First Hand Accounts History News Reports

The Priest’s Statement (20 July 1880)

An account of the Glenrowan siege from the perspective of Father Matthew Gibney.

Glen Innes Examiner and General Advertiser (NSW : 1874 – 1908), Tuesday 20 July 1880, page 2


The priest’s statement.

Father Gibney, who left Kilmore on the morning of Monday, June 28 en route for Albury, arrived on the scene about noon. As the train was approaching Glenrowan, the passengers could hear the incessant fire of the police on the house. The constables seemed to fire more vigorously when the train stopped. Father Gibney had previously heard of Ned Kelly being wounded, and finding that the outlaw was lying in one of the back rooms of the station, he determined to let the train go on, and remain at Glenrowan. The rev. gentleman had, at first, much difficulty in getting into the room on account of the number of people going to look at Ned Kelly. As soon as he made himself known to the doctor attending, he at once made room for Father Gibney to get to Kelly. The outlaw was in a precarious state, find there was no certainty that he would survive his wounds. Kelly when he found that Father Gibney was a Priest, at once asked him to do anything he could towards preparing him for death. The rev. father heard his confession, and, although he was evidently suffering the most intense agony and pain from the wounds on his hands and feet, he never uttered a strong or impatient word. Father Gibney was particularly struck with the appearance of resignation that appeared to settle itself upon his countenance. Father Gibney states that Kelly has a good expression of countenance, especially in the lower features. The greater number of the pictures published of the captured outlaw are quite unlike him. Father Gibney was with Kelly about an hour, and when he satisfied himself as to his penitential disposition he administered the sacraments of penance and extreme unction. During the time Father Gibney was with Kelly the interval between the volleys fired by the police were very short indeed, and continued so throughout the afternoon, till the place was fired. So far as his powers of observation enabled him to judge Father Gibney saw no terms of truce offered to the bushrangers. When he had completed his ministrations to Ned Kelly he asked him if he thought it would be safe for him to go up to the house to ask the other bushrangers to surrender. Kelly looked at the priest intently for some time. Father Gibney said “I’m not afraid.” Kelly then said, “I would not advise yon to go; you are a stranger. They may take you for a policeman in disguise, and they’ll shoot you.” The rev. gentleman felt it was hopeless to make the attempt at that time, but certainly could not help admiring the man who seemed to care so much for his safety. Father Gibney was a total stranger, knowing not a soul of the hundreds that were there, and none of them knew him. He was, however, introduced by one of the medical gentlemen to a Church of England minister, who was there. They spoke freely together for about 20 minutes discussing the situation. Father Gibney told him that he felt very much the position that be was in; that these men were likely to die as they had lived, without a chance of repentance; also, that he had been partly deterred from asking them to surrender by what Ned Kelly had said, but that he was not satisfied. The Church of England clergyman replied that he would not advise any one to go, as it was the duty of the police, who undertook any such risks when they were engaged in the service.

While talking thus, a female dressed in a riding habit came hurriedly towards the station across the railway. This was Mrs. Skillian. Presently it was repeated from mouth to mouth, “Here’s Kelly’s sister.” Father Gibney was glad of her arrival, for he felt that at last one was present who could approach the house and say to the outlaws that their lives would be spared if they would surrender. Father Gibney advanced to meet the woman, and said to her, “I am a Catholic priest; I’ve attended your brother Ned, who is in the back room there wounded, but he is not in any imminent danger at present. I want you to go up to your brother and Hart, and ask them to surrender. Should they refuse to do so, tell them there is a priest here who would like to speak to them, and ask them will they let him come in.” “Of course I’ll go and see my brother,” she replied. She was rushing off towards the house when she was ordered back by different parties of police, who were in ambush. Then the priest said that he would have to obtain leave for the woman to go to the house, and accompanied her to Inspector Sadlier. At this time the house was being fired. In less than ten minutes from this period the fire was seen to have crept through the weatherboards, and caught hold of the calico screens, which carried the blaze rapidly along the walls. When the house was seen to be fairly on fire a volley was fired into the place by the police. Father Gibney then felt that the outlaws must inevitably die within a few minutes, either by being burnt inside the house or being shot down if they came out. He felt that there was no truce or no terms for the doomed men. Besides he had already been informed by the men who had been released from the besieged house that there was one of their party, an old man named Cherry, mortally wounded, and unable to drag himself out from the flames. At this crisis Father Gibney started off direct for the front door of the house. When about midway between the police and the burning hotel, he was called upon to come back and was informed that he must not go there without permission from the officer in charge. He was in a good spot for a shot at the time. Father Gibney recognised the propriety of obtaining the permission of the commanding officer, but in the imminence of the crisis he also saw that there was not a moment to lose. He stood for a moment, and then walked a few paces towards the officer who called him. It glanced across the rev. father’s mind that if the men in the house saw him taking directions from the police who were besieging them they would conclude at once that he was in the service of the police.

