“…I never quite liked Joe…He had a lousy temper. He was very violent. He injured his sister quite badly one time. He was yarding some horses and she let some of the horses go, so he belted her across the face with a bridle. He didn’t treat his mum well either. His mum was a real battler with seven kids and fourteen cows, trying to live with some dignity and yet Joe was swanning about town, dressing up to the nines, looking like a young squatter. This was very different from Ned. But Ned brought the absolute best out in him. Ned said “he’s my best man” who was “straight and true as steel”. That was true for when Joe was with Ned, but I would trust Aaron before I’d trust Joe. I like Aaron much more than I like Joe.”
I have a lot of respect for Ian Jones’ research and for the amount of time and unwavering dedication he put into it. However, I do believe his views on Joe are unfair and sometimes unfounded. Obviously, I am very much indebted to Jones for his work The Fatal Friendship as it has been an essential resource for me and has served as a valuable starting point from which to undertake my own research, which has therefore allowed for a greater understanding of the young man Joe was. But given that I take pride in offering Joe a chance to be heard without bias, and challenging long held views about him, I feel that I must address the views Jones expressed above in his interview with Ben Collins for Ironoutlaw.
Firstly, to say that Joe needed Ned to keep him in check is a strange belief to have, especially given as it was Joe who often exhibited the most restraint, forethought and regard for others. This is seen at Stringybark Creek when Joe offered Constable McIntyre a pannikin of tea and struck up a friendly conversation with the shaken Constable, even going so far as to offer him a smoke. At Glenrowan, it was Joe, and only Joe, who came to the aid of young Delaney while Ned was ranting mercilessly at the terrified boy. Furthermore, the fine detail of the Gang’s exploits was mostly down to the workings and rationality of Joe. This is best seen in the plan for Glenrowan, and Joe’s opposing idea as to what should take place. It is known that he was firmly against the armour, and no doubt he disagreed with Ned regarding much of the planning around Glenrowan, which is why Joe had developed his own strategy for robbing one of the Beechworth banks with Dan and the Sherritt brothers. Finally, to state that Ned brought out the “absolute best” in Joe is simply ludicrous. Without Ned’s controlling influence, Joe was not dangerous, unpredictable or violent. Before his life had crossed Ned’s, he had never been an accessory to murder, bailed anybody up, taken prisoners or robbed at gunpoint. In fact, many individuals would come to comment on the vast difference in Joe’s persona when Ned was not with him. Certainly Joe had a larrikin streak, and I certainly do not refute this aspect of his character, but it in no way negatively influenced the person he was. Joe was “quiet”, “reserved”, “clean and tidy”, “well spoken” and “mild mannered”. None of this was the result of an ‘air’ Joe gave, or because he had “everyone conned” as Jones put it.
An integral aspect of Joe’s character, which must not be forgotten, is his want to follow, rather than lead. This is a trait that is seen throughout his life and did come to negatively affect him. Following Aaron to El Dorado lead to him receiving six months hard labour in Beechworth Gaol, and following Ned resulted in his entire existence becoming outlawed. In conjunction with this, Joe was also extremely loyal to those close to him, and his dedication to both Aaron and Ned was constantly unwavering. He spent months away at Sheepstation Creek on Aaron’s newly acquired 106 acre selection. While he may not have been at Sebastopol, Joe certainly wasn’t “swanning about town” during this time; he was working hard to help his mate clear and fence his property and build a slab hut, which he himself would come to live in.
While I have given my views on the stock yard incident before, I feel it important that I do so again here. Joe certainly had a fierce temper, and this is something that I do accept and would never shy away from. No doubt in anger, he may well have lashed out at his sister for letting one of the horses he’d yarded escape or threatened her with the bridle or what else he had near at hand. However, it is important to note that the incident was reported in such a vague manner, and was used as counter for Joe being a ‘ladies man’, and therefore does deserve to be further questioned. For example, in the article, published a few days after Joe’s death, it states that the injury the unnamed sister sustained was so bad that not only did it cut her face terribly but it also knocked her eye out. I have not read, so far in my research, of such an injury occurring in Sebastopol. When Mary and Margaret were married, there is no mention of one of them carrying the disfigurement of this attack, and when Kate is sent to the asylum for being ‘hopelessly insane’ nothing is untoward in her appearance. Lastly, regarding Margret’s readiness to express her resentment of Joe, this is publicly seen in her words at the trial in 1876, and when she is told, in the confidence of her own house, that she would be quite right in wanting to save Joe, and she deliberates on it and says that she wouldn’t save him. How did this incident not finally sever all ties? Especially if it caused as much damage as was recorded. Whatever happened on that day, it certainly deserves to be further questioned.
Concerning the relationship between Joe and Margret, while he was not the son that she expected him to be, and their relationship was never full of love, it cannot be denied that after his father’s death in November 1870, Joe did apply himself in being the best son he could be. He worked a variety of jobs to help bring money to the family, which included working in the Chinese camp for different merchants, picking up in a shearing shed and working as cart boy for Ovens Tannery. Joe may have even hawked firewood around the Woolshed in his father’s old blue cart, just as his brother Paddy would come to do in 1876, and he no doubt helped her in the running of her selection and ‘fourteen cow’ dairy. Later, however, Margret’s coldness and constant criticism, coupled with his time spent in the Chinese camp, Ingram’s bookshop, the public library and with Aaron, meant that he wasn’t around to help run the farm or be at her disposal. But this was the young man Joe was and it didn’t stem from an inherent laziness or the wish to see his family suffer; it was because, for Joe, life extended far outside the constraints of Sebastopol. For the time, and his own education, Joe was cultured, well read and expressive. He enjoyed the company of the Chinese, their food, customs and language. Sitting under Nam Shing’s veranda, sipping jasmine tea or eating rice with jade chopsticks, was an expression of the complexity of his persona, something that Margret or others may have never cared to understand. When he journeyed up to Beechworth and spent time chatting with James Ingram in the back room of his shop or visited the Burke Museum and Public Library, all this was a further declaration of who Joe was as an individual.
I am aware that when people wish to demonise Joe, they focus on his supposed abandonment of Margret, but how is this different from Ned leaving his mother Ellen to pursue his own interests? Why is Joe always viewed with a much harsher and less forgiving lens than Ned? Why are individuals permitted to delve deeper into learning the truth about Ned Kelly and what made him the man he was, and yet, for someone to offer Joe that same level of understanding and questioning of baseless claims automatically means they must be twisting or hiding the truth? In light of this, it takes a great deal of courage to stand up for Joe, and to show people that he was not simply a murderous and paranoid opium addict with a mean streak, but at the same time that he wasn’t a romantic balladeer, forever in clean pressed tweeds with a barmaid waiting for him in every town. He was a man who was addicted to opium and alcohol, he openly enjoyed sex and was very much at ease around women. Joe relished books, tobacco smoke and had a gift for writing. He deserves to be acknowledged for the man he was and his character should never be blackened so that Ned Kelly, or anyone else, may be propped up.
Joe Byrne deserves to be understood.
Interview sourced from: https://www.ironoutlaw.com/interned/ned-would-have-been-a-top-cop/