For the last twelve years, you have remained a constant presence within my life, from when I first learnt of you as an eleven year old, to now writing about your life as a twenty four year old. I couldn’t, and have no desire to imagine, how different my life would be, had I not ‘met’ you, and your polished larrikin heels.
I cannot recall what exactly it was that first drew me to you; in fact, my interest in regards to the whole ‘Kelly Outbreak’ seems to have sprung from nowhere. I had no knowledge of you, Ned, Dan and Steve when I first ventured up to ‘Kelly Country’ with my family as an eleven year old, back in September of 2005. I am not even certain why they chose to visit that part of Victoria, as no one within my family has shown the slightest interest in my knowledge of you or the gang. Instead, this is something I have had to keep firmly to myself for twelve years, in order to stem the ridicule and ignorance. Please know Joe, this is not because I have ever been ashamed of my love for you, but rather because, as I’m sure you’re well aware, for such a reserved and quiet young lass, I can be quite fiery when defending you. Must be the Irish and Scottish blood in me… Anyhow, I remember clearly when we were first traveling to Beechworth, after arriving the night before in Wangaratta, Dad gestured towards the ranges and said, “This is the country Ned Kelly and Harry Power used to roam.” I peered out at the straw coloured hills, and in my vision I saw a teenage boy, his countenance pale, with dark hair and eyes, wearing a long over coat, which seemed to be caught in the wind. His lips curled up into a smile, and then he was gone. At the time, I didn’t pay it much notice, and continued gazing out the window at the dry stretch of land before me. It wasn’t until a little later that I realised, to my surprise, that I’d seen the fifteen year old face of Ned Kelly. This is a moment in my life that I have never forgotten, and is something I will forever treasure.
Despite this trip, I didn’t return home to Tasmania with a new found interest, in fact, farm and school life soon took over, and I’d quickly forgotten about it. As it happens, my teacher at Sprent Primary, a small country school, would have been most suited to the nineteenth century school system. I am indebted to him now, (makes reading your writing easier, and I’m proud to write the way I do) but at the time I detested having to learn cursive. Each morning we would have to copy out, in our neatest cursive, ‘the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’, and then we would all have to stand, in a terrified line, while he flicked his eyes over our writing. If, for whatever reason, he wasn’t happy with what you had produced, he’d simply tear the page right out of your book and you’d be made rewrite it. I’m not overly familiar with the nineteenth century school system, certainly something I need to brush up on for my writing, but I’d like to think at least for those two years, it was a little like yours…
For a long time, I’d read many of the ‘Kelly’ sites and forums, but I would never comment. I used to think, that as a Tasmanian, I had no proper voice. Looking back on it, I realise how silly that belief was, but sadly, at the time, that is how I felt. I would always be quite baffled at some of the comments and views written about you. Occasionally, I would stumble upon derogatory comments regarding your opium addiction, supposed paranoia and your ‘dangerous’ qualities. This would often sadden me, as I wondered how anyone could simply brush over your life in that way, with such disregard to the man you were, but as I had no confidence in my knowledge, (and knew no one within the ‘community’) it would often pass unchallenged. However, this is certainly not the case now, and whatever others may think of me, I’m proud that I am able to defend your name.
It was October last year when I finally made the trip back up to Beechworth, after eleven years of yearning till the day I could go on my own. The decision and planning seemed to come from nowhere, and it wasn’t until I was in my little room at The Hibernian, did I fully realise that I was actually in Beechworth. Even now, as I type, I can still feel the utter joy I felt as I got off the bus, my sandaled feet clacking over the cobblestones as I made my way along Camp Street to the hotel. However, despite the excitement I had harboured at taking the train up into Kelly Country, I have to be honest, I didn’t overly enjoy it. My legs were cramped the entire journey, given the older woman in front of me seeming to think her legs were eight feet long. I would have been more than happy to get off at Seymour and walk to Beechworth. Regardless of my slight grumpiness, I kept my thoughts on you, and my excitement, at the upcoming four day stay in Beechworth. While the train continued its journey through the North East, I had been reading The Fatal Friendship, and for some reason I had a sudden urge to look out the window, and I’ll never forget the extreme sinking feeling I immediately felt as my eyes locked on the cemetery. I didn’t feel this emotion because I saw your tree; in fact I think my carriage must have passed it by the time I looked up, but out of nowhere I was suddenly overcome with such a surge of grief…. And it wasn’t until the train stopped at Benalla did I realise that I had just passed your grave.
