Joseph Byrne was born around the end of 1856.  Sadly, no birth certificate exists for him, and due to some confusion with his school records we cannot be certain of his birthday.  However, November 1856 is a widely accepted date.  His parents lived at that time in the gold fields of north-eastern Victoria in Australia.  They were Australian-Irish Catholics; his mother Margret was from Galway, his father Patrick emigrated from County Carlow to live with his own father who had been transported many years earlier.  Joe was the first child.  While he was still a baby, the family moved to the Woolshed, a broad, flat-bottomed valley below the fast-growing town of Beechworth, and took up a piece of land there known as a selection.  Irish selectors had a hard life under British colonial rule, and it is likely that young Joe, the grandson of a transportee, grew up hearing stories of rebellion, and developing his own understanding of his family's lowly place in a harsh world.

braysJoe was remembered by his contemporaries as a bright, handsome boy who was good at his lessons and at enjoying a typical boyhood in the community and the surrounding countryside.  He mixed freely with the Chinese gold miners and their families and learned to speak Cantonese.  At school, he was especially fond of reading and writing and reached a good standard of education, often coming first or second in the class.  Later in life he would write songs and poetry about the Gang and their exploits.  Sadly for the family, Patrick died at just thirty- nine, meaning that thirteen year old Joe had to leave school and start helping to support the family.  Times were very difficult for the Byrnes and although Joe worked for a while at various labouring type jobs, he soon found that a clever young lad with a fluid approach to the letter of the law could make more money in other ways and have more fun doing it.  Before his teens were out Joe had served a six-month sentence in Beechworth jail with his mate Aaron Sherritt for illegal possession of meat, and had dabbled in horse stealing as well as alluvial mining and distilling alcohol.  He also became an habitual user of opium, a drug that was freely available in that time and place.   

As a young adult, Joe was a remarkably accomplished horseman, perhaps even a rather glamorous figure who had many girlfriends and female admirers.  He was for some time engaged to Aaron's sister, but has also been described as 'the idol of the girls of the district' and as having a particular 'weakness for barmaids.'1  One contemporary anecdote notes that he was known as Sugar on account of being so 'sweet on the girls.'2  As his manner was frequently noted to be quiet, polite, even occasionally nervous, it seems likely that he sincerely enjoyed the company of women, rather than being the predatory womaniser he is sometimes depicted as.

One of a number of Ned Kelly's friends and associates, Joe became inextricably part of the Gang because he was with Ned and Dan at Stringybark Creek on the day that police hunting them over a dubious assault charge inadvertently came close to stumbling upon their hideout.  In the ensuing battle, three police officers were shot dead and although Joe was not identified at that point, from then on he was on the run with Ned, Dan and Dan's friend Steve Hart.  During their period of outlawry, which lasted several years, Joe penned the fifty seven-page Jerilderie Letter in which Ned told his story and set out their manifesto.  Although the authorship of the letter is credited to Ned, it is probable that Joe had significant input, and this is reflected in the fact that Ned left the letter unsigned.  As an example of penmanship undertaken in difficult circumstances it is a magnificent achievement.  Ned trusted Joe implicitly, and considered him to be his best friend and closest ally.

Aaron, Joe's boyhood friend, hung around on the periphery of the Gang, playing a dangerous game of passing false information to the police in an intrigue that has never been fully untangled.  Whatever the truth of the matter, it is likely that he was foolishly, and fatally, less than frank with Joe about his activities.  After a particular spate of rumours, counter-rumours, inter-family disputes and correspondence, Joe went with Dan one night in late June 1880 to Aaron's hut where four police officers were hiding in the bedroom, enticed him to the door and shot him dead.  The gang believed that the response of the authorities to this cold-blooded murder would enable them to instigate a major showdown, rallying supporters and eventually declaring a republic of north eastern Victoria.  However, things did not go according to plan and the tragic incident was to prove cataclysmic for them. 

Joe's own life ended three days later during the Siege of Glenrowan when a stray bullet severed his femoral artery.  His body was pulled from the burning wreck of the Glenrowan Inn, left overnight in a lockup at Benalla where it was drawn by a local artist, and the next day hanged and displayed on the jail door for passers-by to witness and for journalists to photograph.  His family never claimed him and he was buried hurriedly in an unmarked grave at Benalla.  He was twenty-three.

1 Ian Jones: The Fatal Friendship
2 Judith Douthie (Mortimer): I was at the Kelly Gang Round Up

Further Reading Suggestions

The Fatal Friendship- Ian Jones
Ned Kelly, A Short Life- Ian Jones
Australian Son- Max Brown

Our Sunshine- Robert Drewe
True History of the Kelly Gang- Peter Carey
Sister Kate- Jean Bedford

Soaring over them all is the larrikin; almost archly self conscious- too smart for his own good, witty rather than humorous, exceeding limits, bending rules and sailing close to the wind, avoiding rather than evading responsibility, playing to an audience, mocking pomposity and smugness, taking the piss out of people, cutting down tall poppies, born of a Wednesday, looking both ways for a Sunday, larger than life, sceptical, iconoclastic, egalitarian yet suffering fools badly, and, above all, defiantManning Clark.

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