Cú Chulainn Down Under: Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang and the Ambivalences of Diasporic Irish Identity Construction in Australia

Author: Sarah Heinz

In late summer 2011 the buried remains of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly were exhumed from a mass grave at Pentridge Prison and identified by a forensic team.[1] This event refuelled a long-standing discussion surrounding Ned Kelly’s status as an Australian hero and national legend. Could a man who had murdered policemen and lived a life of crime be a fitting icon for the Australian nation? Those who argue in favor of his heroic status have repeatedly used Ned Kelly’s Irish background to support their argument: “Kelly, whose father was an Irish convict, is now seen by many Australians as a folk hero, a Robin Hood-like character who fought the British colonial authorities and championed the rural Irish underclass.”[2] Accordingly, the story of the Kelly outbreak has been interpreted both as “expressing the romantic revolt against respectability” and as a typically Australian manifestation of egalitarian anti-authoritarianism that was specifically fuelled by the Irish background of many of the oppressed and disadvantaged settlers.[3] Thus, Ned Kelly came to represent an Irish-Australian opposition to the injustices and authorities of British colonization and empire, an idealization that reinforced an image of a rebellious “Irish spirit” that became the basis of the Australian character: “He was game, the lone man against the odds, the cheeky lad in a society still close enough to its convict roots to admire someone who gave the short stick to authority.”[4]

This construction of an “Irish spirit,” then, creates an image of Ned Kelly that can be read as positive and heroic but also as negative and savage, always depending on the strategic means that his invocation fulfils, a point that I will focus on in my historical overview below. Yet, both the celebration of Kelly’s Irish-Australian rebelliousness and the demonization of his savage Irishness problematically essentializes both identities, which are “at once militantly anti-imperialist and militantly nationalist.”[5] In the long run, such essentializations helped stabilize the functioning of a colonial system that the Kelly Gang seemed to fight against.

The merging of Irishness with the Australian national character results therefore in a telling paradox, one which is perceptible in Russel Ward’s influential study The Australian Legend. For Ward, allegedly Irish characteristics are used to make sense of an emerging Australian identity:

[T]he first bushrangers were more “Australian” than anybody else. Nearly all of them were convict “bolters” of whom many were Irish […]. A few were native-born youths and the very existence of all depended upon their being more completely “independent” of the authorities, more adaptable, resourceful, and loyal to each other, than even the most thoroughly acclimatized bush workman.[6]

This more than problematic construction of a “national character” maps one seemingly homogeneous and innate identity onto the other. In spite of its ostensibly classless egalitarianism, Ward’s vision excludes inequalities in terms of, for example, race or gender, and constructs a white Australian masculinity and mateship that is embodied by Ned Kelly and his underdog status.[7] This image of the easy-going, brave (yet victimized) white man is criticized by Susan K. Martin as “the Search for the White Male Heterosexual Hero,” and Keith Dunstan calls this the “near sanctification of an Australian outlaw” in the subtitle to his study Saint Ned.[8] What thus becomes clear in the story of Ned Kelly as a specifically Irish-Australian hero of mythic proportions is a tendency of such myths to become a dangerous breeding ground for new racist, nationalist, and sexist images that are unable to shed the legacy of Empire that they hope to reject: “as the myth of these men infects our imagination, they too are suckled on their own myths, myths of a past misremembered, and of historical injustice written in black and white.”[9]

Peter Carey’s historiographic metafiction True History of the Kelly Gang, first published in 2000 and winner of the 2001 Booker Prize, addresses exactly these paradoxes by giving voice to Ned Kelly, a voice through which he presents his own story and in which he combines his sense of being Irish, his need to make sense of being Australian, and his struggle with English colonial authorities. And yet, Carey’s novel is no simple celebration or sanctification of a national hero with Irish roots. His version of the Kelly story is a meditation on the dangers and pitfalls of identity construction and on the ambivalent position of Irish convicts and settlers in a deeply unequal society.

