ned Kelly” (1980,
reissued as “Ned Kelly,” 2001) is a seminal work, a true classic in its
field. It is very well researched, and in it you present many
interesting theories, some in variance to other modern Kelly authors. In
the preface you state: “In the end it all remained a matter of trying to
understand, to unravel the tangled skein of a life over which legend
cast its spell so that reality has become secondary.” It does seem that
Ned Kelly took on the status of legend and myth even while he lived. You
have done much to give us all a greater understanding of Ned Kelly, the
man, especially as concerns the Irish Catholic aspect of his background.
Much of that information I found to be quite illuminating.
I would like to ask you when was it that you decided to do a biography
of Ned Kelly? Up until that point, did Ned Kelly have a hold on your
imagination or have a special significance to you (as an historian)?
Also, has your interest in (or love for) Ned’s story diminished at all
since the publication of “I am Ned Kelly” 25 years ago?
JOHN MOLONY: I decided to write my Kelly book in 1978 as a reaction to
a decision taken by a Victorian anniversaries committee not to commemorate
the centenary of Ned’s death in 1980. To the members of that committee Ned
was unworthy of any recognition, but to me any attempt to eliminate his memory
was both absurd and futile.
It was absurd because most Australians, irrespective of whether they
judge Ned harshly or favourably, accept that his memory is woven into the
psyche of the nation. It was futile because legends are created by the
people as a kind of spontaneous response to a phenomenon that strikes a
chord in their being. Ned is an Australian legend and the people will
not relinquish their legends at the whim of right-minded, but
unrepresentative, conservatives. “As brave as Ned Kelly” is not a phrase
Up to the time of my decision to write about Ned I had been uneasy about
him because he did not fit into the framework of my own Irish Catholic
background, which was essentially middle class and conformist. I was
only vaguely aware of the harshness pervading the economic and social
circumstances that had shaped Ned and entirely ignorant of the
persecution to which the Kelly clan had been subjected by the police and
other authorities. It had struck me as odd that no academic historian
had written a life of Kelly. Why were they silent on a national figure?
I can only say that my respect for Ned has in no sense diminished and I
hold him in higher esteem than I did in the 1980s. I do so because I
have become more fully aware of how anyone who departs from the norm,
much more anyone who rejects the norm, suffers when the organs of wealth
and so called respectability are fused in support of a government
determined to control society according to its own standards. For one
like Ned the situation becomes far worse when the authorities conclude
that they must protect society from anyone they judge to be a threat to
DAVE WHITE: How long did “I am Ned Kelly” take from the first bit of
research to the last touches on the manuscript when it was finally
pronounced finished? Of course, all that was being done between your
family and work obligations, too, wasn’t it? Not an easy task, I am
sure, as I am finding out for myself as I work on a book.
JOHN MOLONY: Throughout the two and a half years I spent in researching
and writing Ned I was mostly confined to my desk in Canberra as head of the
History Department here at the Australian National University. However I
enjoyed the inestimable assistance of Robin Carter who undertook a great
deal of useful research for me in Melbourne and especially in the State Archives.
The involvement of my family was a day-to-day affair and I dedicated my Ned to
my four children. I left the dedication of my book on Eureka to my wife who was
born in Ballarat.
It was never an easy task to write about Ned. We must remember that Ned
partly became a legend because others spoke on his behalf and they began
to do so in ballads even in his own lifetime. Except in the Jerilderie
letter and when he was in the dock, Ned had few chances to speak for
himself. Those who persecuted him, the police and the government,
created his records, as well as those of his mates and of his people.
This helps to explain why it is not easy to come close to Ned because
much of what we know of him is coloured by the way his enemies have
told their own crooked story of him.
Sidney Nolan told me that he was driven by a sense of guilt because his
grandfather was one of the police who hunted Ned. As a result he
repeatedly struggled valiantly in his endeavour to make Ned live a
little for us. Yet it happens often in his paintings that you look at
the helmet and Ned is not there – you see through the helmet and
there is only the land. Nolan wanted it that way and I am sure Ned, who
loved the land, would accept that Sid did it well. But to me the
important thing is that we all share a kind of empty legend. That makes
it possible for us to fill it out with the Ned who says something to us
and to the land from which he sprang.
