Aussie English

Did Ned Kelly Have An Irish Accent?

Ned Kelly spoke with an Irish accent!  I’d like to challenge that!  We’ve blindly followed that misguided lead for far too long.  Before getting down to the nitty gritty of why, allow me to digress.

In 1950 at the tender age of eight with a bunch of mates I was playing the school grounds when Sister Veronica arrived on the scene.  She was holding the hands of two new kids who she introduced as Ziggy and Nickoli.  We were told they came from Lithuania and Germany and we had to help them learn English.  They could only speak a bit of English and their accents were so strong, at first, we had no end of trouble understanding them.

Fast forward a few years to the time we were making the transition from boys to men   ̶   we had become dreaded teenagers.  Somewhere on the way Ziggy and Nikoli lost their accents and spoke like the rest of us.   Was this a situation unique to my former school mates?  I don’t think so.  I think it is a very common and natural thing that occurs over and over.

“My wife was born to an Irish family and arrived in Australia when she was nearly 4 years old. When I met her, she was 18 and did not have the slightest hint of an Irish accent.” said Mick Fitzsimons on the internet in June 2002.  It is clear people learn to speak the language with the same accent of those where they grew up.

Yet there is a persistent insistence that Ned had to speak with an Irish accent because his parents were both Irish and so were his cousins the Quins* and the Lloyds.  But he did not grow up in an isolated environment.  He grew up among Australian kids and his mother ran a sly grog shop at one time.  At school, at home and time spent in jail Ned was exposed to no end of “Aussie speak”.   Enough for him to speak like any other Australian born kid of his or any other era.

Ah! But the Australian accent didn’t exist up to the end of the Kelly era!  (Ned was hung on 11 November 1880.)  Want to bet?

Evidence indicates the Australian accent started forming with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788.  Different references vary in their statistics, so it’s hard to know exactly how many children were born en route.  Some quote as few as six   ̶   others claim twenty.  The first born white child in New South Wales is believed to be William Nash son of Marine Pte William Nash and Maria Haynes. 

Very early in the piece these colonial born children were called “Currency lads/lasses” and those born in the “Mother Country” were called “Stirling lads/lasses”.*   Right from the start children born in the new colony were exposed to a variety of accents.  Without leaving the British Isles, there were plenty to choose from Scottish, Irish, Welch, and the English counties have plenty as well.  Cockney criminal class English slang was so unique to them that it was in effect a language within a language.  Outsiders often couldn’t comprehend it.  They called it “Flash Language”*. 

Little wonder children of the flotsam and jetsam of humanity spewed onto Australian soil developed a mode of speaking all of their own.  Author Grant Hyde tells how they  looked different to the “pasty, wasted convicts and marines who were their parents”.  Once the desperate food shortages of the first few years were solved, the new generation enjoyed a better “diet of fresh meat, fish and greens, the kind climate and the clean air, they were bigger, healthier and far more at home in the wilds of Australia.  What was alien to their forebears was the natural order of things to them and so they felt equally at home on land and water, could swim, hunt and fish.

Hyde continues, “The currency lad thought himself better than any from the ‘Mother country’, had a cocky swagger, wore his hair long and had his own accent. . . . the whole issue of accent came down to those offspring not wanting to sound anything like their lowly convict parents, the cheating, thieving Red Coat guards or the ‘Exclusives’ that had come out here with high ideals of founding a new class of landed gentry.”

An Australian accent had developed long before it was first reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, in 1826:  “They have lost their English spirit and have degenerated into Australians.”  What a dreadful cheek!  Australians sounding like Australians here in Australia.  How did we survive the 1820s?

Other sources mention it too.  For instance, The Bigge Report, published in June 1822, and Surgeon Peter Cunningham R.N. in 1827mentioned it in his book “Two Years in New South Wales”.

Contrary to opinions of some who haven’t bothered to do their homework properly, there was an Australian accent well and truly in place by the time of the Kelly Outbreak in the late 1870s.  Was it the same as today’s Aussie speak?  Most likely not.  People today don’t speak the same as my parents’ generation did when I was a kid.  People today don’t speak the same as we did when we were much younger.  Language is always changing.  Though it is not the same today as it was in Ned’s day it was still an Australian accent beyond any doubt.

In 1978, Mick Jagger’s portrayal of Ned gave him an Irish accent in the movie.  Ned’s great-niece still lived in the Glenrowan district was interviewed.  She pointed out that Ned’s brother Jim was only five years junior to Ned.  Jim lived until 1946 and spoke with a broad Australian accent. She said, “It beats me why Mick Jagger gave Ned an Irish brogue”.

Of course Ned’s grand-niece had never heard Ned speak.  He and Dan were both dead long before she was born.  However, there is the Jerilderie Letter to consider.  OK, I know Ned didn’t write himself.  But no one doubts he dictated it.  So it is his words on the document.  In it he says:

And is my brothers and sisters and my mother not to be pitied also, who has no alternative, only to put up with the brutal and cowardly conduct of a parcel of big, ugly, fat-necked, wombat-headed, big-bellied, magpie-legged, narrow-hipped, splay-footed sons of Irish bailiffs or English landlords which is better known as officers of Justice or Victorian Police, who some calls honest gentlemen. But I would like to know what business an honest man would have in the Police, as it is an old saying, It takes a rogue to catch a rogue.”

For the life of me, I can’t see these as the words of an Irishman.  To the indigenous people of the era words like “fat-necked, wombat-headed, big-bellied, magpie-legged, narrow-hipped, splay-footed” were insults in extreme and regarded to have better impact than many “swear” words of the day.  Young colonial men were quick to use them as well.  Ned’s words were the words of a fair dinkum Australian and in the light of evidence presented here and elsewhere, I can’t see how they could possibly have ever been said with anything but an Australian accent.

I’m very grateful the arguments favouring Ned’s portrayals as having an Irish accent have not been applied to other great Australians, like the poets C. J. Dennis (his parents were Irish born); and, Will Ogilvie (he was Scottish but much of his subject matter unmistakably Australian).

When I went to school some of my teachers had Irish parents.  My teachers spoke with Australian accents.  Unsuccessfully, they often tried to teach us to pronounce some words like the English do. It didn’t really work.  Banjo Paterson once worked on ABC radio for a short time.  In those days they wanted everyone to sound like we speak “cultured English” — more cultured than the English.  Banjo’s Australian accent was so strong they sacked him.

Onya Banjo!  I’m not ashamed to talk like an Australian either.

                Wally (The Bear) Finch

eMuse Vol 2. No1.

Quin:  Ned’s mother’s maiden name was Ellen Quin.

Currency Lads and/or Currency Lasses: Both were references to money available at the time.  The British pound Stirling was preferred but other coins were available from other places and these were called “Currency”. The name was originally given by a facetious paymaster of the 73rd Regiment quartered here.  It seems to have been an attempt to insult Australian born children.  But insults can backfire.  The local born lads and lasses used the terminology with pride.  It was first recorded in 1824 and had become obsolete by 1898.

Flash Language:  a book was written on this subject titled, “Flash Language” by convict James Hardy Vaux.  He wrote it while on solitary confinement at Newcastle.  The book contributed to his eventual pardon.  Lawyers, Magistrates, and, judges often couldn’t understand the criminal jargon.  So the book became a handy reference. It is presently being featured in eMuse.