The following reading of True History of the Kelly Gang will show that Carey’s version of Ned Kelly questions essentialist notions of the self by showing how the past, the self and the nation are all fabricated through myths and narratives of belonging and home. I will specifically focus on Ned’s version of Ireland as his mother country and on his nostalgic view of his parents’ country of origin as a space of goodness and heroism. These idealized constructions are only possible because they are formed in the diaspora, and Carey accordingly inserts the fictional character of Mary Hearn, a recent Irish immigrant to Australia, into the Kelly narrative in order to challenge nostalgic images of Ireland as a golden homeland from the past. Before interpreting the novel’s images of Irishness and the role of diasporic nostalgia, though, I will give a short historical overview of the Irish diaspora in Australia from the eighteenth and nineteenth century in order to complement and contextualize Carey’s contemporary version of the Kelly story.[10]


The Irish in Australia: Myths and Histories

Australia is an illuminating example for the ambivalent position of the Irish in colonial societies. As convicts or poor assisted migrants in the eighteenth, nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, many Irish people coming to Australia, specifically Irish Catholics, had to face discrimination and social exclusion from a system that saw itself as the antipodean version of Protestant Anglo-Saxon culture. However, most Irish people had to face a double marginalization in Australia: “Already inferior to the Anglo-Saxon population within Britain, their deportation or emigration to a colony also places them on the wrong side of the colonised-coloniser dichotomy.”[11] In contrast to the “paroxysm of social embarrassment” that the colony’s convict past entailed for many Australians, Irish convicts and later Irish immigrants were burdened with a more deep-seated embarrassment because they were seen as an entirely different race, even when compared to convicts or felons of Anglo-Saxon descent, a racialization that often conflated Irishness with Catholicism.[12] In one telling instance, an officer on the convict ship on which the first Irish political offenders were transported to Australia commented: “They do not deserve the appellation of men.”[13] The governor of Brisbane reported in 1824: “It is a remarkable fact that every murder or diabolical crime which has been committed in the colony since my arrival has been perpetrated by Roman Catholics.”[14] And Evangelical missionary Reverend Samuel Marsden talked about Irish Catholic convicts as “the lowest Class of the Irish nation; who are the most wild, ignorant and savage Race that were ever favoured with the light of Civilization.”[15] Robert Hughes here remarks that Marsden’s rant “rivals William Dampier’s thoughts on the Australian blacks,” aligning the “Irish race” with the Australian “blackfellas.”[16]

As these accounts suggest, Irish Catholics in Australia were not simply convicts or poor immigrants; they were racial others, excluded from the colonial mainstream. The racial characteristics attributed to the Irish in Australia (as elsewhere) included tribal organization, a lack of self-control which resulted in their “wildness,” and a tendency to isolate themselves from other nationalities: “To employers ‘the Irish’ were lazy, dirty, drunken, and so on. To their friends they were religious, sentimental, generous. These were taken to be, not individual matters, but expressions of a common behavioural stereotype assumed to be racially inherent.”[17] So-called NINA-signs (“No Irish Need Apply”) could still be seen in Australian newspapers as late as the 1950s.[18] As a consequence, the Irish were perceived as a collective with biological and essential differences, a people whose fate and future was already spelt out in their racialized past.

Irish convicts and immigrants therefore brought with them—and passed on to their Australian-born children—their conflict with the English as colonizers, thus transporting a colonial and racial hierarchy to Australia. As outlined above, many accounts of Australian nation-making see this as a decisive influence on the national character, and Oliver MacDonagh even attributes this influence to Irishness as a genetic fact: “By hereditary stance and native preparation alike, they [the Irish] were predisposed to challenge and dissent, and obviously destined for a leading part in the development of an Australian genus.”[19] This argument of Irish rebelliousness shaping the emerging spirit of Australian nationalism has often been repeated, and it stresses that, without the Irish element, Australia would have become a copy of its mother country, England.[20]

