Bold Captain Freney!
James Freney plagued the highways and countryside of Ireland's County
Kilkenny (and surrounding counties) in the 1740s. He assembled gangs of midnight ruffians,
and off they went, breaking
the houses of the wealthy, carrying off their silver plate and anything else of value that
they could manage.
On his own, with pistols,
a fusée, and a fast horse, he accosted coaches and riders
on the roads, demanding their money and valuables, and threatening, in his infamous manner,
the alternative: "Or I'll blow your brains out!"
But he never followed through with that threat. As long as his victims
cooperated, he responded in kind. When they pleaded a special case, he would return
some of their money. In this and other ways he remained ever the gentleman, even helping
He descended from nobility, but the tides of history had swept the
landed Irish from their holdings when the English quashed the rebellions of the previous century.
And so his family had fallen to the status of servants to the new landed gentry.
from the De La Freigne (Freney) coat of arms.
The Freneys descended from a
knight who came from Britain with Strongbow (Richard de Clare)
in the twelfth century to seize Irish lands.
Nevertheless, the life of a servant held advantages unknown to the
mass of the native Irish, who toiled on leaseheld farms, or laboured at the trades that
the authorities allowed to them. So as he grew up, Freney gained an education and
a knowledge of horses, both of which would stand him in good stead in his later career.
When he came of age, Freney became something of the unruly lad, with a
fondness for dances and gambling. But when he met a young lady from neighbouring Waterford,
he married her. They settled in Waterford City and opened a Public House. But because of
Freney's confession of religion, he could not conduct a business without paying a special
duty, and this he refused to do. Soon the local men of commerce drove him out of business.
He and his wife moved to Thomastown, in his native Kilkenny. When their money ran low,
a local miscreant approached Freney. Would Freney join him in a robbery? Of course he would.
roamed far and wide, but most of the time he plagued the area in and around the Nore
River valley of County Kilkenny. (Map: the author.)
For the next five years, no tax collector could ply his trade, no great house could rest
easy, no coach could travel the roads for several counties around without fear of a visit
from Freney. Most of his
victims deserved his attentions, and those who did not could count on his forbearance.
He managed to settle some old scores, and remained a general vexation to the authorities
for quite some time.
But his career did have consequences, as it must, and eventually the authorities closed in
upon him. How he handled that circumstance remains a tale best told in print.
For some 150 after his time on the highway he remained a hero to the native Irish people.
Someone among the folk composed a ballad about him called, "Bold Captain Freney". The
novelist William Makepeace Thackeray has Freney accost Barry Lydon on the highway, in
the novel of the same name. And Percy French composed a comic opera about Freney, called
"The Knight of the Road" (later titled "The Irish Girl"). (French might have counted Freney as some
kind of relative, since in Ireland the surnames French and Freney can share a common origin.)
But alas, by the twentieth century the Irish had largely forgotten about their dashing hero of
the highway. Today his memory enjoys something of a revival, with the re-publication of
his autobiography, a recent collection of stories about him, and a new novel.
For more information about Freney, see:
Wikipedia article (Do apply the usual caveat about this source.)
The Heroic Outlaw in Irish Folklore and Popular Literature. (Mentions Freney prominently.)
Lyrics to the ballad,
"Bold Captain Freney".
Highwayman: The Robber, His Wife, and Ireland,
by Donncha McSharry. Also available for
KindleTM (and other .mobi format readers).
Life and Adventures of James Freney,
by Frank McEvoy (ed.), (1988).
Freney the Robber: The Noblest Highwayman
of Ireland, by Michael Holden, (2009).
The Irish Highwaymen,
by Stephen Dunford, (2000).
Please also see: