Freney The Robber
Peter McQuillan (11th May, 2012)
Imagine the early 18th century in Ireland – 100 years before the first railways – travel was dependent on horse back or horse-drawn vehicle. The roads were unsafe. Every county had its highwaymen, outlaws, raparees, and, over the years, in many cases, the line between Robin Hood characters and villians became blurred.
Here in Kilkenny we had our own highwaymen, and one of the best known has written his own story for us.
James Freney was born in Ballyduff, near Inistioge, about the year 1719. His parents worked on the Robbins estate, his father as a labourer who progressed to head gardener and eventually steward, and his mother as a parlour maid. In time, young James was also employed on the estate and was a special favourite of Mrs. Robbins who provided for his schooling. Her hopes and those off his parents for his future were however not realised. Although he was clever and capable he was feckless and self-indulgent and his father told him he would never come to any good. Mrs Robbins offered him an apprenticeship, but, as he says himself in his autobiography, he preferred “hurling, horse-racing, gaming, dancing and such like diversions.”
In 1742 Mrs Robbins died and James felt free to be his own man, disregarding the advice of both his father and Mr. Robbins. He married, and with the help of his wife’s dowry, he went to Waterford and set up a public house there. This never worked out. He was argumentative in character and between that and local opposition his venture failed. This left him with a feeling of resentment against people in authority which he never really lost.
He moved to Thomastown where one of his neighbours turned out to be John Reddy, a former member of the infamous Kellymount gang. Freney fell into debt and, influenced by Reddy’s advice, decided to embark on what became a career of crime and earned him the name by which he is remembered “Freney the Robber”.
Robbery of cash and silver and gold plate was widespread in Freney’s Ireland. Anyone possessing such was considered fair game. Robberies took place both in the homes of those with money and on the roads, sometimes with violence. Freney was a clever and daring man and many of his exploits have passed into history, or even mythology. His own account of his time as a highwayman was written either by himself or with a ghost writer and was first published in 1749 and many times since, most recently by the late Frank McEvoy in 1988. In 2009, Michael Holden’s Freney the Robber, the Noblest Highwayman in Ireland was published by Mercier Press.
While he may have fallen a bit short of being “Ireland’s Noblest Highwayman” there are nevertheless many instances of his helping people in trouble. Ald. William Colles of Kilkenny, founder of the Kilkenny marble trade, in a letter in 1749, speculated that Freney was most probably descended from the first Anglo-Norman families in the country, the De la Freynes of Ballyreddy, though whether this rendered him noble is doubtful. Colles says that he inherited much of the chivalrous feeling of his knightly ancestors, and although a daring and successful freebooter was unstained by any act of revolting atrocity. He was particularly gallant towards the ladies whom he met in his professional excursions and a woman had no fear of being robbed by him.
The laws were penal and punishment by hanging for robbery was commonplace. Magistrates and police had a system of offering pardon in exchange for betraying and giving evidence against fellow gang members, and this was widely availed of. Robbers lived in constant fear of being “shopped” by their colleagues. Indeed ultimately James Freney himself lived by the ethic of his profession and secured his own pardon in this fashion.
James Freney’s career of crime covered a relatively short period of five years. Many years after his pardon he turns up as a “tide-waiter” in New Ross port, i.e. a customs officer who awaited the arrival of ships on the high tide and boarded them to ensure compliance with customs regulations. He was one of the few Irish highwaymen to survive into old age and die in his bed.
In Rothe House Museum in Kilkenny there is a blunderbuss the property of the Loftus family of Mount Loftus, which family tradition says belonged to James Freney. It is 32 inches long and the barrel is 2 inches wide. It weighs 8 lbs – an impressive piece of artillery, which recalls in a vivid way the times in Ireland when highwaymen roamed the roads.