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Ned Kelly, Robin Hood or Villain? Q&A with Leo Kennedy on his new book Black Snake

October 19, 2018

About the authors: 

Leo Kennedy  

Leo Kennedy is the great grandson of Sergeant Michael Kennedy and was raised in the shadow of his great grandfather’s murder. Leo is a member of the Blue Ribbon Foundation, which supports police families and honours the memory of police killed in the line of duty. He lives with his family in Melbourne, where he works as a lawyer. In his spare time he enjoys working on other history, conservation and permaculture projects.

Mic Looby

Mic Looby is a writer, editor and illustrator. He is the author of the novel Paradise Updated, a co-creator of six children’s books, and a scriptwriter for television including the ABC’s award-winning natural history documentary The Great Australian Fly. A former columnist for The Big Issue magazine, Mic was also a senior digital wordsmith at The Age for many years, and a Lonely Planet guidebook writer at large. A father of two, Mic lives in Melbourne with his family and other wildlife.

Purchase a copy of Black Snake here 

Read our review of Black Snake here 

Black Snake is a piece of historical non-fiction that challenges the legend of Ned Kelly, and gives a voice to his victims and their families. Who is the Ned Kelly that is portrayed in our history books, and how does the portrayal differ from the true Ned Kelly?

Popular Australian history characterises Ned Kelly as a downtrodden victim who strikes out against tyranny, and his audacious crimes are commonly justified as payback for oppression by the police. To validate ‘victim Ned’, writers portray the police as sinister ‘Sheriffs of Nottingham’. However, this is not the true story.

The real Ned Kelly was the victim of a shocking upbringing at the hands of his family. From a young age he knew the power of a gun and aspired to be a bushranger. Ned formed grudges, targeting innocent people, and his Great Mob stole from rich and poor. He ruled by fear and grew evermore violent: from fists, to stirrup irons and then guns.

Ned and his gang held a long reign of terror over North East Victoria. After they murdered three policemen they raided stations and towns, held many people hostage, robbed banks, and wrote threatening letters. Ned was captured during an act of terrorism. He was found guilty and hanged for murder.

The real Ned Kelly was a murderer and failed terrorist.

Your great grandfather was Sergeant Michael Kennedy, who was tragically and unmercifully shot dead by Ned Kelly in 1878. Being so closely tied to this story, was it difficult to write a piece of non-fiction and remain emotionally impartial/unbiased?

I used my experience as an accountant and lawyer to research physical evidence, expert reports and trial records to find the truth.

I have friends who are Kelly descendants and had no wish to hurt them in telling my family’s story. Indeed, both Kellys and Kennedys, time and again, have been hurt when others have not stuck to the real story.

Despite my preparation, writing became an emotional roller-coaster at times. Michael’s murder, Bridget’s breakdown and miscarriage, the toll on my grandpa Jimmy, and untruths about the motives of the Mansfield police … facing all this hurt me. But I wanted their story to be told. I pressed on. The cycle of hurt from the falsehoods must be broken.

What was the research process like for writing this book? What resources did you use?

I went to the original documents and stuck to the facts. My research around Michael and Bridget Kennedy started with our family stories that had been passed down to their son Jimmy, to his son, and now to me. I searched for verification in Michael’s police records, in newspapers, in trial transcripts; and even in the Victorian Hansard.

For Ned Kelly and gang, I started with their criminal records, police records, newspapers, trial transcripts; then I talked to Kelly descendants.

Your book is very much about the ways in which history can distort one’s legacy. In today’s age of technology, do you think legacy distortion will ever likely occur again? Or are we all too traceable, our digital imprints everywhere, our true selves plastered on the internet for all to see?

The distortion of Ned Kelly was gradual. From Ned’s lies, myths were built. A storyline was reinforced and exaggerated. Where the records did not match the image that was sought – of Ned as an underdog, an Aussie battler – it was often the case in retelling of the story that people were misquoted or an opinion was inserted as fact.

Today, whilst we are traceable and leave a version of ourselves online, who stands for you? Once you are dead, you cannot sue for defamation when others write about you.

Legacy distortion in today’s technology can happen very quickly. False information can be spread instantly to millions of people. Once it’s out there, it is very hard to get it removed. People have only begun to be successful suing and achieving the prompt removal of falsehoods.

More readily accessible original sources, such as Facebook and Instagram, and the continuation of your e-persona will go some way toward helping descendants to protect and maintain your true legacy.

Your book delves into the psychological trauma of false legacy and how this impacts not only the individual, but also their family for generations. Unfortunately, families of historical figures are often forgotten. Having experienced this family trauma first hand, was it especially important to you to not only make this a book about correcting false historical truths, but also a call for empathy and understanding?

Correcting historical falsehoods is one challenge that descendants face. Other challenges are public perception and apathy. Many people have been brought up believing the myths and it hasn’t even crossed their minds, until now, that this may cause hurt and upset to the descendants; others simply don’t care.

The people who most understand the predicament of the police descendants are Kelly Gang family’s descendants. We empathise with one another. We accept one another’s hurt and the need to tell our story. We listen respectfully to one another.

I am making a call for people to understand they are playing with the lives and legacy of someone else’s loved ones. Consider for a moment, how would you feel if the whole nation believed that the person who had murdered your family member was a hero? Instead of telling us to get over it, please realise that villainising someone’s father and grandfather deeply hurts the person who knew them. Realise that the following generations that witnessed their upset are equally hurt.

The families for a long time have been unable to tell their story. It is our story to tell; let us tell our story with the respect we give to one another.

What do you hope people will take away from this book?

I hope people take away that Ned Kelly was not the victim or the hero of this story. Falsifying deceased people’s legacies has a deep and detrimental impact on their descendants. Let the families tell their own story; listen respectfully and protect their rights. Be careful who you chose as a hero; look to the facts; don’t be tricked into accepting an unworthy myth.

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  1. Robert Noel Turnbull

    Leo have read your book cover to
    cover and I can not believe how
    blinded I was to the myth of Ned
    Kelly. Every clear thinking Australian
    should read your book and believe the
    facts presented to them. I used to be a Kelly
    sympathiser. I hope common sense prevails
    and the authorities make amends.

  2. Dean Mayes

    I am really pleased that the other side of the Kelly Story is increasingly coming to light through the brave accounts of people like Leo Kennedy.

    My great great grandfather, Joseph Mayes was a police constable at the time of the Stringybark murders. He participated in the Police Cave Parties, under Francis Hare, that staked out Joe Byrne’s property near Beechworth and he was later responsible for the removal of Police Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick from the Force.

    My family have sought to reach out to many people with an interest in the Kelly Affair – hoping to learn more about Joseph Mayes – and like the Kennedy’s, we have been met with antipathy and some measure of dismissal.

    Again, I’m pleased to see stories of the Police being told anew and in a proper light.

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