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Truth of Dan Kelly’s fate stays a mystery

MYSTERY MAN: Dan Kelly, the bushranger’s brother, whose fate may remain unknown.
MYSTERY MAN: Dan Kelly, the bushranger’s brother, whose fate may remain unknown. Contributed

IT IS a debate that has been in play for 80 years.

When an Ipswich vagrant going by the name of James Ryan walked into the offices of The Truth newspaper in 1933 and said he was bushranger Dan Kelly it unleashed an enduring controversy.

Ryan is buried in the Ipswich General Cemetery and his links to Kelly are honoured at the site.

Before Ryan's claims, Dan Kelly was thought to have died in the Glenrowan hotel fire of 1880.

In 2005 Cairns author and historian Brian Stevenson debated Cr Paul Tully about the issue in Ipswich. Mr Stevenson does not believe Ryan was Kelly, while Cr Tully is open to the possibility that he was.

Mr Stevenson has listed the errors in Ryan's statements. In the 1933 Truth article, Ryan said his father's name was "Old Ned". Kelly's father was in fact John Kelly.

Ryan said his father was brought to Australia from Dublin in 1845 for poaching. John Kelly was brought to Australia in 1841 from Tipperary for the theft of two pigs.

Ryan said his mother's name was Kate. Kelly's mother's name was Ellen.

Stevenson lists other errors and told The QT that "we have on record a gentleman that doesn't know the name of his father, doesn't know the name of his mother and gets mixed up as to when they were in jail and when they died".

"He says Constable Fitzpatrick was shot through the heart, but Constable Fitzpatrick lived a reasonably long life and died in 1924. There are inaccuracies all the way through it," he said.

But Cr Tully said the shrewd Ryan had good reason to throw in some misleading titbits of information and that he might have been "keeping things up his sleeve just in case he was charged with murder".

"He believed when he went into the offices of The Truth that the statute of limitations prevented him being prosecuted after 50 years, but that is not true," he said.

"If you were facing murder charges you might throw up a few furphies just in case the police had you extradited. Maybe he was changing some of the information so that if he was charged he could claim it was just a joke.

"You talk to people who knew him like (local resident) John Harris and they swear that he was Dan Kelly. One of the key facts is that in 1934 he appeared at the Brisbane Exhibition Grounds in sideshow alley where people paid to question him. He spoke about his family and the Kelly gang and no one was able to refute him or catch him out on any detail. The Truth newspaper reported that."

Cr Tully said the article in The Truth may have included "transcription errors" by the journalist.

"The story in the newspaper in 1933 was provided orally. But having seen a newsreel of this chap, he spoke with a slight speech impediment and was roughly spoken," he said

"Could the reporter take shorthand? Everyone is assuming that what was written in the newspaper was accurately reported, but I defy anyone in Australia to say they have never read an inaccurate report in a newspaper."

Mr Stevenson said Cr Tully had "drawn a pretty long bow".

"Journalists get things wrong occasionally, but not perpetually," he said.

"If you think you are going to get yourself in trouble for murdering somebody, you keep quiet. You don't get yourself written about in the Sunday papers."

Mr Stevenson said Ryan likely enjoyed having the attention focused on him and the "free drinks" at hotels that went with his tales.

The Truth from August 1, 1948.
The Truth from August 1, 1948.

When The QT visited Cr Tully to talk about the Kelly saga he presented us with Ryan's death certificate. It says he was 94 years of age when he died in 1948 and that his parents were Luke Ryan and Kate Lawler.

But the real Dan Kelly was born in 1861 and would have been 87.

Cr Tully said a further discrepancy pointed to Ryan's propensity to leave false trails about his true identity for much of his life.

"That death certificate raises more questions than it answers," he said.

"I have done an online search of Victorian historical birth records and they do not show any record of a person named James Ryan with parents with those names.

"Did he falsify his pension application where that information came from? It is a bizarre situation. Even in death he might have had the laugh of keeping the truth concealed."

Topics:  dan kelly, paul tully



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