Problematically, such accounts implicitly replicate notions of Irish immigrants’ racial and essential otherness. In recent years, scholars have outlined that Irish nationalism and its politics and literature did not simply reactivate pre-colonial traditions and identities, but that they invent a self that was presented as authentically and essentially Irish. All the character traits that colonial discourse had presented as negative were now evaluated positively—for example, Irish emotionality, Ireland’s rural and pre-industrial character, or its linguistic and religious differences. However, this invention repeats colonial stereotypes by simply reversing their assessment, and it depends on an exclusion of ‘un-Irish’ groups from its constructed homogeneity.[21] The dangers of this creation of homogeneity and its reliance on exclusion are obvious in the Australian case. Their own history of colonization did not prevent the Irish from taking part in the exclusion and colonial dispossession of Aboriginal peoples and in the discrimination against non-white immigrants, as Ned Kelly’s conflicts with Chinese Australians clearly show.[22] Such exclusion effectively validated the colonial system that Irish convicts and immigrants seemed to reject, and which they themselves were victims of. As Val Noone writes, “The first Catholics in Melbourne, though mostly poor and dispossessed Irish, came in 1834 as part of a British invasion which dispossessed the Koori people of land that had been their home for tens of thousands of years.”[23]

These accounts show that migration thus not only transports technologies, institutions and cultural behaviors but also conflicts, discriminations and grudges. For the Irish in particular, their ambivalent position between white colonizer and non-white colonized, outsider and insider, is carried over and perpetuated in the transition from old country to new, from Ireland to Australia.[24] The following interpretation of True History of the Kelly Gang shows how images of Ireland become a source of safety and familiarity for Ned Kelly whenever he is faced with hostile circumstances. But it also contends that mixtures of Ireland and Australia in Ned Kelly’s and his mother’s stories about Ireland show that their idealization of their country of origin is problematic and far from a simple representation of the past. They rather engage in an invention of a heroic Irishness, filling a gap that their ambivalent status in Australian society has created.


Mythical Pasts in Australia and Ned Kelly’s Invention of Ireland

Migration is not merely a geographical and material process; it also is an epistemological one, in which systems of making sense of the world travel with the immigrant. Irish convicts and migrants to Australia brought their cultural backgrounds and memories with them, and their means to name new experiences and claim unknown landscapes were shaped accordingly. The result was a complex layering of versions of the Irish homeland:

In Australia each arriving Irish generation brought a new phase of Irish experience, its Ireland frozen for it at the moment of departure, to be overlaid by that of the next influx, so that within Australia a procession of Irish histories, Irish comprehensions, proceed at once; to be confused further by the camera images (and fantasies) generated in Australian-born descendants.[25]

In Carey’s novel, Ned’s mother Ellen, his father “Red” Kelly, and his lover Mary Hearn are among those emigrants who bring their experiences and versions of Ireland to the colony of Victoria, while Ned reproduces the camera images and fantasies of Ireland that he learns from his family without ever having been “home.” Ireland becomes a nostalgic fairy tale that helps the characters make sense of a surrounding that, much in the sense of the doctrine of Australia as terra nullius, was seen as mythless and empty, void both of a native people and of any meaning that predated white expansion.[26] This emptiness created a need to fabricate stories of home:

Without a metaphysical instrumentarium to help them acquaint themselves with the land on its own terms, to internalize it through narrative, the settlers must have found it exceedingly difficult to construct a sense of belonging. […T]he mythic pretexts in which the stories of their lives are anchored have the potential to quench the consuming desire of these uprooted and transplanted characters to orient themselves.[27]

Similarly, David Fitzpatrick states that Irish immigrants “drew strength from their sense of belonging to a hardy people. Contemplation of Ireland and the characteristics of the Irish restored courage to lonely emigrants as they negotiated the Australian wilderness.”[28] And Patrick O’Farrell talks about “Ireland as filling a psychological need”; for the Irish, he argues, the mapping of Ireland onto the new country provided “an inspiration, a dream, the fount of all that was moral, good and religious.”[29] For the English on the other hand, the Ireland that was transplanted to Australia was “the epitome of all that was evil and destructive,” and Ned Kelly in particular was, as Manning Clarke stated as late as 1967, the product of “mad Ireland”: “The boy probably drank in with his mother’s milk that great confusion in the minds and the hearts of the Irish on questions of behaviour.”[30]

This conflict with the English is apparent on the first pages of Carey’s novel. Carey choses the form of an epistolary novel—that is, the novel consists of the long letter that Ned writes to his daughter. At the beginning of this letter, he tells his daughter, “God willing I shall live to see you read these words to witness your astonishment and see your dark eyes widen and your jaw drop when you finally comprehend the injustice we poor Irish suffered in this present age.”[31] The English only feature obliquely as “they” who tortured and tormented his father in the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land. The letter conveys the collective traumas of colonization and forced migration for the Irish that Ned has internalized and that serve as the motivation for both his deeds and his wish to be heard. The mythical Irish death messenger, the banshee, embodies this collective trauma, and, in the novel, she follows the Irish convicts and emigrants wherever they go, thus becoming a metaphor for the transportation of conflicts, grudges and their ensuing deathly consequences:

