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Larger than Life, Mate: Ned Kelly emerges as a national hero Down Under

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Ray O’Hanlon

Peter Carey is a lot easier to track down than Ned Kelly.

For starters, he has a doorstep in Greenwich Village, his home for the last 11 years and base for writing “True History of the Kelly Gang,” the novel that recently landed the Aussie author his second Booker Prize.

Carey is in his 50s now but the germ of his idea to write a novel about Ned Kelly’s life took form more than 30 years ago in his native land.

Carey comes from a small town called Bacchus Marsh near Melbourne in the state of Victoria. Ned Kelly came from another small town, called Beveridge, in the same state.

Carey began thinking about writing up Ned Kelly’s life at an age when Ned Kelly’s short life was about done. But now that the completed book has been a huge international success, Carey finds himself with a priceless opportunity to proclaim to the world that Ned Kelly should be seen not just as an outlaw in an iron mask, but as an ordinary man pushed into extraordinary circumstances, a bona fide folk hero for the ages.

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“I was very young when I read Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie letter,” Carey said recently.

“I was 20-something, just beginning to write and just beginning to read. I had just read James Joyce, so when I stumbled across this uneducated Irish voice, I woefully misread it as a literary artifact but never forgot it.

“There was a view that the story had been covered, but it wasn’t really. I don’t think anybody had thought about the emotional life of those people. I won’t say historians hadn’t, but there are certain limits to what historians can do. But novelists? I don’t think so. So I started writing.

“I got the Mick Jagger movie. When you’re a writer you’re looking to steal from anywhere, but I couldn’t find too much to steal in that. I fast-forwarded it an awful lot.”

Carey traces his own Irish family ties to Cork and Dublin. The Kelly book is laced with references to Ireland and the Irish and Carey had little trouble in doing the lacing.

“The effect the Irish have had on Australia, and who Australians are, is enormous,” he said. “I often say to people if you want to understand Australia, just think of it as an Irish country.”

And yet, Carey’s own family wasn’t especially conscious of its Irishness when he was a kid in Bacchus Marsh.

“We didn’t grow up in an Irish sort of way. We weren’t Catholic, for a start. I think we would have been, but something happened along the line. God got washed off the boat, as often happens. Our idea of Ireland was my father getting sentimental over Hollywood films like ‘The Quiet Man.’ ”

Carey first came to New York to take up a teaching job at New York University.

“I had become well known in Sydney, particularly after the Booker Prize (won in 1988 for “Oscar and Lucinda”). I should have known that it’s a double-sided thing. Begrudgery isn’t just an Irish thing. So it was nice to get away from that.”

The Ned Kelly book, meanwhile, was, as Carey put it, rumbling along.

“It was there, all the time,” he said. “I got such pleasure from the language in the Jerilderie letter.”

The book’s completion coincided with a resurgence in the fortunes of the Ned Kelly legend, a comeback that was only underlined by the homage to Kelly at the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

“I thought it was thoughtless and trivial, kitschy muck,” Carey said. “On the other hand, when I went down to Australia mouthing off about this, I discovered that none of my friends agreed with me and I started to wonder about why that was.

“And then I thought the reason is that everyone was so pleased to see the Kelly story publicly acknowledged as the past of the country.

“I do believe Ned Kelly was really decent. But he was incredibly nanve. He kept on trusting people he shouldn’t have trusted. When you talk about him being a violent criminal, there isn’t a lot of violence at all. When you look at any of the robberies, did anyone get pistol whipped or beat up? No.

“And he had such fantastic character witnesses from bank managers and policemen’s wives who called him Mr. Kelly. So here is a person with considerable dignity and force of character. He does not seem to me to have been a violent man.”

So what about the upcoming movies. Names such as Brad Pitt and Nicole Kidman are already surfacing.

“I would like to see Mick Jagger play Mrs. Kelly,” Carey said, laughing. “No, I don’t really care. Any actor playing Ned and the gang would have to be very young. They were kids, they were boys.”

Between Carey’s book and likely movies, the Ned Kelly debate is set for a new round. So what does Carey think are the opposing forces at play in this argument over the true nature of Ned Kelly, and indeed of Australia itself?

“There is a sense of shame over the convict seed, the convict stain,” he said. “But it’s not a question of whether Ned Kelly is worthy of being a national hero. We are who we are. He is our national hero.”

Peter Carey will read from his “True History of the Kelly Gang” on Tursday, March 14, at 7 p.m. at Jurow Hall in the main NYU building, 100 Washington Square East, Room 101A. The reading is being organized by Glucksman Ireland House. For reservations, call (212) 998-3950. Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie letter is on view at www.slv.vic.gov.au/slv/exhibitions/treasures/jerilderie/. And there’s a mine of information on Ned Kelly at www.ironoutlaw.com.

Peter Carey reads at NYU

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