Joe Byrne and the Kelly Brothers (opinion)

Having spent a lot of time researching the Kelly story as a hobby, then examining it more in-depth as a screenwriter, I found the nature of Joe Byrne’s relationship to the Kelly brothers intriguing. It is a matter of fact that Joe Byrne was considered by Ned Kelly to be his greatest friend, describing him as “cool and firm as steel”, but there are still many mysteries around the friendship. How did they meet? How did Ned’s relationship to Joe compare to the relationship between Dan and Joe? Do Joe’s actions and words to Ned at Glenrowan demonstrate that the two weren’t as close as Ned suggested?

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Joe Byrne

In order to ascertain how the Kelly brothers met Joe Byrne and, by association, Aaron Sherritt, we must look for the earliest possible provable instance of their paths crossing. In early 1876 Joe and Aaron were arrested for assault. They had been skinny dipping in a dam when they were approached by a Chinese man, Ah On, and Aaron believed he had stolen from their piled up gear. Aaron, probably spurred on by Joe, threw rocks at the unfortunate Chinese man and badly wounded him when one of the rocks collided with his head. They were held in Beechworth awaiting their hearing, which was on February 13. They were committed to stand trial at the circuit court on February 28. At the same time Daniel Kelly, the teenage tearaway who was the youngest of the Kelly boys, was about to be put through the same proceedings for the offence of stealing a saddle. The incident was innocuous enough: a saddle had gone missing from a hotel and Dan was later seen riding with the saddle on his horse. Dan claimed he had bought the saddle from a man named Roberts and produced a receipt for £1 as evidence. Given that the two cases were to be heard in the same court on the same day it’s probable that Dan would have been in the holding cell at the back of the court room with Joe and Aaron. Perhaps they got to talking about the charges and Dan drew a parallel between the situation Joe and Aaron were in and the assault case his big brother Ned went through because of a Chinese miner named Ah Fook years prior. Joe would have gotten along easily with Dan as he was known for being personable. Perhaps they agreed to hit the pub afterwards if their cases were dismissed. It’s important to note that Ned was present to offer his brother support as a witness. Given that both cases resulted in a ‘not guilty’ verdict a celebration would have been in order and alcohol is the greatest social lubricant.

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Beechworth Courthouse: Was this where Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt had their first fateful meeting with Ned and Dan Kelly?

So given that Dan and Joe were acquainted first, could this have meant that Joe identified as Dan’s friend rather than Ned’s? Certainly Ned refers to Joe and Steve Hart in the Jerilderie letter as his brother’s mates. It is also true that according to reports of sightings of the gang Dan was often spotted with Joe whereas Ned was only really seen with Joe when all four gang members were seen together according to police reports. One could assume that this was some strategy from Ned to keep someone in the gang from doing something they shouldn’t, but more likely it was simply a matter of who worked well together. If we account for the suggestion that Ettie Hart was Ned’s girlfriend at the time, that may also provide reason for Ned spending more time with Steve, though that’s a topic for another discussion.

When the gang decided that Aaron Sherritt needed to be exterminated, Ned went to Glenrowan with Steve Hart while Joe was accompanied by Dan to Aaron’s hut. It is probable that the decision to murder Sherritt was Joe’s as he had the most grievance with Aaron’s supposed betrayal. No doubt Ned would have had misgivings but saw it as an opportunity to escalate whatever it was he was trying to kickstart at Glenrowan, whether it was a full-blown war between the bushrangers and the police, or a republic as some have suggested despite this claim relying solely on anecdotal evidence. As unstable as Ned’s mindset was at the beginning of 1880, Joe’s was clearly more so as he had spent months testing Aaron and Jack Sherritt, on one occasion meeting Jack in the bush looking pale, thin, jittery and having pushed his horse so far his spurs were bloodied, on another occasion luring Aaron to the puzzle ranges for a rendezvous but proved to be a no-show (perhaps he was observing from afar to see if Aaron would show up?).
It is no secret that Joe was an opium addict and given that the months after the robbery at Jerilderie had resulted in no more heists and therefore depleted funds, it is unlikely that Joe would have been able to score the hit that he would have been craving regularly if at all. Opium is an extremely addictive drug and the withdrawal symptoms are severe. Weight loss, fever, diarrhoea, nausea, depression, paranoia and violent mood swings are typical. This would explain Joe’s threatening letters to Detective Ward and Aaron Sherritt, as well as his obsession with Aaron and Jack’s fidelity to him and the gang. That Ned would buy into the aggression of a man suffering severe opiate withdrawal enough to factor in his revenge fantasy when plotting his Glenrowan campaign speaks much to the desperation that Ned was experiencing that had pushed him into even contemplating mass murder.

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The Murder of Sherritt: Was it opium withdrawals that made Joe Byrne murder his best friend?

Finally, it seems pertinent to highlight Joe’s demeanour at Glenrowan. He was sullen and quiet the majority of the time and clearly had a short temper. He conspired with Steve and Dan to leave the inn, though they never got the opportunity. That he would even consider abandoning Ned alludes to him not being quite as firm a supporter of Ned as has been previously thought. Furthermore, Joe’s famous line about the armour:

I told you this bloody armour would bring us to grief!

Implies that Joe had had little faith in Ned’s lofty plans at Glenrowan. It is reported that after the initial volleys of gunfire, Ned and Joe went to the breezeway between the inn and detached kitchen and spoke at length. What they spoke about can’t be certain. Perhaps it was during this exchange that Joe revealed that he had spoken to the others about leaving the inn. If so, had he painted Dan or Steve as the instigators? This might shine a light on Ned’s resentment of the pair after his capture. Could it be that he believed they had tried to turn Joe against him? No doubt with Ned’s alcohol muddied and sleep deprived mind it wouldn’t have taken much to convince him, having previously had a very public argument with Dan about the very same matter.

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Joe Byrne’s armour: It is clear from his interactions with Ned that Joe was not keen on the gang’s signature ploughshare armour.

Unfortunately, this remains merely theoretical. Without clear evidence, such as first hand accounts by Joe Byrne or Dan Kelly to fill in some of the blanks we can never get a full understanding of the relationships and genesis of one of the most renowned bushranging teams in history. Thus it falls on historians, both professional and amateur, to fill in those blanks as well as possible. Certainly examining the gaps in the narrative opens the door to a great deal of speculation and some very interesting interpretations.

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