When our brave parents was ripped from Ireland like teeth from the mouth of their own history and every dear familiar thing had been abandoned on the docks of Cork or Galway or Dublin then the Banshee come on board the cursed convict ships […] and there were not an English eye could see her no more than an English eye can picture the fire that will descend upon that race in time to come.[32]

With the Irish trauma of transportation, the resentment towards the English travels to Australia and an opposition between heaven and hell and good versus evil is mapped onto the colonizer-colonized binary.

According to the opposition set up in the novel, Ireland, on the one hand, is familiarity and comfort, embodied by the Irish St. Brigit: “In the colony of Victoria my parents witnessed the slow wasting of St. Brigit […]. The beloved saint withered in Victoria she could no longer help the calving and thus slowly passed from our reckoning.”[33] Australia, on the other hand, is as deathly and uncanny as the banshee: “But the Banshee were thriving like blackberry in the new climate she were with us when ice were on the puddles and when all the plains from Benalla to Wangaratta was baked hard as hell.” Australia is imagined as an empty space onto whose future the European past is projected. As James Bradley has noted, “Carey allows the reader to glimpse the way the nightmares of Ireland and the Old World have taken root in the New, literally and metaphorically.”[34] In doing so, the novel gives context to Ned’s intense hatred of the English for what they have done to him, his family and his “race”: “[…] even a green log will burn when the heat is high enough. Many is the night I have sat by the roaring fire the rain never ending them logs so green bubbling and spitting blazing in a rage no rain can staunch.”[35] The novel presents opposition to the English as a fact of nature that determines the future of Irish-Australians.

Carey’s account of Ned’s image of Ireland further reflects the determining nature of the opposition to England. For Ned, Ireland is intimately linked to the myths told to him by his mother. In times of severe poverty and trouble, his mother resorts to “the stories of Conchobor and Dedriu and Mebd the tale of Cuchulainn I still see him stepping into his war chariot.”[36] With these tales, Ellen Kelly creates an ideal home for her children and herself, one that they do not have in Australia: “The southerly wind blew right through the hut and it were so bitter it made your head ache though it aint the cold I remember but the light of the tallow candle it were golden on my mother’s cheeks it shone in her great dark eyes bright and fierce as a native cat to defend her fatherless brood.”

Two things are interesting in this description. First, Ned stresses that the stories create a homely, tender atmosphere that defies the harsh realities of Australia. The stories from home create a golden, and I would argue, nostalgic, light and make the mother’s and the children’s eyes bright, while, in contrast, Australia is cold, bitter and painful. In a similar passage later in the novel, Ned states: “My mother told these tales the firelight shining in her eyes and every space inside the hut were taken by a ready ear and beating heart. We was far happier than we knew.”[37] The last sentence is typical of nostalgic feeling: happiness is projected onto the past, specifically here onto Ned’s childhood. At the same time, the mythical Ireland of his mother’s tales becomes an ideal if non-existent space that Ned feels homesick for. Consequently, a real Australian childhood is merged with a mythical Irish past, but Ned can never return to either. Ned’s memories thus uncover the general structure of nostalgia: the place and time to which one wants to return is always imaginary, but the longing and the feeling of loss is no less real for it.

