As game as Ned Kelly

by Amanda Laugesen

November 11th marked the 132nd anniversary of the execution of famous Irish-Australian bushranger, Ned Kelly. He was hanged at Old Melbourne Gaol in 1880. The anniversary prompts us to consider the contributions that Ned Kelly has made to the Australian lexicon.

One of Sidney Nolan's famous depictions of Ned Kelly

Ned Kelly was born in 1855 in Victoria, and by the 1870s was notorious for being involved in criminal activities. He and his gang were responsible not only for a number of robberies, but also for killing several policemen. This led to a final confrontation at Glenrowan, Victoria, in 1880, his subsequent capture, and execution.

Ned Kelly has been an important figure in Australian folklore and mythology. Graham Seal argues in his book Tell ‘em I died game: the Legend of Ned Kelly (1980) that part of Kelly’s appeal is that he is seen to embody characteristics considered typically Australian. These characteristics include defiance towards authority, independence, and an affinity with the bush. From early on, songs celebrated his exploits, and one of Australia’s first films, The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) was about the Kelly gang. In the 20th century he become known internationally due to his story being told in film: there is the 1970 film Ned Kelly starring Mick Jagger, and recently the 2003 film Ned Kelly with Heath Ledger.

The mythology surrounding Ned Kelly has also been productive within Australian English. One of the first uses of Ned Kelly emerged in the late 19th century, and was applied to someone who was considered to be unscrupulous in seeking personal gain, or who was resistant to authority. In 1892, Francis Adams, in his book The Australians: a Social Sketch, referred to Sir Henry Parkes as: ‘This Ned Kelly of colonial politics, this Gladstone of New South Wales … ’ (p. 66)

In the early 20th century, the phrase as game as Ned Kelly appeared, applied to someone considered to be fearless in the face of odds, or foolhardy. The Bunbury Herald and Blackwood Express recorded the following in 1928:

One driver in particular was as game as Ned Kelly, and if he thinks he is going to get a better price in the future than what was on offer last week-end, he has several guesses coming his way. One of these nights the stewards will have a say, and they might decree that many moons shall pass before he has an opportunity of driving again. (29 June, p. 2.)

To Ned Kelly meaning to do something or treat something in an unfair way (the politician Ned Kellied the resolution) has also appeared in Australian English. Related to this is the appearance of Ned Kelly meaning a type of fishing rig, considered to be unsporting. This use of the term does not seem to be particularly common, but was recorded in 1948 and 1951, suggesting it may have been a short-lived usage.

All of the above uses of Ned Kelly directly relate to the bushranger and his perceived characteristics, such as foolhardiness or criminality.  Interestingly enough, these uses suggest more of the negative attributes of Ned Kelly than his heroic ‘Australian’ characteristics.