When the producer of the Lawless TV series, called me about joining the Lawless team, I was not only thrilled to discover they were planning to open the cold cases of those infamous bushranger stories I had loved as a child, but particularly intrigued about one I had never heard about. ‘The Kenniff brothers?” I asked. And the producer explained, ‘the last of the bushrangers, from South West Queensland and Mike Munro is their descendant’. Wow, I thought, this is going to be amazing.
And it was. Our first shoot was in the middle of bloody nowhere. Or so it seemed, when we got off the tiny plane, then into one of those giant white landcruisers and began to drive. It wasn’t long before the bars of reception on my spanking new phone disappeared and the bitumen roads dissolved, firstly into bone rattling corrugated surfaces, then loose red sand that caused our car to slip and slid so much we all stopped talking.
But what country. It was wild and wide, dry and red: the Australia of 1950s romances and that song by the Triffids. When we eventually arrived in base camp late that afternoon, dusk was dropping, and I remember dragging my HUGELY inappropriate suitcase into the makeshift camp nestled in the great wilderness of the Carnarvon Ranges and thinking, ‘Where the bloody hell am I?’
We were in Mike Munro’s personal past, that’s where. A place that once represented a shrinking patch of freedom for his two ‘great uncles’, Paddy and James Kenniff, but which, on that fateful Easter morning in 1902, spiralled into chaotic and devastating violence. The story of the Kenniff Brothers is not an easy story to tell and for Mike it must have been tough to discover that his ancestors were involved, not only in the murder of two law-abiding men but also the horrific disposal of their remains.
And yet, as well as being a descendant, Mike is also an investigative journalist and the story of what happened out there in Lethbridge Pocket is such a mystery that all those unanswered questions must have nagged at him.
Talking with Mike during the shoot, I was struck not only by the courage it took to confront this episode in his family’s history, but also the strength of character to share it with the world, particularly when most of Australia was probably content to keep thinking of him as ‘old blue eyes’. Instead, what Mike did, both with this episode and this new book, was make himself vulnerable by sharing, not only a part of his past but also a part of himself.
While the truth of what really happened remains a source of much speculation, there are deeper reasons why this story is important. The trial of Paddy and Jimmy transformed QLD from one of the most isolated frontier societies in the imperial world, to the first territory in the British empire to abolish the death sentence.
Recalling this story reminds us that the tug-of-war between the lawful and the lawless that defined Australia’s colonial era has also shaped who we are now. And, as we discover in his new book, this applies not only to us as Australians, but also to Mike as someone who has been brave enough to reveal how this story shaped him into the man we know and admire today.
Dr Kiera Lindsey is an award-winning historian based at University of Technology Sydney (UTS), she appeared as the historian on the HISTORY Channel series, LAWLESS which featured Mike Munro and the story of the Kenniff brothers.
THE LAST OF THE BUSHRANGERS
by Mike Monroe is Published by Harper Collins.