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Cut from the same cloth

  • 14 May 2006

Throughout last year we commemorated the 125th anniversary of the climax and end game of Ned Kelly’s life, from the bizarre siege of Glenrowan to his hanging at Old Melbourne Gaol four and a half months later. Kelly was hanged on 11 November, a date we remember as the end of two other great moments of defiance, grand vision and grand folly.

We should also have spared a thought for another November death. After surviving two years’ hard labour which nearly killed him, Oscar Wilde left England for the Continent, where he died just a few years later, on 30 November 1900.

The contrasts between Kelly and Wilde could not be more obvious. But their lives bear uncanny symmetries from the trivial to the profound.

Both counted themselves sons of Ireland, and shared both the month of their deaths and year of their birth, 1854.

The generous and unsuspecting nature of each was central to his downfall—Ned in his trust of the schoolteacher Curnow who flagged down the train, and Oscar in his extravagant gifts to rent-boys that so incriminated him in court.

Both were innovators never successfully imitated.

Wilde’s jokes were and often still are regarded as stilted, sitting uneasily with the content of his plays. Yet they are like depth charges, unsettling established meanings, and doing what religious texts often do—prompting new understanding through contradiction and paradox. Kelly was an innovator with his own criminal escapades, turning bank robberies, remarkably enough, into weekend social events—occasions for improvised partying and propaganda.

As recent scholarship illustrates, there was a much stronger political undercurrent to the events surrounding both Ned and Oscar’s triumphs and tragedies than is often supposed. McKenna’s recent biography of Wilde draws out the political radicalism of Wilde’s leadership of ‘the cause’ for the liberation of men who loved men, uncovering plenty of evidence both of Wilde’s brazen subversiveness and of real concern at the highest levels of society about the outbreak of ‘Greek love’ of which Wilde was the figurehead.

So too, the ‘Kelly outbreak’ was no simple matter of four outlaws in the hills. Born in the aftermath of the Eureka Stockade, Kelly became an inchoate republican revolutionary. And the authorities had so mishandled the situation that Kelly had enough sympathisers to have created a bloodbath in Northern Victoria of grander scale than Eureka. While our heart goes out to Ned as the underdog, our head