Ned Kelly & Billy The Kid: Folk Heroes or Villians

‘Should we feel a duty to side with them as children of Irish migrants, even though their victims were also often Irish?’

Trying to decide whether iconic figures from history were heroes or villains can reveal a lot about the type of historian you are. Your decision will depend heavily on the types of source that are available to you, and how you interpret those sources. You’ll need to decide if you find the idea of an underdog using violence to fight against the authority of the state appealing, or whether the story should be told with the lawmen, like Pat Garrett in New Mexico or Superintendent Hare in Glenrowan, Victoria, as the central figures.

Both the Kid and Kelly had troubled youths and are easy to sympathise with, having lost parents in their teens. Both slipped into criminality early; Billy was a ‘cattle rustler’ and Ned a ‘bushranger’ and bank robber. Both resorted to vigilante justice, which in modern terms is highly questionable, but at the time was far more common, perhaps even understandable on the ‘wild’ frontiers.

Should we feel a duty to side with them as children of Irish migrants, even though some of their victims were also Irish? Do the dozens of movies, ballads and novels about both men distort our views in a way that makes an objective decision almost impossible?

The ‘lawmen’ they were up against were no angels either. Australian Constable Fitzpatrick, who testified against the Kelly gang, was known as ‘a liar and a larrikin’, whereas Garrett shot Billy the Kid twice from the shadows rather than risk the fugitive carrying out another jail break.

The jury at Garrett’s inquest decided his actions were a ‘justifiable homicide’, and the Las Vegas Daily of 18 July 1881 thought he was ‘truly worthy of a handsome reward’ for ridding the country of a ‘desperado’. There were few neutrals in either story.

Ultimately, trying to answer this kind of question might reveal far more than you think. If you’re more interested in working out the reasons their parents were forced to leave Ireland in the first place, how those emigrants were received in their adopted countries, or want to understand the broader context of those societies, then you’re probably a historian.

If all you want to do is tell a glitzy story of a plucky underdog that uses violence to get their way, you’re probably better off looking for work as a film producer. There’s likely to be more money in that anyway…

Jerome Devitt

Jerome Devitt is a final year PhD candidate in Trinity College, Dublin and teaches History and English in The King’s Hospital, Palmerstown, Dublin. ‘Billy the Kid has been variously characterised as dangerous sociopath or sound-hearted youngster’

Criminal activities don’t disqualify you from a special place in the national consciousness. Plenty of folk heroes operated outside the law if their own moral code permitted it. Ned Kelly was born into an Irish family in wild, hilly southeastern Australia in 1854, and grew up amid cattle-stealing and violence. One chaotic afternoon, a policeman, arriving to arrest Ned’s brother Dan, claimed that Ned shot him. Ned’s mother Ellen struck the policeman with a shovel, and ended up serving three years for attempted murder.

Ned and Dan fled into the bush where they were joined by friends, and soon Ned killed three policemen. The gang’s devil-may-care contempt for authority fuelled their celebrity: they robbed a bank and burned its files, broke into a pub and dished out free beer to the townspeople. Eventually, during a shootout at Glenrowan, Kelly, despite impressive homemade armour, was wounded, arrested and hanged, saying “Such is life” as the noose dropped around his neck.

Also of Irish heritage, the outlaw and gunslinger Billy the Kid was born Henry William McCarty around 1859. His mother died of tuberculosis, and his stepfather abandoned him, so the teenaged Billy ended up fending for himself.

At 16, he shot a man in a fight, and fled to New Mexico, now an outlaw and joined a cattle-rustling gang. In a bid to get back on the straight and narrow, he accepted a deal involving testifying against gang members in return for employment. It didn’t pan out — his boss was killed and the Kid formed a vigilante group.

Eventually he shot the sheriff responsible and was arrested. But he escaped by grabbing a six-shooter and firing at two guards before leaping on a horse and galloping away. Sheriff Pat Garrett eventually caught up with him and shot the 21-year old through the heart.

Billy the Kid has been variously characterised as dangerous sociopath or soundhearted youngster repeatedly shaking off bad crowds. Ned Kelly called for justice for poor families, an end to police corruption, and claimed he killed in self-defence. A theory emerged that he wanted to establish a republic in northeast Victoria. A political goal, a fight for social justice or a rebalance of power; in folk estimation, if not under the law, it seems that motivation matters. You can kill and steal, but still end up central to New Mexico tourism, or with your image on a stamp.

Antonia Hart

Antonia Hart is an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar and PhD candidate at the Department of History, Trinity College, Dublin. Her book ‘Ghost Signs of Dublin’ was published in 2014.