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Ned Kelly as an Iconic Figure Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: May 17th, 2019


The life of Ned Kelly continuously attracts the attention of Australian historians, anthropologists and even sociologists, because to a large extent, this person has become a part of the national culture. This person has become a cultural icon for the struggle against social injustice, oppression, or poverty. He became to be viewed as a courageous individual who was able to combat the state, especially in those cases when it acted unjustly.

This paper will examine Kelly’s real life and its relation to popular views about him. Moreover, it will discuss the importance of this historic figure to the national identity of Australian people. Overall, one can argue that Ned Kelly only represents the idea of national hero who championed poor and powerless people against the rich.

However, his real life was not as romantic as many people want to believe. Moreover, his life and actions have been significantly idealized, and this idealization transformed Kelly into a national hero. Such perception of Ned Kelly is not always supported by his real actions. Nonetheless, the values that are associated with Kelly influenced the national identity of Australian people. This is the key idea that should be illustrated in this paper.

The explanation of the key concepts and their relevance to the topic

At first, it is important to explain the main concepts and terms that will be used in this paper because they will be important for the discussion of Ned Kelly. When speaking about this person, one can use the words iconic or icon. These terms refer to a signifier or a sign that represents a particular set of values, principles, or behaviors that are recognized and shared by a certain group (Leung, Chiu, Hong 2010, p. 103).

The main distinction of icons is that they bear some resemblance to the objects that they represent; yet, one should assume that they are always identical to the objects that they signify.

For instance, Ned Kelly had some traits of a noble outlaw who struggled against social injustice, but he was also a murderer and a cruel person who could harm innocent people. In contrast, symbol or symbolic representations can be defined as signs that do not bear resemblance to the objects that they represent (Leung, Chiu, Hong 2010, p. 103).

Their meaning is conventional and it cannot be understood by a person who does know much about a specific culture. For example, many people choose buy the replicas of Ned Kelly’s armor (Tranter & Donoghue 2010, p. 190).

For them, these objects symbolize romantic life, courage, and struggle against the injustice. However, a non-Australian person may not understand why these replicas are so popular and what meaning they are supposed to have.

Secondly, one can mention such important concepts as nationalism and national identity. Such a concept as nationalism has many definitions, but it can be understood as person’s identification with a nation or a community of people who have common territory, culture, and language (Beiner 1999, p. 54). In turn, such a notion as national identity can be interpreted as a person’s sense of belonging to the nation (Beiner 1999, p. 312).

A person can have this feeling, if he or she shares some characteristics with a group, for instance, language, cultural heritage, value system, or social norms.

Such a person Ned Kelly is very important for the national identity of Australian people because the myths about this person highlighted some values shared by Australians, in particular, the belief in social justice, the defense of the oppressed, and willingness to struggle for one’s well-being. This is why this bushranger occupies an important part in the history of Australia and in the contemporary life of the country.

The real life of Ned Kelly and cultural myths about him

Numerous attempts have been made to determine whether popular beliefs about Ned Kelly coincide with historical reality. Some of his actions and character traits could make him look like a person who fought against injustice and oppression. These traits have always attracted the attention of many writers, for instance, one can mention Peter Carey’s book True History of the Kelly Gang (2001). This novel throws some light on the life of this notorious robber.

This novel written as an autobiography enables the reader to understand some of Kelly’s experiences. For instance, one can understand that this person was born in abject poverty.

This is how the author describes one moment of Kelly’s life, “We arrived at the Beveridge Police Camp drenched to the bone and doubtless stank of poverty a strong odor about us like wet dogs and for this or other reasons we were excluded from the Sergeant’s room” (Carey 2001, p. 8).

Maybe, some details provided by the author can be questioned but the biographers of Ned Kelly agree that he was born to a family of people who were excluded from economic or political life. Therefore, it is possible to suggest that circumstances forced him to become a bushranger.

