These bandits preyed on travellers and local farmers in the sixteenth century and often had to be tackled by Gaelic chieftains such as Red Hugh O'Donnell who cleared bands of woodkerne out of the Bearnas Mór Pass in County Donegal in 1592-3. Once the Plantation of Ulster took place in 1610 some of the disspossessed Gaelic nobles and soldiers joined the woodkerne where they were a constant menace to the settlers in the early decades of the plantation, especially in the Sperrin Mountains of Counties Tyrone and Derry.
With the conquest of Ireland by Oliver Cromwell and his forces from 1649 to 1653, Catholic soldiers and dispossessed nobles again took to the forests and mountains to lead the life of the bandit. These men recieved a new name Tories, from Irish tóraigh ~ to hunt or pursue. Their main haunt was the Wicklow Mountains, which became inaccessible to Cromwellian forces until the entire population of the mountain range was ordered out upon pain of death. The most famous Tory was Redmond O'Hanlon, a dispossessed Gaelic noble from County Armagh who was active with a band of fifty men in East Ulster and North Leinster from 1674-81. O'Hanlon was eventually betrayed and killed by his own foster-brother.
After the further conquest of Catholic Ireland by the Williamites in the 1690s, many demobilized soldiers from the defeated Jacobite army again took to the hills to lead the life of a bandit. These outlaws were given the name raparees from Irish rápaire ~ half pike. Some famous raparees from Munster include Dónall na Cásca Ó Caoimh who was active in north-west County Cork and Éamonn an Chnoic ~ Ned of the Hill, a famous raparee from the Ryan family active in north County Tipperary from 1702.
Eventually the number of outlaws died out in Ireland as noted bandits were killed or executed and their bands fell apart. By the late 1700s the appearance of a bandit or highwayman in the Irish countryside was a rare occurrence. However, with the transportation of thousands of Irishmen as convicts to Australia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, rural banditry became a part of Irish-Australian life as escaped or newly freed Irishmen took to the vast Australian outback as bushrangers. These men learnt or already had the survival skills to live in the Australian wilderness and robbed banks or sheep farms and wealthy travellers.
The most famous Irish Australian bushranger was the celebrated Ned Kelly. Ned's father was from County Tipperary, the haunt of Éamonn an Chnoic in the early eighteenth century, and who was transported to Australia for stealing a few pigs in 1841. Once released John Kelly married Ellen Quinn and together they had a family of three sons and five daughters. The family lived in Eleven Mile Creek a poor area of North Victoria. John Kelly died in 1866.
It seems clear that the Kellys were bullied and harassed by the local police, many of whom were unfortunatley also Irish. Ned's first brush with the law occured in 1869 and he spent much of the early 1870s in jail. In April 1878 there was an incident in the Kelly house between the family and an Irish policeconstable called Fitzpatrick. Apparently Fitzpatrick made unwanted advances to one of the Kelly girls and was thrown out of the house by their mother. A humiliated Fitzpatrick claimed that Ned who wasn't even in the house at the time had shot him. In any event Mrs Kelly ended up in jail and Ned took to the Wombat hills to live the life of a bushranger. Once there he was joined by his brother Dan and two other Irish Australians, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart.
In October 1878 four Irish policemen went into the Wombat hills to capture the Kellys and claim the large reward. However, they camped too close to the Kellys and were discovered. Sergeant Kennedy and Contables Lonigan and Scanlon were shot dead. In the succeeding years Ned Kelly and his gang robbed banks and sheep stations. Ned wrote famous letters justifying his actions and Aboriginal trackers were even brought in to track him down. On Sunday 27th June 1880 Ned and his gang took over the Glenrowan Hotel. They had heard that a trainload of policemen was coming in from Melbourne to hunt them down. What the Kelly gang did next was to ensure their place in history. The gang made body armour and headpieces for themselves from plough mould-boards and planned to derail the train and kill as many of the police as they could manage. However, the train driver was warned and the police instead surrounded and shot up the hotel. Joe Byrne was shot dead but Ned escaped. He returned in his armour, emerging from the mist with guns blazing to terrorize the police who could not bring him down. Eventually one policeman shot him in the legs and disabled him. Ned's brother Dan and Steve Hart committed suicide in the hotel as the police set it on fire.
Ned Kelly was put on trial in Melbourne for the killing of Constable Lonigan. He was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. The Irish in Victoria collected thousands of signatures for a petition for Kelly to be spared indicating the sympathy for his plight which many of the Irish in Australia shared. However, the plea for leniency was dismissed and Ned Kelly was hanged on 11 November 1880. His last words were said to have been a nonchalant 'Such is Life'.
Ned Kelly continues to be a divisive figure in Australian history. Many view him as a ruthless criminal who killed policemen. To others he is representative of the oppressed Irish in Australia who fought back against injustice with amazing innovation and died an Australian folk-hero. Ned Kelly may not have known of the famous outlaw Ned Ryan from his father's home area in Tipperary, but if he did perhaps he gained some inspiration from his exploits. As such Australian bushranging could be said to be an extension of an Irish tradition, if indeed many years and half a world away.