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 days robbery”, Joe wrote down a riddle to amuse himself, “Why are the Kelly’s 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.