The description is interesting, secondly, for Ned’s use of animal imagery and for the manner in which he imagines his family as a part of the Australian landscape. His mother is described as a “native cat,” and he and his siblings are her “fatherless brood.” In a way, he simultaneously constructs a distinctly Irish foundational myth for his family while integrating them into the new, Australian surroundings and the Australian flora and fauna. His interpretation of Irish myth underlines this simultaneity of inclusion and exclusion: “In the stories she told us of the old country there was many such women they was queens they was hot blooded not careful they would fight a fight and take a king into their marriage bed. They would have been called Irish rubbish in Avenel.”[38] Ireland is the “old country” that has values and traditions to which Ned feels he belongs. At the same time, he has to resort to the world he knows, the Australian settler society and its values, to make sense of the Irish myths which accordingly are devalued as stories about “Irish rubbish.” Ned’s construction of Ireland is thus trapped in the very colonial system of which he is a victim. By applying names and labels of colonialism, he perpetuates the logic that he wants to reject and expose as unfair and false. Gerry Smyth has articulated the paradox: “[…] resisting ‘within the psychological rules’ set by the rulers means that even when successful the subject remains a victim of alien modes of thought, trapped within a colonialist logic of Self and Other.”[39] Even by the novel’s end, Ned uses his mother’s tales to imagine his future. When the famous Kelly armor is constructed, Ned compares the invincibility of the person wearing the armor with his childhood stories: “No munition could injure him or tear his flesh he would be an engine like Great Cuchulainn in his war chariot.”[40]

Irish myths therefore provide Ned with the primary means to make sense of his environment and to describe experiences and people. Myths that incorporate supernatural events are particularly abundant (and implicitly support the English stereotype of the superstitious Irish): a strange-looking boy is described as a fairy child and a small man is a leprechaun.[41] Life in Australia is ordered and structured around these tales of Ned’s parents’ generation, a cultural transplantation that engenders a feeling of fate and predetermination; of the Banshee figure specifically, Annette Kern-Stähler argues, “Irish suffering is implied to be foreordained and the mythic figure of the Banshee, the death messenger, pursuing the Irish convicts even to the Australian colonies, becomes a symbol of this.”[42] In more general terms, Bob Reece states: “Mad Ireland did not make Ned Kelly, but it did enable him to make sense of his troubled world and the tragic part he played in it.”[43]

However, the meaning of these imported tales suffers against the new surroundings: “Transplanting myths from the Old World to the New […] deprives them of their intrinsic value. […T]he Kelly family’s imported Irish mythology and its accompanying rituals quickly lose their mythic power and appeal, which subsequently leads to their dismissal.”[44] Ned’s attempt to reinvent Ireland in Australia through the myths and stories of his mother is thus an example of a notion of Irishness that emerges in the diaspora.

In spite of his wish to forge a strong, anti-English identity, Ned’s diasporic uses of Ireland and the mythical images he recreates replicate English images of the colonized as superstitious, primitive, and feminized.[45] Instead of acknowledging that his past and future is a hybrid mixture of Ireland and Australia, of his own and his parents’ experiences, Ned insists upon binary oppositions, falling into the trap of essentialism. Consequently, he is therefore not able to make sense of Australia because he overlays it with regressive fantasies about an Ireland that never existed.

The relationship between Ned and Mary Hearn is a telling illustration of this use and dismissal of Ireland as a means to make sense of Australia. Mary Hearn is the only protagonist in the novel who has no historical counterpart in the Kelly story. Her role is thus central to Carey’s version of Ned’s story, and the motivation for introducing her is connected to a disavowal of nostalgia and romanticized versions of Ireland. Xavier Pons has suggested that “[…] what is no doubt more revealing is the way in which he [Carey] sometimes departs from those established facts,” and, indeed, as much as Ned’s love for this mother is important, Mary Hearn’s “love for Ned becomes the emotional heart of the novel.” [46]

When Ned meets Mary she is a recent immigrant to Australia, a fact that can be read from her skin color: “Her eyes were green her skin v. white as it is with girls not long off the boat from home.”[47] Mary’s whiteness is stressed repeatedly in the novel, and her skin, her body, her eyes, and even her smell are connected to a notion of Ireland as home: “she had that dear Irish smell of home-made soap & ashes in her hair I loved her so I told her.”[48] By turning “authentically” Irish Mary into the epitome of whiteness, Ned implicitly takes up the position of the non-white and un-Irish colonial who belongs to a different race. He is trapped once again in essentialist notions of race and nation. In a telling oxymoron, Ned states: “I never saw the like of her before she were so wonderfully familiar.”[49] Mary replaces Ned’s mother as an allegory of Ireland, a country that Ned has indeed never seen before but which seems familiar through its mythical retellings. This oxymoron exposes Ned’s version of Ireland as a construction that is based on imagination and the desire for familiarity, not on real experience and knowledge. It is no coincidence, then, that Mary is often compared to Ellen Kelly in character, behavior and appearance.[50] Mary stands for Ireland as home, familiarity and security, all of which are constructs that Ned attempts to use to create a stable self which is grounded in Irishness.

