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Dash, Daring,
and the
Irish Struggle

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

This Telling of the Tale

This telling of Freney�s tale imagines a 1797 edition of his autobiography�an edition where his wife �ine 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 �iru 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?

Freney Coat of Arms

The Characters

Dramatis Personae

  • The Robber
  • 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
  • Father Fowlen
  • Áine's cousins Sheila and Máire
  • Various Others
  • The Authorities, the Assizes, and the Looming Gallows
  • The Irish Context
  • History

    Ireland in the 1700s

    In the eighteenth 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.

    Highway Robbery

    Robbery on the king's highway stood as the most flamboyant and romantic form of crime, and its practitioners gained much infamy. While some of them could 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 bandits.

    The Highwayman

    The Highwayman James Freney

    Freney became a 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 servant 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 gaming.

    Freney remained a gentleman bandit, used 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 robber's life.

    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

    In Print

    Freney's tale has lately found its way into print.


    Highwayman: The Robber, His Wife, and Ireland, by Donncha McSharry. Also available from 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.

    The Irish Highwaymen, by Stephen Dunford.

    On the Web

    Wikipedia Article about James Freney.

    The Heroic Outlaw in Irish Folklore and Popular Literature. (Mentions Freney prominently.)

    The Author

    The Author, etc.

    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:

    Copyright © 2010 Donncha McSharry. All rights reserved.