DAVE WHITE: The Siege of Glenrowan has always been the most fascinating
aspect of the Kelly story to me. Could you give us a brief overview/synopsis of
the Siege and Ned Kelly’s Last Stand from your point of view telling us what it
means to you and also why the event was so important from an historical
viewpoint? Also, Professor, the theory put forth about the “rebellion” Ned had
planned has always perplexed me. Could you shed some light on this? Also do
you think that documentation for this rebellion actually exists?
JOHN MOLONY: In all that I wrote about Ned I took his own account of
his life as my starting point. In other words I believed what he said of himself
and continued to do so unless I found evidence to the contrary. I never caught
him out in a lie. As an example, I believed Ned when he wrote in the Jerilderie
letter that he was not in Victoria when Fitzpatrick
visited the Greta home on 15 April 1878. All the evidence proved that
Fitzpatrick was both a scoundrel and a liar and it was inconceivable to
me that Ned could have stood within a few feet of the constable, shot at
him several times in a room half full of women and children, missed his
target but hit him in the wrist. It sounded like a stupidly foolish
concoction to me, which Fitzpatrick had to make up to explain why he was
at the home in the first place as well as to cover his tracks in case he
was accused of attempting to rape Kate. In other words I believed Ned
and there is evidence for my belief. I find it incomprehensible why
anyone would accept the word of Fitzpatrick rather than that of Ned
about an incident bearing all the hallmarks of a lie.
We must put the Siege at Glenrowan in its proper context and see it also
in the light of what we know of Ned’s personality. The context is one of
sheer desperation. Things had gone on and on without resolve. Meanwhile
Mrs Kelly languished in prison. The police were clearly incompetent and
the likelihood that they would ever catch the boys unless they gave
themselves up was increasingly remote. The matter had to be brought to a
head, but on Ned’s terms and Glenrowan seemed the solution. We know that
it was unlikely to have succeeded, but to Ned something had to be tried.
The one discordant note is the intended murder of unsuspecting police
and completely innocent civilians. The scenario does not fit Ned’s
personality in any sense. In cold blood he could have killed McIntyre;
he could have killed police and civilians at any time and especially in
Jerilderie. He killed when his own life was at stake and that only
happened at Stringybark Creek. The whole incident at Glenrowan with the
train and the rails is explicable and I have endeavoured to make it so
in my chapter – A Still, Cold Night. Again I cannot understand some
writers who put themselves forward as Ned’s defenders, but make him out
as cold-blooded monster intent on murder. Had he been that, I for one
would have not written a single line about him. Is it possible that they
do so because they want to make Ned out to be what he was not a man
intent on overthrowing all the structures of society and thus using
bloody means to do so?
A member of the Kelly clan told me that he had seen an old exercise book
some years later in which he saw minutes of the meetings at which a
rebellion and republic of the northeast had been planned. That Ned, and
others, with either memories or knowledge of Ireland and its miseries,
were capable of conceiving such a plan is clearly possible. That they
carried it beyond hope is a matter requiring further study and research.
DAVE WHITE: Professor Molony, do you ever get up to Glenrowan and the
environs these days? Do you attend any Kelly events? What about the 2003
Ned Kelly movie? Did you see it? Do you try to keep up with all the
latest doings in the Kelly world?
JOHN MOLONY: I passed through Glenrowan a year or so ago, but generally I
have little to do with anything pertaining to Ned although my interest in him
remains undiminished. I did not see the film, but I am sorry it was not as
successful as many hoped it would be. Perhaps that is an example of what
I mean when I say that it is not easy to come close to Ned who remains his own man.
However, I am vain enough to think that I did my best for his memory and that best,
humble as it is, has endured.
It is for others now to take the legend further, but it must be made to
live or it will die. Ned abhorred injustice and thirsted after justice
for himself and for others. He did not think of it that way, but at the
least he knew what it was to get less than a fair go and he reacted when
he saw others, especially his own people getting anything but a fair go.