However, Mary rejects these constructions at the very moment of their creation: “I told her I had never imagined marrying anyone but now I could imagine what a peaceful life a man might have she turned towards me and I saw her eyes gone dark and serious. She put her finger against my lips. Don’t ever talk like that you must not.”[51] Ned’s patriarchal notions of home, hearth, nation and family have already lost their status as achievable realities for Mary, because she has left a country torn by conflict and war and because she is the mother of an illegitimate child who is forced into prostitution and abused by the local police and unfaithful men; in other words, the reality of Mary’s life in Ireland undercuts Ned’s imagined vision of Ireland.

Mary’s outrage at the Kelly Gang for having copied techniques of Irish agrarian protesters invests her role in the novel with an explicitly political dimension. When Steve Hart and Dan Kelly re-enact the method of Irish agrarian protesters of putting on women’s dresses and blackening their faces, Mary charges them with ignorance and naivety: “I’m sure you is nothing worse than a colonial lyre bird copying everything it hears. […] I am sure you aint one of them murdering cruel b-----ds who make Ireland such a Hell on earth.”[52] That the Australian boys are ignorant and naïve is underscored by Steve’s statement that in Ireland the rebels wanted to scare the squatters, to which Mary retorts, “There aint no squatters in Ireland.” Steve answers: “The knights then its just the same. […] The knights cried Steve the adjectival Queen of England for your information.”[53] Just like with Ned’s mythical framing of Ireland, Mary rejects Steve’s political framing as faulty and inaccurate. Steve applies what he knows to what he desires; that is, he maps the Australian conflict with the squatters onto Ireland, a country that he knows nothing about except that the Queen of England is the head of state and his enemy. As a consequence of her rejection of the Kelly Gang’s heroic self-fashioning, Mary questions male heroism in the Irish context. As Carolyn Bliss has argued, “Mary recognizes that the masterplot of the Sons of Sieve [the agrarian protesters that Steve and Dan are imitating] cannot be transplanted onto Australian soil. What may once have been political action had been corrupted into sheer viciousness even before being transported to Australia; here it becomes only senseless (not subversive) mimicry.”[54]

Ultimately, this dismantling of Irish-Australian notions of Ireland as a founding myth and a model for political protest and dissent puts the concept of the nation itself into question. Ned has conceptualized Ireland as a genetic, biological or familial link to a mother country, and he accordingly constructs the Irish people as a breed, stock or race. In this sense, he adopts the original meaning of “nation” which derives from the Latin “to be born.” The novel’s sceptical position towards such biological nationalisms resembles Benedict Anderson’s description of the nation as an imagined community. He defines nation and nationality as “cultural artefacts of a particular kind.”[55] Similarly, Anthony Smith formulates that a nation “is always being reconstructed in response to new needs, interests and perceptions, thought always within certain limits.”[56] Mary’s rejection of Ned’s Ireland discloses exactly this fabrication of imagined communities as cultural artefacts, an invention and a response to psychological needs at a specific time and in a specific place.

Yet, the novel does not simply dismiss the desire and the need behind these inventions. The communities might be imagined, but they are no less real for that, as Anderson points out.[57] Instead, they are real in the sense of really fulfilling the desire to belong. They have “a profound emotional legitimacy.”[58] Nevertheless, Ireland cannot fill the void that Ned and his gang are experiencing. Neither Ireland nor Australia can supply Ned with a home or a sense of self as long as he sticks to essentialist, racialized and binary notions of identity.


Conclusion: Ned Kelly and Irish Identity Construction in Australia

As my interpretation of Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang has shown, the Irish in Australia are in an ambivalent position. They are white and non-white, they take up the position of colonizer and colonized, and they use processes of exclusion and inclusion in their fashioning of national selves. Australia is therefore a prime example for the ambivalent position and role of the Irish in colonial structures as well as for the ambiguous consequences of perpetuating images of Ireland as a land of essential otherness and the home of an Irish “race.”

