Poem – Brief Sketches of Members of the Kelly Gang

Brief Sketches of Members of the Kelly Gang


Joe Byrne: balladeer, ladies’ man,
spoke Cantonese (he needed
opium from the Chinese),
could hit a penny tossed into the air
with a rifle shot,
Ned’s trusted second-in-command.


Steve Hart: ill-tempered,
sometime jockey,
had a mount that could jump the railway gates
at Wangaratta
— his claim to local fame.


Dan Kelly: clever, hawk-eyed,
destined to wear the passed-down clothes
of bigger, older brothers,
useful in a brawl.


Ned Kelly: proud,
crack marksman, fine boxer, trick rider,
addressed women with a parson’s manners,
his riastarthae — alexandrite eyes,
born leader, fallen
on the law’s wrong side.



Kevin Densley


Acknowledgements: first published in Quadrant, 2007; then, in Vigorous Vernacular, a Picaro Press collection of mine, 2008, reprinted Ginninderra Press, 2018.


Note: the term riastarthae is used in Celtic mythology, meaning battle fury, involving a physical change when the warrior is stirred up in battle. In this context, Ned Kelly’s eyes glowed fiery crimson when he was highly angry, according to Ian Jones in Ned Kelly: A Short Life. (Alexandrite is bluish green in daylight or fluorescent light, but changes to red in the darkness of night.)


More from Kevin Densley HERE


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Kevin Densley is a graduate of both Deakin University and The University of Melbourne. He has taught writing and literature in numerous Victorian universities and TAFES. He is a poet and writer-in-general. His fifth book-length poetry collection, Please Feed the Macaws ... I'm Feeling Too Indolent, was published in late 2023 by Ginninderra Press. He is also the co-author of ten play collections for young people, as well as a multi Green Room Award nominated play, Last Chance Gas, which was published by Currency Press. Other writing includes screenplays for educational films.


  1. Rick Kane says

    Wow Kevin, that’s a powerful and evocative summary. Re Ned and your last line I am reminded of the Dylan line, to live outside the law you must be honest. Cheers

  2. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, Rick. Glad you found the poem so impactful.

  3. Love it Kevin.

    Ned’s eyes even shine through his death mask!

  4. Good job Kevin. Of the four outlaws he’s the one we know the least about. Steve seemed to have a ‘shitty’ side, it manifested itself at Jerilderie. We know just prior to his death he was quite physically unwell at Glenrowan. Drunk,or a bug ?

    Dan was held in high regard by his mother. His big brother should have paid him more respect. If his judgement was more respected would McIntyre have rid off from Stringybark Creek. Even more importantly Curnow would have not raised the alarm if Dan’s advice was heeded.


  5. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, Dips. Yes, I saw Ned Kelly’s death mask in situ – as opposed to photographs – when I went to an exhibition of the Kelly Gang armour at the Old Melbourne Gaol many years back.

    And thanks, Glen. I was particularly thinking about Steve Hart’s reported behaviour at Jerilderie when I wrote the bit about him, and certainly agree that Dan was capable of offering wise counsel.

  6. I can only assume that these few lines are written in a tongue-in-cheek style Kevin.

    The four outlaws were bottom-of-the-barrel Irish-related scum. And mass murderers to boot.

    When Sergeant Michael Kennedy retreated down the bush path firing his revolver the Kelly crooks followed.

    When his ammunition ran out Kennedy threw up his arms in surrender. What did the Kelly scum do?

    Why, gun him down in cold blood, of course.

    And when the Glenrowan Pub siege was in full blast what did Hart and the “clever” Dan Kelly do?

    Why, cower on the floor terrified barely able to raise a revolver to fire back at the troopers through the blasted-out window frames.

    Enough is enough. When the Stringybark Creek memorials were erected in 2018 Kelly descendants came to the ceremony a little apprehensive. And rightly so.
    Fortunately for them the descendants of the murdered coppers were quite forthcoming and welcoming. Which is more than I would have been in similar circumstances.

  7. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks for your comments, Edgar. Your points are strongly made. Indeed, my series of brief sketches are not intended to amount to an overall view and form a very small part of a much bigger picture – and I do conclude with references to a “fall” and of being on the law’s wrong side. These two matters are what I chose to leave my reader with.

  8. Jarrod_L says

    When comments of “Irish-related scum” are being thrown around, whatever other content accompanies said comments become all that more difficult to parse and judge with a clear mind.

    I have no skin in the game, but I enjoyed your words Kevin – those who totally valourise or viscerate the Kelly Gang I hazard may just miss the point of those words entirely.

  9. Kevin Densley says

    Many thanks for your thoughtful words, Jarrod. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece.

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