Nevertheless, one should not forget that there were thousands of other people who lived under the same conditions, but they did not begin to rob banks or kill other people. They were also very poor and politically disfranchised, but they tried to remain with the boundaries of law and ethics.

By applying this logical, one can see that the personality of Ned Kelly is not very appealing. He was a person who could take arms against the rich people or against the state, but such actions can hardly be justified from ethical point of view. If one looks at Ned Kelly from this perspective, he will not be viewed as a hero or a person whose actions deserve admiration.

Secondly, it should be noted that Ned Kelly took part in the robbery of many banks and even police trains. At that time, these institutions were really perceived as the oppressors of people, especially those ones who were forced to settle in Australia. For instance, one can certainly mention the Glenrowan shoot-out when Kelly and his band attempted to derail a police train (Carey 2001, p. 278).

However, one should not forget that this incident also involved taking hostages, in other words, innocent people, who had nothing to do with the sufferings of Kelly’s family or other Australian settlers.

Again, this fact also tarnishes the image of a freedom fighter who tried to protect the powerless people. If a person takes into account this fact, Ned Kelly can be regarded not as a mythical character, but as a ruthless gangster who was very unscrupulous in his methods. Thus, it is possible to see a gap between cultural myths and real life of Ned Kelly. In this case, the reality is less attractive than fiction.

Furthermore, as a cultural icon, Ned Kelly represented the struggles of the Irish people against the English rule. In the fictional autobiography of Ned Kelly, Peter Carey emphasizes the ethnic origins of the main character. For instance, the author uses the phrase “poor Irish” several times (Carey 2001, p. 7, 63). However, one should take into account that the majority of people whom Kelly killed had nothing to do with the oppression of the Irish people.

They were minor officials were not responsible for the policies of the British government. The reputation of Ned Kelly as a protector of the people can be mostly explained by the fact that he defended his sister against a drunken constable (Tranter & Donoghue 2010, p. 190). However, this incident does not suggest that Ned Kelly was a noble outlaw who tried to defend the Irish people against the injustice and oppression of the English state.

Overall, this discussion suggests that real life of Ned Kelly does not fully substantiate the popular views according to which he represented the struggle against oppression, colonial rule, and injustice. This is one of the most important points that should be kept in mind. The thing is that many people choose to overlook less attractive aspects of Kelly’s revolt, for instance, the fact that he took many innocent people as hostages and killed the officials who could not be blamed for the political and social situation in Australia.

The importance of Ned Kelly for the national identity of Australian people

It is possible to say that Ned Kelly still plays an important part in the national life of Australia. The surveys conducted by researchers show that he is the most popular bushranger in the history of the country, even though there were other bandits who acted in a very similar way, for example, one can mention Thunderbolt or Hall (Tranter & Donoghue 2008, p. 385).

Most importantly, the respondents, who were asked to describe their perceptions of Kelly, focused on the following aspects: 1) social injustice that forced him to become a robber, 2) his anti-authoritarian behavior; 3) cultural importance of this bushranger (Tranter & Donoghue 2010, p. 196). The respondents did not focus on the fact that Ned Kelly was a thief and a murderer (Tranter & Donoghue 2010, p. 196). These findings suggest that people tend to idealize Ned Kelly; they do not pay attention to less attractive aspects of his life.

Currently, Ned Kelly can be rightly viewed as a part of Australian national identity. He is a cultural icon recognized by people who believe that they belong to Australian nation and state. The most famous example that illustrates this idea was the opening ceremony of 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

He was chosen as a mascot of this event. He was often portrayed a man clad in armor, and such portrayal of this person emphasized the knightly image of Ned Kelly. The fact that he was chosen as the main Australian icon suggests that the majority of people have a positive attitude toward him. In this regard, one can mention that the Olympic Games in Sydney can be regarded as an event that intensified the national identity of Australian people.

