The breaking-up of a robber gang
Edward Law (2015)
Early in May, 1749, some 260 years ago, the Earl of Carrick of Ballylinch, near Thomastown received information that Bolger the robber, was hidden in a house at Killaghy in Grace’s Country, some miles west of Kilkenny city. James Bolger, a member of a notorious gang of robbers and highwaymen in county Kilkenny, led by James Freney, was particularly wanted at this time for the murder of Henry Burgess, one of the sheriffs of Kilkenny city, whom he had shot whilst the sheriff’s party were trying to capture him at Burnchurch.
Bolger and Freney had gone to ground after being routed in an affair at Tullamaine, when Bolger had been shot in the leg, and though lamed had made a five mile walk to escape. They had taken cover in different areas, but Freney had an idea where Bolger was secreted, for he despatched his sister, ostensibly to take half a guinea to Bolger, but really to establish his location.
When he was sure of the place Freney turned informer, passing the information to the Earl of Carrick, in return for which he was to receive a pardon. The earl collected together a posse; a few of his own servants, a couple of local gentry and six soldiers. They set out at two in the morning intending to take a sleeping Bolger. However, on their arrival at the house at 6am, Bolger was about and tried to make his escape disguised as a beggar. Fortunately the earl’s steward, John Prim, had some knowledge of Bolger and questioned him whilst another of the group had him at the point of his gun. Satisfied that it was Bolger the party took him into custody, when it was established that his only weapon was a charged blunderbuss, and that he had no further ammunition or powder. By ten in the morning he was lodged in the county gaol at Kilkenny awaiting trial.
On the 8th August 1749 James Bolger and another member of the Freney gang, Patrick Hacket, nicknamed Bristeen, were tried, found guilty and sentenced to death. They were both hung the same day, and Bolger’s body was removed and hung in chains at Burnchurch where Henry Burgess had been shot.
Although Freney had betrayed Bolger in an effort to secure a pardon for himself he continued his depredations in the county. On the 19th July his gang waylaid several wagons carrying the wares of some Waterford merchants, stealing several hundred pounds worth of goods. Together with others a gallant Waterford man, Francis Foster, a surgeon who had served with a regiment in Scotland, pursued the gang and recovered much of the plundered goods. Foster found Freney hiding in a thicket, but when his pistol misfired Freney shot him in the hand, threw away his weapon and took flight. Foster subsequently lost his hand.
The death of Burgess and the maiming of Foster led to a new spirit of resolve in the authorities and the gentry of the county, which led to the taking of several more members of the gang: Ned Kenny in June, three more in August and four or five in October along with one shot dead. In addition several individuals were accused of harbouring members of the gang and were taken up, among them Martin Millea, and John Stack, both of whom were found guilty and sentenced to death. James Larrassey who was also tried for harbouring was returned not guilty on that count, but was found guilty of a felony.
Thus the gang was effectively crushed, with many taken and the remainder scattered. Freney secured his pardon and was even granted a salaried government post. He wrote his memoirs and gained some celebrity from the stories which he fostered of his own ingenuity, spirit and bravery. Sentiments which weren’t shared by the person he sent to his death, James Bolger, who declared of him “he is not a fellow of that courage as imagined.”