These ambivalences and paradoxes in Ned’s story are used by the novel to discuss processes of inventing individual and collective identities in general. Ned becomes a “national” hero, but what that nation actually is remains as unclear as the truth of Ned’s true history. The missing article of the novel’s title can therefore be interpreted as an indication of a missing fixity in truth, meaning and identity that Ned, Ireland and Australia experience. Ned’s Irishness is far more ambiguous and slippery than he can admit, and Carey’s unreliable, rewritten and corrected account with its multiple narrative frames and several fictional editors is an open invitation to reflect on this ambiguity. Notions of culture, home and identity are deconstructed as mythical—in other words, they are man-made and relative terms that can only acquire meaning via comparison and changing places. Ned Kelly’s construction of an Irish nation is therefore haunted by the “spectre of comparisons” and flourishes best in the diaspora.[59]

But Carey does not simply dismiss Ned’s search for a national and individual identity. On the contrary, the novel acknowledges Ned’s (and our) desire for a self, for a home, and for a shared past and future; it thereby also acknowledges the mythical power of the Kelly story and its strong and long-lasting effect on Australian and Irish notions of identity and the nation. Still, the search for identity suffers from the same paradoxes as the nostalgic impulse: though we want to return and though we feel the pain of that want, there is no place or time to return to. The home for which we are homesick remains an elusive vision.

[1] “Ned Kelly's remains found in mass grave,”ABC News, last updated September 1, 2011, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-09-01/ned-kelly-remains-found/2865298.

[2] “Ned Kelly's body is found at last,” The Independent online, September 2, 2011, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/australasia/ned-kellys-body-is-found-at-last-2347655.html.

[3] A. A. Phillips, The Australian Tradition: Studies in a Colonial Culture, 2 ed. (Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1966), 137. See also Patrick O’Farrell, The Irish in Australia  (Kensington, NSW: New South Wales University Press, 1987), 19; and Tim Pat Coogan, Wherever Green is Worn: The Story of the Irish Diaspora  (New York: Palgrave, 2000), 455.

[4] Don Akenson, An Irish History of Civilization, vol. 2 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005), 173.

[5] Katie Trumpener, Bardic Nationalism: The Romantic Novel and the British Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), xiii.

[6] Russel Ward, The Australian Legend  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958). 136.

[7] Kay Schaffer has made a strong argument against such a gendered Australian nationalism. She states that in the literature, history, and memory of Australia, “women as actors are curiously absent from much of the discourse.” See Kay Schaffer, Women and the Bush: Forces of Desire in the Australian Cultural Tradition  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 65.

[8] Susan K. Martin, “Dead White Male Heroes: True History of the Kelly Gang, and Ned Kelly in Australian Fiction,” in Fabulating Beauty: Perspectives on the Fiction of Peter Carey, ed. Andreas Gaile (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2005), 303; Keith Dunstan, Saint Ned: The Story of the Near Sanctification of an Australian Outlaw  (Sydney: Methuen Australia, 1980).

[9] James Bradley, “Such was a life,” Bulletin with Newsweek 118, no. 6247 (2000): 102.

[10] For an interesting and insightful collection of nineteenth-century letters from Irish migrants to Australia, see David Fitzpatrick, Oceans of Consolation: Personal Accounts of Irish Migration to Australia  (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994).

[11] Sigrun Meinig, Witnessing the Past: History and Post-Colonialism in Australian Historical Novels  (Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 2004), 17-18. See also Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore  (London: Pan, 1988), 181.

[12] See O’Farrell, The Irish in Australia, 8. For the “paroxysm of social embarrassment," see Hughes, The Fatal Shore, 158.

[13] As quoted in Hughes, The Fatal Shore, 184.

[14] Coogan, Wherever Green is Worn, 448.

[15] Quoted in Hughes, The Fatal Shore, 188.

[16] Ibid.

[17] O’Farrell, The Irish in Australia, 8.

[18] Coogan, Wherever Green is Worn, 431.

[19] Oliver MacDonagh, “The Condition of Ireland,” in The Australian People: An Encyclopedia of the Nation, Its People and Their Origins, ed. James Jupp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 447.

[20] See, for example, P. Lee, “Irish Influence on Australian Culture,” in The Australian People: An Encyclopedia of the Nation, its People and their Origins, ed. James Jupp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 478. See also O’Farrell, The Irish in Australia, 10-11.