Furthermore, as a popular icon, Ned Kelly has often been used for various commercial purposes, for instance, his images were used to promote such products as soap, coffee mugs, or even towels. Besides, the replicas of Kelly’s armor are purchased very often (Tranter & Donoghue 2010, p. 190).

Moreover, this person has been popularized in poetry, films, books, and paintings. These examples indicate that Ned Kelly gained both official and unofficial recognition. He is not regarded as a mere bushranger, more likely he is considered as a romantic figure, even though such views do not fully correspond to the historical reality.

Researchers explain the significance of Kelly in several ways. First of all, to some extent, this bushranger exemplifies such values as social justice and egalitarianism (Tranter & Donoghue 2010, p. 200). Moreover, it was even claimed that Ned Kelly was an advocate of the republican government (Tranter & Donoghue 2008, p. 376).

Such claims have not been substantiated but they also reflect some values of Australian people, namely the willingness to be independent from any external rule. It should be noted that Ned Kelly was accepted as a popular icon not only by white people of the country.

Indigenous Australians also accepted Kelly as a national icon because he signified their struggles against the colonial government that oppressed them and viewed them as sub-humans (Seal 2001, p. 139). Thus, one can say that the image of Ned Kelly appeals to people of different ethnic origins. The ideals that this bushranger represented became some of the essential values for the Australian nation.

Some scholars believe that Ned Kelly helped Australian people discover the national identity (Clark 1993, p. 351). First of all, this person displayed some of traits that people could value, the courage to fight against injustice, willingness to support the oppressed, perseverance, and strong will (Clark 1993, p. 352).

Such behavior can be very appealing to people irrespective of their age, sex, religion, or ethnic origins. Moreover, Ned Kelly reflected some aspirations that were common among many Australian people, in particular, their desire to overthrow oppressive colonial rule and create a more egalitarian society.

His popularity can be partly explained by the rich folklore tradition of the British people, especially the presence of the so-called noble outlaw who protects the interests of the poor and powerless people. In this regard, one can certainly mention Robin Hood. Ned Kelly fitted this image of a noble outlaw.

Admittedly, not all Australians accept Ned Kelly as a part of their national identity. For many people, he remains a thief and a murder who did not hesitate to use power if it could help him achieve his goals. In fact, such perception of Ned Kelly is more close to historical reality, but it runs contrary to the popular image of this person.

Certainly, Ned Kelly is not the only cultural tie that unites Australian people, but he is an important part of their past and present. Perhaps, the legacies of Ned Kelly can be reevaluated. It is possible that people will begin to pay more attention to his real life, rather than cultural myths. Nevertheless, he still plays an important part in Australian nationalism and national identity.


This discussion gives rise to several important conclusions. First of all, Ned Kelly signifies a noble outlaw, an image that is rooted in the folklore. His name is associated with bravery, courage, and sense of social justice. However, historical facts tell that he also acted cruelly and violently often harming innocent people.

Despite the difference between historical reality and popular perception of Kelly’s revolt, this person does occupy a prominent position in the national identity of Australian people. In particular, idealized version of Ned Kelly represents such values as struggle against the injustice, courage, and willingness to protect the oppressed.


Beiner R 1999, Theorizing Nationalism, SUNY Press, New York.

Carey, P 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang, Vintage, Melbourne.

Clark, M 1993, A History of Australia, Melbourne University Publishing, Melbourne.

Leung A, Chiu, H & Hong, Y 2010, Cultural Processes: A Social Psychological Perspective, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Seal, G 2001, Encyclopedia of Folk Heroes, ABC-CLIO, New York.

Tranter, B & Donoghue J, 2010, ‘Ned Kelly: Armored Icon. Journal of Sociology’, Journal of Sociology, vol. 46 no. 2, pp. 187-205.

Tranter, B & Donoghue J, 2008. ‘Bushrangers: Ned Kelly and Australian identity’, Journal of Sociology, vol. 44 no. 4, pp. 373-390.

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