Loved, admired, loathed. Songs sung about them and poems written. To this day the infamous Ned Kelly remains an icon but with the origins of our bushrangers beginning with our early penal settlements it was inevitable that brutal times would produce desperate people. These men who were originally escaped convicts, glanced over their shoulder at the British settlement with its irons and scaffolds and through lack of choice, took on the Australian bush. How they must have felt teetering on the edge of that decision. Standing on the fringe of civilisation peering into the woody scrub, knowing that there were others, the inhabitants of this strange land waiting within. To go back meant at the very best a lashing with the cat-o-nine tail whip, to go forwards probable starvation and death.
There was a wild colonial boy,
Jack Duggan was his name
He was born and raised in Ireland,
in a place called Castlemaine
He was his father’s only son,
his mother’s pride and joy
And dearly did his parents love
the wild colonial boy
Taking to the bush was not for the faint-hearted, but these men had nothing to lose. Those that managed to evade the red-coats by eking out a subsistence in our harsh terrain used the scrubby heartland for cover, called it a home of sorts and abandoned any kind of normal life. They would beg and steal to survive and they would also kill if necessary. By the 1820s the use of force to rob people led to the very descriptive term, ‘robbery under arms’. Whilst it sounds romantic and these men soon found favour in folk-lore, many were of dispossessed Irish political backgrounds and they could be hard, ruthless people.
By the mid-1800s when the gold rush years promised easy pickings and more free men were choosing a life of crime bushranging grew quickly. But such a life meant giving up all social rights and not everyone agreed with their continuing disregard for authority, larrikin behaviour and thieving ways. If Ned Kelly’s capture and execution in the 1880s is seen as the end of the bushranging days his death also signalled the end of the murdering of numerous policemen and those victims of more modest means who through no fault of their own had become targets of crime over the previous years. Robbing stage coaches and banks, stealing from farmers and shop-owners, these notorious gangs were hunted down and typically killed or wounded in shoot-outs, very American Wild West style.
Jack Donahue aka Jack Duggan in The Wild Colonial Boy song (Jack’s surname was changed as authorities feared it might stir the masses) was born in Dublin and transported to Sydney in 1825 for stealing. He wasn’t a model prisoner being twice sentenced to fifty lashes and soon escaped from the Quakers Hill farm with another two men, Kilroy and Smith where they quickly set about robbing the wealthy.
An account from the period by Toby Ryan described the bushranger as, ‘Donahue was the most insignificant looking creature imaginable, and it seemed strange that such as he was able to keep a country in terror for eight years.’ (Quote: History of Penrith. Penrith, NSW: National Library of Australia. 27 October 1949)
Donahue escaped hanging at least once but five years after his arrival in Sydney he was killed in a shootout at Bringelly, New South Wales. It’s said that smoking pipes were made in the shape of Donahue’s head, with the bullet-holes in his forehead, and purchased and used by the citizens of Sydney. A messy, inglorious end, except for that ballad which is one of our more famous folk-lore tunes.