Last October I stepped off a bus in Wicklow town on the east coast of Ireland into hard driving rain. I made a run for the old town jail, a place I’d been meaning to visit for a while. On the tour of the building, which dates from 1702, visitors are transported back to crueller times, just as the inmates of the prison were once transported to Australia. You learn about the inhumane conditions the prisoners, including children, were kept in, the miserable rations they were given on the ocean voyage and the petty crimes, borne of poverty, which sealed their fate.
Under the Banishment Act, Irish convicts from Wicklow Gaol were sentenced to transportation up to 1856, around the time the infamous outlaw Ned Kelly, son of an Irish convict, was born in Victoria.
Kelly, whose remains were only given a proper burial in January this year, is a hero to many (though not all) in Australia but whatever your political colours, Peter Carey’s truly original novel True History of the Kelly Gang is captivating. Narrated in Kelly’s voice, the words come tumbling onto the page charged with passion and pain. It is such a convincing account, the period details and nineteenth century Irish-Australian idiom so fresh and vivid that within a few lines, you are there in the hot, dusty township walking in the footsteps of the little boy Kelly.
Carey’s novel is a story of a pride, prejudice and the abuse of power. It is also the story of a son’s love for his mother and the human capacity for endurance. When you read True History of the Kelly Gang you wear the clothes of the downtrodden colonials, eat their food and feel their burning sense of injustice. It must be one of the most accomplished fictional representations of the life of an historical figure. You believe Ned Kelly is speaking, you want it to be him – and you don’t want it to end.