Joe Byrne: An Opinion

For this week’s feature we invited Georgina Rose Stones to pen her thoughts on Joe Byrne, lieutenant of the Kelly Gang. Georgina is a journalism student who has studied the Kelly story in detail and has been active in the bushranging history community for some time. Her knowledge of Joe Byrne’s story is in depth and she provides a very interesting perspective on an often overlooked member of the bushranging fraternity. So now I turn over to Georgina for your reading pleasure. Enjoy! ~ AP

Try as I might, I am unable to recall exactly what it was that first enticed me into the depths of the Kelly story and outbreak. I can vividly recall reading Peter Carey’s True History of The Kelly Gang for silent reading as a mere twelve year old, but what made me pick up the novel to begin with escapes me. Whatever it was, however, I will forever remain truly grateful. For many individuals, it is Ned Kelly who incites the most sympathy and interest in regards to the gang as a whole. There is no harm in that, given especially, as it is Ned who has been given the most exposure through the years. For me, however, this place has always been reserved for Ned’s “lieutenant”, Joe Byrne.

When I was first asked the question “what compels you to Joe?” I had a handful of answers flash through my mind, but now, as I sit here at my desk, I’m finding it harder to pinpoint the exactness of why, when compared with Ned, Steve and Dan, I drift towards Joe. Two aspects, I believe which have drawn me to Joe, are in regards to his schooling and personality. It is these two characteristics which I find most compelling about Joe’s persona, as when one thinks of a ‘bushranger’ or ‘outlaw’, being “a bit of a poet” or “soberly dressed” are not words which often spring to mind. Furthermore, by all accounts Joe was well read, and, like Ned, frequented James Ingram’s bookshop in Beechworth with his lifelong friend, Aaron Sherritt. Coupled with Joe’s literary interests, he was “for a bushman rather clever with his pen.” This is another aspect I have always found engaging about Joe, as like me, he loved to write, specifically in the guise of ‘bush ballads’. These ballads dealt with the exploits and overall boldness of the gang, with my favourite verse being “long may they reign – the Kelly’s, Byrne and Hart.” Further to these ballads, it is noted that while at Jerilderie, “plotting for the following day’s robbery”, Joe wrote down a riddle to amuse himself, “Why are the Kellys the greatest matchmakers in the country? Because they brought loads of ladies Younghusbands, Euroa, Victoria.” Combined with this detail, I have always been fascinated by the letters Joe sent to both Aaron and Jack Sherritt, in conjunction with, the mock reward posters and caricatures of Detective Ward. Finally, the existence of Joe’s journal has always been of great interest to me, and is something, which I believe, further highlights Joe’s clever and complex mind. The pieces of Joe’s personality are area’s with which I am also drawn. Most individuals who came into his presence, found Joe to be “quiet” and “unassuming”. At Jerilderie, an unknown individual recounted that “his manner is quiet and he appears to the casual observer an inoffensive man.” Moreover, Constable McIntyre would recount that he found Joe to be “a nervous man, thoroughly under the control of Ned Kelly.” I have always found this assessment of Joe to be interesting, as there does seem to be some alteration in his disposition when he was out of Ned’s presence. This is a factor about Joe with which I have always been compelled by and one that I find quite moving, as it demonstrates, I believe, the two ideals Joe was constantly torn between. The first, concerning him as an outlaw, and secondly, as both lover and poet. The first source I have, which represents the way Joe’s manner could change, comes from a Mr Turner, from Mt Battery Station, who met the gang while they resided at Bullock Creek. While under Joe’s watchful guard, Mr Tuner recollects a detail about Joe I have always loved, “from a billy hanging over the fire, Byrne produced some hot water, and standing with his rifle near him shaved himself most carefully, after which he gave his hair a vigorous brushing, all the time carrying on a disjointed conversation with me.” He concluded by adding, “his tone was affable and quiet” and goes on to declare, “I could not understand the different conduct in the absence of his comrades.” Another lovely detail, which I feel shows the ‘other side of Joe’, comes from Mrs Fitzgerald at Faithfuls Creek. She described that Joe “chatted with her on general topics” and, in my favourite detail, “played for her entertainment on a concertina” and seemed much more outgoing with her than with the male prisoners. Finally, I do not think it feasible to discuss what compels me to Joe, without at least mentioning his fondness for barmaids. There are two barmaids in particular who are known to have turned Joe’s head, Mary the Larrikin from the Woolpack Inn, and his last earthly lover, Maggie, from the Vine Hotel. Regarding Mary the Larrikin, I have always loved the detail of Joe riding back to the Woolpack Inn to see Mary, after meeting her the previous night while the gang were on route to Jerilderie. On their first encounter, Joe was so charmed by her presence, Ned had to warn him to “ease off and quietly told Mary not to serve Joe anymore whiskey.” On the following evening, Joe rode back to the Woolpack Inn to spend some more time with Mary, and it was noted, “had to be helped on his horse when he left at midnight.” Nevertheless, it has been Joe’s connection to Maggie that has captivated me the most and it has always saddened me that we do not know more about her. However, it is known that Joe visited her frequently, the last time being the “Wednesday or Thursday night” before the Kelly Gang’s destruction.

