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The Irish Robin Hood: James Freney, The Robber


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.

Picture of Crossed Pistols

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 the poor.

His Noble Origins and Tumultuous Youth

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.

Freney Coat of Arms

Shield 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.

His Career

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.

Freney Country

Freney 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.

Freney's Legacy

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:

On the Web

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".

In Fiction

Highwayman: The Robber, His Wife, and Ireland, by Donncha McSharry. Also available for KindleTM (and other .mobi format readers).

In Non-fiction

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:

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