ELLEN Quinn is barely 18 years of age when she falls under the spell of emancipated convict John ‘Red’ Kelly, 30. Ellen’s family have been in Australia for almost a decade, having emigrated from the northern tip of Ireland as free settlers shortly before the Potato Famine swept across their homeland.
Despite his earlier thievery, Red has behaved impeccably since being transported to Tasmania and later relocating to the foothills of the Great Dividing Range north of Melbourne, where works for Ellen’s parents. Although James Quinn is dubious, when his eldest daughter reveals she is pregnant she is allowed to marry.
So begins the adult life of Ellen Kelly: the one-time raven-haired, carefree, horse-loving girl from County Antrim who as a middle-aged matron and mother of 12 children will gain infamy – “the notorious Mrs Kelly”, as she will be dubbed by Victoria’s assistant police commissioner.
It is Ellen’s first-born son, Edward, who becomes the ‘man’ of the household when Red – slowly embittered by years of struggling to earn a legitimate living – slips back into his petty-criminal ways and then dies. At 11, young Ned is ill-prepared to fill his father’s shoes but has little choice in the matter; in 19th-century Greta every slab hut needs a male figurehead.
Behind the scenes Ellen rules, however. Illiterate, she signs both her marriage certificates with a simple “X”, yet when her family’s reputation is questioned she speaks up loudly, proudly and stridently, on occasion defending her increasingly wayward boys in court and in one particularly impassioned incident crushing a policeman’s helmet with a baking paddle as he attempts to arrest her third son, teenaged Dan.
In the end, Ellen outlives more than half of her offspring as a tough, determined, desperate pioneer in one of the harshest periods of Australia’s history.