As I type, my eyes drift upwards to my intricately framed photo of Joe, positioned on the wall above my desk. Standing before me I see a young man dressed soberly in ‘town clothes’, his slightly flared trouser hems revealing larrikin heels, highlighting his rebellious bush spirit, which I will forever admire. Joe was a man with many complexities to his character; he was outlaw and scholar, opium user and balladeer, lover of whiskey and barmaids. A young man who often frequented the Burke Museum and whom was also in good relations with many of the Beechworth Chinese community, who called him “Ah Joe.” He was a man who declared he would “die at Ned’s side”, yet at Glenrowan, when Ned expressed the hopefulness of the situation, Joe had heatedly proclaimed, “Well it’s your fault, I always said this bloody armour would bring us to grief.” Furthermore, I see a fearless young man who in just three short years would meet his end, shot by a policeman’s bullet which tore into his thigh, severing the femoral artery. Resulting in Joe bleeding to death, and who just moments before had defiantly toasted “many a long and happy day still in the bush, boys!” In conclusion, while I do not wish to dwell on the final photo taken of Joe, finding it equally heartbreaking and repulsive, I feel I should at least mention it. The gentle calmness of Joe’s countenance does not depict a young man, who only four days previous, had shot and killed his lifelong friend and who had declared, “you will not blow now what you do with us anymore.” And, it is this that has always struck me, how quickly the outlaw guise was discarded for the “mild mannered” Joe.

This is what compels me to Joe Byrne.


Sources:

Ian Jones, A Short Life

Ian Jones, The Fatal Friendship

J.J. Kenneally, The Complete Inner History of the Kelly Gang

Keith McMenomy, Ned Kelly The Authentic Illustrated History

6 thoughts on “Joe Byrne: An Opinion

  1. Thanks for your very interesting reply and for answering (most of ) my questions. To be honest Ive never really given a Joe Byrne a great deal of thought but have always had serious doubts about the character of a man who would let Skillion do six years for him, kill Scanlan and not only take the rings of dead people but wear them, and then murder someone he once defended – a crime of passion I suppose! The other puzzle is how much of Joe was in the Jerilderie letter – Ian Jones blames him for all the nasty bits! I suspect he was very much under the spell of Ned.

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  2. As. student of Kelly history I was hoping you would have talked more about the important controversial details of Joes story rather than your feelings. I want to know if you think Fitzpatrick mistook Joe for Skillion at the Kelly house and did time that Joe should have? Imagine how different the whole story would have been if Joe was in prison for six years from 1878 instead of Skillion. I want to know if you think it was Joe that killed Scanlan. I want to know what you think about Joes murder of Aaron. I want to know if you regard Joe as a drug addict.

    Maybe Aidan can get you to write another article!

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    1. Another article for another time. I will be more than happy to have Georgina back to write a follow-up that addresses these questions but here I wanted to explore the emotional connections people have to these stories and I think the result is fabulous. ~ AP

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    2. Aidan asked me to pen a piece on Joe after he had read one of my creative writing pieces, with the specific question ‘what compels you to Joe?’ Therefore, it obviously entailed that I write about ‘my feelings’. However, I will always be more than happy to write a more in-depth study regarding Joe and his role in The Kelly Gang.
      In answer to your question regarding if I think Joe shot and killed Scanlan, yes I do.
      In terms of Joe’s killing of Aaron I have always found it to be tremendously sad (as is the whole ‘Kelly saga”.) Firstly, if we take the letter Joe wrote Aaron to be genuine, it highlights that “the Lloyds and Quinns” wanted Aaron shot back in June 1879. This therefore shows there was a large amount of time where Joe was defending Aarons actions. I believe this would have caused Joe considerable isolation, as he was left constantly proving Aaron’s loyalty while others were questioning it. I also think there was a lot said which has not been recorded, whether it be between Joe and Aaron or things that Paddy heard and relayed to Joe. Finally, I have always found it interesting in the way Aaron gave away ‘Maggie’ as being Joe’s girlfriend to one of the policeman he was drinking with. I think if Joe needed one last example of Aarons ‘infidelity’ this may have been it. I realise what I have mentioned here are minor reasons, but if allowed the time and space I would be able to analyse it with greater detail.
      Lastly, in answer to your question as to whether or not I regard Joe as a ‘drug addict’, he did have an opium addiction, as I mentioned in my piece. Does this change or alter the respect I have for Joe, no it does not. I believe he used both opium and whiskey to cope and block out the harshness of an outlawed life.
      In conclusion, I will add, that nothing will ever alter the admiration I hold for Joe, this includes the killing of Scanlan (terribly sad), the taking of Scanlan’s and Lonigan’s rings (no apology can be used for this – he took them because they were there), and the murder of Aaron (again terribly sad). Isn’t it great that each of us can have and share our own views though?

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