The true-life adventures of James Freney of Ballyduff and his wife Áine, and
their struggles in 1700's Ireland.
Ireland's forgotten folk hero gallops the roads of Kilkenny again in this tale of derring-do and destiny.
True to the history—yet fanciful—and betimes amusing and even mystical.
This Telling of the Tale
This telling of Freney’s tale imagines a 1797 edition of his
autobiography—an edition where his wife Áine finally has her
say, by including excerpts from her secret diary, various letters,
and the like. In history she played a crucial role in the trials that
ended it all, the details of which have been lost. This book fills
the gaps in her story.
Highwayman revives the memory of this gentleman bandit and gives voice to his wife in
the bargain. What better way to gallop with him along the close,
mountain roads, do battle with the oppressive authorities, escape
across the River Nore, and traipse through Lackingorrah Wood
to his secret cache? How else to have the robber and his wife meet
the old woman Éiru herself (she the spirit of Ireland who appears
only to Irish patriots)? And how else could we have put words
into his mouth, when, after all, he must speak?
Áine, his beloved wife, with her own part to play
The Counsellor, his nemesis
The Robbinses of the great house at Ballyduff
Éiru, and others, who appear in aisling (or otherwise?)
The Members of his Gangs
The Redoubtable Mrs. Nash
Mrs. Freney, his mother
Mrs. McSorley, Áine's mother
Áine's cousins Sheila and Máire
The Authorities, the Assizes, and the Looming Gallows
The Irish Context
Ireland in the 1700s
century, Ireland suffered under laws that prevented her economic
advancement—laws serving the interests of her stronger neighbour and
overlord, England. Seeking their own advantage, and fearing renewed
rebellion in Ireland, the English crown and parliament enacted the infamous Penal Laws,
which prevented the native Irish from various trades, professions, and
industries. Thus stymied, some of the skilled and ambitious from among
the Irish population took to crime.
king's highway stood as the most flamboyant and romantic form of
crime, and its practitioners gained much infamy. While some of them
resort to violence, others adhered to a gentlemen's code of conduct.
During the twentieth century the Irish had largely forgotten about
these men, but today their memory enjoys a revival, and James Freney
is regaining his position as the most celebrated of the gentlemen
Highwayman James Freney
folk hero in his day, and his celebrity remained for
some 150 years, with his memory living on as the "Bold Captain Freney"
of folktale and song. In his novel Barry
Lyndon, the author William Makepeace Thackeray has Barry
encounter the gentleman bandit Freney on the highway. Percy French's
comic opera, The Knight
of the Road, or The Irish Girl, features Freney. (In Ireland, the
surnames French and Freney share the same origin.)
Born to a
family, Freney grew up in service to Ballyduff House, in County
Kilkenny. He married and opened a public house. But the local men of
commerce disliked this upstart native Irishman, so they drove him out
of business. Freney took to the highway to support his family and his
Freney remained a gentleman
his wits to evade capture repeatedly, struggled against his chief
pursuer (a landed gentleman magistrate), and fought to instill in his
gangs his thieves' code of honor. Along the way he settled old scores,
raided a jail, bought off judges and juries, and single handedly shot
it out with the militia—yet he never took a life, always kept up the
appearance of respectability, and remained ever the courteous thief,
willing to return money and objects of sentimental value to his
victims, and helping the poor of the area.
The Mysterious Áine
Áine McSorley grows up in Waterford, within the walls of the old
city, the daughter of shopkeepers. She reads, keeps a diary, and avoids
the ne'er-do-well city lads. Then one day an impetuous young man
from County Kilkenny steps into the shop.
As the robber's wife,
and concerned for her young child's future, Áine makes plans behind
the scenes in convocation with her mother, her mother-in-law, and
Mrs. Robbins of Ballyduff, in a "conspiracy of the women" in the
Then one day a visitor arrives, unannounced: an old woman in a tattered
shawl of many colors, with her whisps of hair catching the breeze. The woman bids
Áine accompany her on a walk down to the river Nore. Using
archaic language, the old woman explains much to Áine, some
of which explanations unsettle Áine. Later, Áine
can't decide whether she actually met the old woman, or merely
dreamed of their meeting. But in either case, would the old woman's
advice prove true?
Books About Freney
Freney's tale has lately found its way into print.
Highwayman: The Robber, His Wife, and Ireland,
by Donncha McSharry. Also available from Amazon.com in paperback,
and for Kindle.
Life and Adventures of James Freney,
by Frank McEvoy (ed.).
Freney the Robber: The Noblest Highwayman
of Ireland, by Michael Holden.
Donncha McSharry holds a Master's degree in the history of modern Britain, with
emphasis on relations with Ireland. McSharry has lived in Ireland, and has visited many times since.
On one such visit the author appeared unannounced at Ballyduff House, expecting to find the
shell of a Great House, but discovering a kind and welcoming family, who now run a bed-and-breakfast
establishment on the grounds where Freney the Robber spent his youth.
The McSharrys trace their roots to County Leitrim, although the author also has ancestors
from Galway and Roscommon; and according to family lore, an ancestor known as Freney the Robber.
For those with an interest in both Irish history and current events, the
author recommends the Parnell Society's summer school, which provides a splendid week of lectures,
day trips, and evening sing-songs every August, in Avondale, County Wicklow, the home of Charles
Stewart Parnell, "the uncrowned king of Ireland". Find their web site at: www.parnellsociety.com