Academic journal article Antipodes

Representing the Irish Body: Reading Ned's Armor

Academic journal article Antipodes

Representing the Irish Body: Reading Ned's Armor

Article excerpt

ONE HUNDRED TWENTY-SIX YEARS AFTER HIS DEATH, Ned Kelly still has a grip on the Australian psyche. This was clearly apparent in the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney when a parade of larger-than-life Ned Kelly figures made their way into the stadium along with the steel horse, galvanized iron water tanks, shearing shed-complete with bales of wool and somersaulting sheep-and the lawnmowers playing the "Saturday Morning Symphony." While lost on many an international viewer, to an Australian the scene required no explanation, no dramatic action even; the figures were immediately recognizable as Ned Kelly. While many Australians would find it difficult to identify the face of Kelly, his armor, which was worn not only by Kelly but also by the three other members of his gang, is readily identifiable. Ned's helmet, with its letterbox-like slit for the eyes, has become his face. It is the image by which Australia and now the world knows Kelly. It hardly mattered that commentators around the world struggled to account for the image and its significance. This show was about Australia for Australia. As ambivalent as Australians feel about Kelly, it was telling that he appeared on this world's stage as an example of what we take ourselves to be.

Since his execution in 1880 there have been 12 stage plays, 30 books and 10 films, including what is thought to be the first feature film ever made, The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906). Peter Carey's best-selling, prize-winning True History of the Kelly Gang (2000) is the most recent memorial to Kelly and has certainly solidified and revitalized Kelly's status as national icon. Clearly there is no doubt that Kelly is mythologized. What interests me specifically and will be the subject of this paper is the body of Ned Kelly. We are, it seems, not simply fascinated with the story of Ned, but I would argue with the body of Ned. Indeed all of the elements that contribute to a lasting interest in his legend-convict background, English/Irish relations, republican sentiment-get expressed through his embodiment.

Our ready recognition of Ned's armor is in large part due to the series of paintings done by artist Sidney Nolan between 1946-47.' Nolan's fascination with Kelly took the form of the representation of his body in its armor. The series is interesting for a number of reasons: while Nolan gives enormous depth to the landscape with a lush color palette, he represents the players in the series, Kelly and the police, typically, as stick-figure like. What is also interesting is that Kelly is always depicted, barring one portrait of him modeled on Kelly's first prison photo, in his armor. What is curious about this image and its enduring legacy is that Kelly and the other three members of his gang only wore their armor once, for their last battle with police. Why then has the image of the armor become interchangeable with Ned himself?

Nolan's interest in the armor is in fact part of a larger obsession with the body of Kelly. Evidence of this fascination with his body can be found at his death, if not before. When Ned was hanged in 1880, a wax mold was taken of his head for the creation of a death mask. His head was then severed from the body and the brain was removed. This was certainly in keeping with the nineteenth-century practice of phrenology, where doctors attempted to account for criminal behavior on the basis of physiognomy. Victorian physiognomists divided humans according to two facial types: prognathism, a protruding mouth or jaw, and orthognathism, direct alignment of forehead and chin. The presumed "connection between the structure of the skull and an hierarchy of ascribed cultural values, running the gamut from 'civilized' to 'savage,'" had particular implications for the Irish individual. As L. Perry Curtis makes clear, "many Englishmen considered prognathism to be a distinctive feature of 'the Irish face,' or race, a view often reinscribed by caricature" (Curtis xix, xx). …

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