While in Beechworth, I decided to go on the ‘Ned Kelly walking tour’, not so much because I thought I’d learn anything (I’m a little past that), but rather because it was something I had never done before. The tour guide was a friendly fellow, his knowledge of Ned and Harry Power was sound, but when it came to his view of you, I was very disheartened. “Joe Byrne”, he began, “Now he was an interesting character our Joe. He spent a great deal of time down amongst the Chinese miners smoking their opium. So for most of the time, he was ninety precent high off his face and ten precent paranoid.” I’m not sure whether he saw the look of total shock on my face, but it really did anger me and I had to turn my back. It saddened me then, and it saddens me now, that for all the complexities of your character, so many individuals seem to think that you were this drugged up, paranoid young man, who constantly needed Ned to keep you on the straight and narrow (When this was so obviously not the case.) From that moment, I promised to myself that I would research, and tell your story, in a way that was respectful to the man you were, and the Joe I had always ‘known.’
I will never forget the mist laced morning when I left Beechworth, I was obviously tremendously sad to be leaving, but it was on that day, my life, regarding my interest and love for you, changed dramatically. While I was traveling back on the bus to Seymour I had tears in my eyes because, even though I had finally travelled up to Beechworth, I still hadn’t seen the Woolshed or laid flowers at your grave.
As the train left the station at Seymour, I received a message from Steve Jager, who has remained a good friend of mine since, asking me about my trip, and offering to take me on a tour around Kelly Country when I was over next. Then somehow, less than a month since I had left Beechworth, there I was, traveling up the Hume Freeway, my eyes locked on the Warby Ranges. Meeting Steve, and our trip, was very special for a few reasons, mainly because for the first time, in eleven years of ‘knowing’ you, I had someone who I could actually talk to about my interest without judgment. Further to this, I was finally able to visit your grave and travel through the beautiful Woolshed Valley. I’ll never forget when I was first stood in front of where you are buried, with my Woolworth flowers (The beautiful native flowers I took you this year hopefully made up for those), tears running down my cheeks…
It was through Steve that I first met Aidan Phelan, who has also remained another close friend. However, it wasn’t until I posted a little of my creative writing on Facebook earlier this year, actually the beginning of ‘An Outlaw’s Burden’, that Aidan sent me a message asking if I’d write what compels me to you for his blog, ‘A Guide to Australian Bushranging.’ I’ll never forget how surprised and excited I was at the prospect of writing, publicly, about you, after so long of having to hide everything away. In conjunction with this piece, in June, I was again asked by Aidan to pen something for his blog, but this time it was regarding the friendship between you and Aaron Sherritt. I wrote this piece in the hope it would give people a greater insight into your own thoughts and feelings, as a lot of your dialogue has been ignored…
On the 26th of June, I travelled up to Kelly Country with Aidan for the announcement of ‘Glenrowan – The Movie.’ During my four days in the North East, I was lucky enough to stay in the Woolshed, and I again visited your grave on the 28th. Although, as stated above, this time I went to a florist in Benalla, and purchased a beautiful array of native flowers (Even if Aidan thought they were a bit much…) After we had visited your grave, I suggested to Aidan that we go back to Glenrowan, I’m not sure why I wanted to do this, as Glenrowan is certainly not a place I enjoy being in. Despite this, I’ll never forget what I experienced that evening. From the bitter cold I felt, as I walked along the puddled footpath, to the sudden rush of heat I felt while standing at the ‘siege site’. The only way I can describe the experience, was that it was like being warmed by a fire…
Lastly Joe, I wish to let you know that I will continue to defend you, and that nothing, and no one, will ever alter the love I have for you. As stated above, I have no idea how it all started, or just when you became such an important part of my life, but I certainly wouldn’t wish it any other way. I feel proud that I was confident enough to start ‘An Outlaw’s Journal’, and as a result, the added voice I have given to both you, and Maggie…
All my love, now and always,
One thought on “Dear Joe”
It’s interesting how things ‘just happen’ sometimes. Looking back later you realise the significance of a particular event and how it altered the course of your life. You can discover amazing things if you’re open to them… Thank you for sharing your story Georgina.
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