Freneys ancestors were Norman, and once had lots of lands and their own castle, however, they had lost their lands to the English Lords who fought with Cromwell, and now acted as servants themselves. James was born in the pretty village of Inistioge just 20 minutes from New Ross, his father was a Steward on the local estate owned by the Robbins Family. Mrs Robbins seemed to have been fond of the young James and even paid for him and his brothers to receive an education. His older brother became a lawyer.
Sadly James, wasn’t so academic, instead, his spare time was spent with the lads down the pub, gambling on cockfights, hurling and playing cards.
Things didn’t improve when he married a local girl called Ann and they set up their own Tavern in Kilkenny City. Not being a “Freeman” James was subject to extra Taxes, which went unpaid. And despite plunging all his savings and Ann’s Dowry, they were forced to close and took up lodgings in the small village of Thomastown. Life was not looking good for James, he owed money everywhere, his reputation was preventing him from finding work and so it was no surprise that he found himself supping an Ale one night with the notorious Kilkenny Highwayman John Reddy. He told him he owed £50 to various creditors, a huge sum in those days.
John invited James to join his gang that night, and on his first raid, earned himself the grand sum of £50! James had found his calling! Pretty soon he was given the nickname of Captain Freney, becoming more and more successful, he broke away to set up his own gang.
Life was on the up for James, he even managed to secure work as a groom on the old Robbins Estate. The story goes that by day he worked the horses, taking note of who was visiting, and that night he would either rob them or rob their houses!
Creating his own territory that stretched deep into Wexford, as far along the N30 to Clonroche, creating a nickname for that road “The Travellers Lament”.
He robbed Coaches, travellers on horseback and broke into some of the Big Houses of the area, stealing whatever he could. But he retained a reputation for chivalry, always charming, with good manners and never robbed from those who couldn’t afford it. There are also stories of him leaving coins on the window sills of poor widows.
For 5 Years life continued in this way, until 1748 when he was declared to be an Outlaw, guilty of High Treason for which the penalty was death.
Now under threat of being betrayed by someone for the £100 reward being offered for his capture, he moved on.
First to Cork and then across the sea to England, setting himself up as a merchant in Bristol. His brother, (the lawyer, remember him!?) and his old employer Robbins went to work on trying to make a deal with the authorities. James bargained his own freedom by betraying his companions. In August 1749, at the Kilkenny Assizes, seven of them were found guilty and hanged. Three others were hanged the following year.
He understandably laid low a little longer before discreetly moving back to New Ross, working as a customs official for the Revenue. Another type of robbery, some might say!
It wasn’t long before word got out and soon he found himself the toast of many, they came from far and wide to buy him a drink and hear his stories. These were eventually published, and would you believe, used in the local hedge schools to teach the children how to read!
He never returned to the Highway, he died in in December 1788 an old man, who’d lived a life most extraordinary and was buried in a simple grave in Inistioge.
So the next time you are passing along the N30 to New Ross or taking the R700 to Kilkenny, think of the Bold James Freney and his gang, perhaps stop into one of the Inns along the route and raise a glass to their exploits!