The Kelly outbreak is a famous phenomenon in Australia's colonial history. Whilst some people prefer to see the outbreak as a simple criminal incident between an outlaw and the police, most historians view it as a broader sociological phenomenon, involving conflict between a larger rural community and the colonial authorities.
An important issue for historians has been to understand the underlying causes of this criminal outbreak, whether it was mainly due to personal, ethnic or socio-economic factors. This essay will critically examine each of these explanations and argue that the actions of the Kellys and their supporters, and the reactions of the police can best be understood in terms of broad socio-economic developments in rural Victoria at the time.
In his article, Ned Kelly's Sympathisers, Doug Morrissey suggests that Kelly's Irish heritage was largely responsible for the Kelly outbreak 1. To support his claim, he points to the intense emotional relationships in the Quinn/Kelly clan and the high percentage of Irish sympathisers among Ned's supporters 2.
Ned Kelly was clearly imbued with a sense of his Irish heritage, but the evidence does not suggest that this was a major contributing factor in the outbreak. Public sympathy, it seemed, crossed social and ethnic barriers 3 and was quite widespread, especially after the Euroa National Bank robbery, where the efficiency, lack of violence and manner of the gang were well noted 4. Furthermore, Ned once stated that he considered himself an Australian rather than an Irishman, and his lifestyle, and his concern with local issues shown in his letters lend credence to this statement 5.
Angus McIntyre, another Kelly historian, suggests two causes for the outbreak: vengeance for the harsh sentence given to Ned's mother on a charge of aiding and abetting an attempted murder, and Ned's self-centredness 6. According to McIntyre, Ned had delusions of grandeur and considered himself capable of any feat. McIntyr...
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