[21] See Vincent Cheng, Inauthentic: The Anxiety over Culture and Identity  (London and New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004), 30. Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland  (London: Jonathan Cape, 1995), 486. David Lloyd, “Counterparts: Dubliners, Masculinity and Temperance Nationalism,” in Future Crossings: Literature Between Philosophy and Cultural Studies, ed. Krzysztof Ziarek and Seamus Deane (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2000), 196.

[22] See Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang  (London: Faber and Faber, 2001 [2000]), 119, 41, 75.

[23] Quoted in Coogan, Wherever Green is Worn, 441.

[24] Historical accounts testify that the Anglo-Irish gentry even transported whole mansions or Irish turf to Australia in order to recreate Ireland in the settler colony. See Don Akenson, An Irish History of Civilization, vol. 1 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), 465.

[25] O’Farrell, The Irish in Australia, 5.

[26] For terra nullius, see Stuart Macintyre, A Concise History of Australia  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 34.

[27] Andreas Gaile, “Towards an Alphabet of Australian Culture: Peter Carey's Mythohistorical Novels,” in Fabulating Beauty: Perspectives on the Fiction of Peter Carey, ed. Andreas Gaile (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2005), 36.

[28] Fitzpatrick, Oceans of Consolation, 620.

[29] O’Farrell, The Irish in Australia, 7.

[30] Quoted in Bob Reece, “Ned Kelly’s Father,” in Exiles from Erin: Convict Lives in Ireland and Australia, ed. Bob Reece (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1991), 224. For the English perspective of Ireland’s “evil and destructive” transplantation, see O’Farrell, The Irish in Australia, 7.

[31] Carey, True History, 7.

[32] Ibid., 108.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Bradley, “Such was a life,” 102.

[35] Carey, True History, 195.

[36] Ibid., 29.

[37] Ibid., 187.

[38] Ibid., 29.

[39] Gerry Smyth, The Novel and the Nation: Studies in the New Irish Fiction  (London: Pluto Press, 1997), 49-50. Smyth quotes from Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism  (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983), 3.

[40] Carey, True History, 389.

[41] Ibid., 136-38, and 187, respectively.

[42] Annette Kern-Stähler, “‘The true and secret part of the history is left to me’: Colonial Oppression and Selective Historiography in Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang,” in Xenophobic Memories: Otherness in Postcolonial Constructions of the Past, ed. Monika Gomille and Klaus Stierstorfer (Heidelberg: Winter, 2003), 248.

[43] Reece, “Ned Kelly’s Father,” 243.

[44] Gaile, “Towards an Alphabet of Australian Culture: Peter Carey's Mythohistorical Novels,” 48.

[45] To be clear, I say “feminized” because the myths are told by his mother and are thus connected with maternal origins, and because two female figures, the Banshee and St. Brigit, are used to symbolize Ireland’s plight.

[46] Xavier Pons, “The Novelist as Ventriloquist: Autobiography and Fiction. Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang,” Commonwealth 24, no. 1 (2001): 66; and Peter Porter, “Made noble in the fire,” TLS, 5 Jan 2001, 19.

[47] Carey, True History, 242.

[48] Ibid., 247. For her whiteness, see also 244, 258, 305.

[49] Ibid., 246.

[50] Ibid., 247, 311.

[51] Ibid., 247.

[52] Ibid., 327. For a concise overview of agrarian protest in Ireland and the Kelly’s Australian use of this political tradition see Heather Smyth, “Mollies Down Under: Cross-Dressing and Australian Masculinity in Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 18, no. 2 (2009). See also Hughes, The Fatal Shore, 194.

[53] Carey, True History, 328.

[54] Carolyn Bliss, “Lies and Silences: Cultural Masterplots and Existential Authenticity in Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang,” in Fabulating Beauty: Perspectives on the Fiction of Peter Carey, ed. Andreas Gaile (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2005), 295.

[55] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 2 ed. (London: Verso, 2006), 4.

[56] Anthony Smith, Myths and Memories of the Nation  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 17.

[57] Anderson, Imagined Communities, 6.

[58] Ibid., 4.

[59] See Benedict Anderson, The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia and the World (London: Verso, 1998).