Perhaps that is the key to why Ned’s legend endures. The danger is that,
if we leave it as a hollow affirmation, the legend of Ned will itself
begin to ring as futile and the people will forget him in time. There
are some questions we could ask which are not far from Ned and his time.
Are we just to the poor, or are we allowing the gap between the poor and
the rich to get wider every year? Are we prepared to continue as a
nation bowed down in subservience to a seemingly greater power whose
bidding we do even when it results in injustice to others? Will we stand
up and struggle for a republic of the free, or will we acquiesce in
remaining tied to a distant and meaningless monarchy? Have we been just
to those who fled here as refugees? Will we treat those we accuse of
being terrorists with justice?
They are a few of the problems that face our society, but Ned would not
have stood idly by or remained mute before them. We cannot give flesh to
his legend by mere words, writing about him and speaking about him. He
wanted a changed and better society – what do we want?
DAVE WHITE: I know that you have written several books. Besides the one
on Ned, you are well known for authoring “Eureka” (1984, reissued in
2001). I am also aware that you have a very active interest in the
events surrounding the Eureka Stockade and that you have been involved
with the Eureka Stockade Memorial Trust. Surely last year, 2004, was a
most exciting and busy one for you as the Eureka 150th anniversary was
celebrated. Would you care to tell us a bit about your work with the
Trust? Also, if I am not mistaken, in 2006 Ballarat will be the host
city for the World Conference of Historical Cities. That should do much
to project the Eureka Stockade and its significance onto the
international stage. To your knowledge are there any “Eureka” themed
events planned to capitalise on that function?
JOHN MOLONY: I wrote my Eureka almost in the same context as I did my
Ned. To me both have become legends that are closely related to the
development of Australian nationality. Because Eureka is seen, rightly,
as the birthplace of our democracy, it is assuming a formative and educative
role in our society.
My grandfather was a young digger in the Stockade on the morning of 3
December 1854 when the military and police murdered at least thirty
diggers. Thus I am a member of Eureka’s Children, which is a body that
welcomes anyone descended from those connected with Eureka in 1854.
The Trust, based in Ballarat, is now known as an Association. It is the
principal body devoted to Eureka. It has been chiefly responsible for
the development of the new Stockade and it was heavily involved in the
events at the end of last year when we celebrated the 150th anniversary
of Eureka. They were a resounding success.
Both the Association and Eureka’s Children are trying to make a concrete
contribution to Australian democracy. Recently the Association has been
involved in procuring a scholarship for a young student from West Papua
to enroll at one of our universities. Clearly, both bodies will
contribute positively and significantly to the World Conference of
Historical Cities to be held in Ballarat in 2006. Without Eureka the
significance of Ballarat would scarcely warrant its recognition on a
world scale any more than other cities such as Bendigo or Ararat based
on their connection with gold. It is Eureka that makes Ballarat unique
DAVE WHITE: Other than Ned Kelly and the Eureka Stockade, you have
many varied interests, ranging from Australian Rules Football to promoting
Italian culture through the Dante Alighieri Society. You do lectures and
presentations, give speeches, and write articles, as well as write books
as alluded to above. You have had over a dozen different book titles in
print, haven’t you? I have mentioned the Ned and Eureka ones, and am
working up to discussing your autobiography in a bit, but do you have
any other titles you would like to make mention of that the readers
might find of interest?
In the near future Australian Scholarly Publishing will bring out my
Australia our Heritage. It is a history of Australia with a long chapter
at the beginning dealing with the civilization of the Aboriginal people
before white settlement. I preferred to use Heritage rather than History
because too frequently we regard our past, though we may treasure it, as
of no consequence in the present. We inherit the past and we are made by it.
Our history is our most important heritage as a nation.
DAVE WHITE: Professor Molony, I wish to again thank you for your time
and for your willingness to answer the questions I have presented, you
are truly a scholar and a gentleman. I hope to speak with you again soon.
I would also like to thank Sharon Hollingsworth for her assistance in the
formulating of these questions for Professor Molony & checking over this write up.
POSTSCRIPT: Professor Molony passed away 16th of September 2018.