He cried out, “There is no time to loose.” The flames were bursting through the roof. He started a second time for the house, and as he did the assembled people clapped hands most enthusiastically. Father Gibney was determined to do his duty at all hazards. Mentally commending himself to God, and praying that if he fell his sins would be forgiven, he marched boldly forward, his only object being to give the wretched inmates of the blazing ruin an opportunity of dying penitent. On entering the door, the front room was completely vacant, and the weatherboards were riddled with bullet-holes; there was hardly a board which had not been perforated with numerous shots. Passing into the bar, which was the room where the fire first caught, Father Gibney saw the body of Byrne lying at the passage door. The outlaw was quite stiff, and the reverend gentleman mobed [sic] him to ascertain if there was any life in him, but he had been evidently dead a long while. He seemed to have died quite easily, and not to have moved at all from the position, in which he dropped. Our informant then called out to the other two whom he supposed to be in the building, “For God’s sake, men, allow me to speak to you; I am a Roman Catholic priest.” The passage and the whole of this room was so enveloped in flames that Father Gibney did not then venture to pass through, but sought in another direction to go to the men. Finding there was no egress he came back, stepped over the dead body of Byrne, and rushed through a sheet of flame. He was plainly seen in the midst of the blaze by those outside, and a cry of horror was raised.

He then came to the back room, where he saw two bodies lying stretched at full length on their backs, with bags formed into pillows under their heads. He took hold of each them and was satisfied himself that they were dead. The ceiling and sidewalls were at this time alight. Father Gibney was bewildered when he saw the two beardless youths who kept at bay for so many hours a large number of armed men. The heroic priest passed out by the back door, and when he was seen to be safe by the anxious crowd, they cheered long and loudly. From the position Hart and Dan Kelly were lying in, it is clear they were not shot by the police. At this time the rev. gentleman had not found Cherry, and he called out that all the men inside were dead.

Presently two constables ran up, and Father Gibney pointed out the dead body of Byrne to the first that arrived. The policeman seemed to doubt the rev gentleman’s word, for as he went inside he raised his pistol, as if to fire at the dead body. Father Gibney put his hand on his shoulder and said, “Don’t fire ; the man’s dead.” The constable immediately seized the corpse and dragged it by the legs from out of the burning building. The house was at this time so completely enveloped in flames that no one could go to where Hart and Dan Kelly lay. One of the men who had been bailed up in the house came running up breathlessly, saying, “Here’s where Cherry is,” pointing to a little back place. Cherry was sensible when found, but when carried out became unconcious [sic]. Father Gibney was told that Cherry and the other confinees had been repeatedly engaged in prayer, and he (the rev. father) was so satisfied that he died penitent, that he had no hesitation in administering the last sacraments to him. Father Gibney on his return to the crowd, was warmly received. Inspector Sadlier congratulated the rev. gentleman on his heroism, and said that had it not been for him, they would not have known whether the outlaws were burnt alive or not.

By AJFPhelan56

Father, writer, artist and bushranging historian residing in Melbourne, Australia. Author of 'Glenrowan' and the popular website A Guide to Australian Bushranging.

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