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On January 20 this year, the story of bushranger Ned Kelly reached a conclusion, with his dying wish fulfilled, and his remains buried in the cemetery at Greta, in Victoria’s north-east. As a convicted murderer, Kelly was denied burial in consecrated ground after his execution in November 1880. His headless body was dumped in a pit and covered in lime.
A Requiem Mass was held at St Patrick’s in Wangaratta the preceding Friday; there are about 450 descendants of Ned Kelly, and many of them attended the church. During the homily, Monsignor John White said that some people had written to object to Ned Kelly receiving a public liturgy, but that the service was not to make judgement, but to bring closure. The service ended with In the Sweet By-and-By, the hymn Kelly is said to have sung in his cell the night before he was hanged.
Under a marquee, Ned Kelly was privately buried next to the unmarked gravesite of his mother Ellen; his brother Dan, and Steve Hart, one of his gang-members, also lie in unmarked graves in Greta cemetery. Ned’s coffin was adorned with a wreath of native Australian flowers and the green sash he was awarded in his youth for saving a boy from drowning. The coffin was buried deep, and surrounded by concrete to prevent looting. There are also five mounds of earth instead of one, to deter grave robbers.
The district of Greta is deep in “Kelly country“, the region of rural Victoria where Ned Kelly was born, grew up, and fought. His famous last stand at Glenrowan was less than 10 miles from Greta. Many of the Kelly family still live in the area, and the Ned Kelly legend remains compelling, with almost every local having their own Kelly-related tale to tell.
The district is thought to be named after the River Greta in Cumbria, England, part of the background to Rokeby, a poem by Sir Walter Scott which was popular at the time. The river’s name is Old Norse, and means “rocky river”. It is pronounced GREE-ta.
This is somewhat embarrassing to admit, but for a long time I thought the girl’s name Greta was also said GREE-ta. I knew it was short for the German name Margareta, and assumed it was said to rhyme with Rita, which is short for the Latinate name Margarita (both names of course are relatives of the name Margaret).
I was in my early twenties before I met someone named Greta, and discovered the name is (as I’m sure you all know) said GRET-uh. As the Greta I met happened to be in the public eye, the fact that I was ignorant how her name was pronounced seemed even more embarrassing.
One of the most famous women with this name was the Swedish-born Hollywood star Greta Garbo, famed for her austere beauty and luminous screen presence. Mysterious and reclusive, she shunned publicity and lived a very private life. Here we also know the Italian-born Australian actress Greta Scacchi, who grew up in Perth, but has lived and worked in England for many years – although she visits Australia from time to time.
As you see, this is a name at home in several countries, and Greta is a Top 100 name in Sweden, Hungary and Italy. In the United States it is #684 and fairly stable, and in the UK it is #586 and climbing.
In Australia, Greta was in rare use in the 1900s, and has enjoyed a very uneven career. The highest it ever got was #206 in the 1930s (at the apex of Ms Garbo’s success), and it disappeared altogether in the 1950s and 1960s. It has also hit lesser peaks in the 1910s, the 1970s and the 1990s. The name hasn’t charted since 2009 – but given the way it has jumped up and down the charts, you can expect to see it again before too long (but not too much of it).
In other words, this is a name with plenty of history in Australia, but not tons of use, and has never come anywhere close to being popular. As such, it retains something of the mystique that Greta Garbo radiated – cool, reserved, exclusive; a name selected by discerning parents. Make no mistake, Greta is a very hip choice.
Greta is the cosseted darling of name nerds, who believe it to be beautiful, dignified and sadly neglected by those who fail to appreciate her (these are the same name nerds who would drop Greta like a hot potato if masses of parents actually took their advice and called their daughters Greta, so it became Top Ten. Then Greta would be “Such a nice name – but simply ruined by everyone using it”).
So here’s another embarrassing admission. I’m not a huge fan of the name Greta, which to me has a rather harsh sound, reminding me of words such as grim, grisly, groan, gritty, grizzle, gross, grotty, granite, grumpy, grouch, grate, grasp, growl, grovel, grubby, gruff, gruesome, grumble, grump, grunt and regret. Somehow it never seems to remind me of graceful, gratitude, greetings, grand, great, groovy and egret! Which is manifestly unfair.
Perhaps if I could play psychoanalyst to myself, I might theorise that the real reason I don’t care for Greta is that it is inextricably linked in my subconscious to the embarrassment of not knowing how to pronounce a celebrity’s name when meeting them – and that even the Greta I met being very beautiful and extremely charming could not wipe out my feelings of shame. Indeed, perhaps that made them worse.
In other words, don’t pay any attention to my opinions about this name. It’s not Greta, it’s me.
(Picture shows Greta cemetery in Victoria)