James Freney


Life
?-1788 [“Captain Freney”]; b. Waterford; became a highwayman associated with Inistioge, Co. Kilkenny, about whom traditions and chapbooks incl. a putative autobiography (The Life and Adventures of Mr James Freney, 1754); he won a pardon by turning King's evidence and betraying former colleagues, and later worked for the municipality of Ross harbour;
 
he lent his name to the landmarks Freney’s Rock and Freney’s Well, and is the hero of “The Ballad of the Bold Captain”; in his Irish Sketch Book, W. M. Thackeray describes his own reading of The Life, delighting in ‘the noble naïveté and simplicity of the hero as he recounts his own adventures’; Benedict Kiely has also written of him.

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Works
  • The Life and Adventures of James Freney, Commonly Called Captain Freney (Dublin: S. Powell 1754), 146pp.; Do. (Dublin: C.M. Warren 1861), and Do. [rep. as] The Life and Adventures of James Freney, Together with an Account of the Actions of Several Other Highwaymen ([n. pub]: 1900; 1981), 130pp. [see details];
  • Frank McEvoy, ed., Life and Adventures of James Freney (Kilkenny: Hebron 1988), 84pp. ill. by David Holohan.

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Bibliographical details
The Life and Adventures of James Freney, Together with an Account of the Actions of Several other Highwaymen ([n. pub]: 1900; 1981), 130pp. - being a facs. of the original published by C. M. Warren, Dublin, in 1861; taken from microfilm in National Library of Ireland. A label on title page reads: “This autobiography of James Freney, the legendary “Robinhood of Ireland”, ...].

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Criticism
  • W. M. Thackeray [as ‘M. A. Titmarsh’], The Irish Sketch Book [first edn. 1842], ed. John A. Gamble (Belfast: Blackstaff 1985), pp.163-79 [see extract];
  • Samuel Carter Hall & Anna Maria Hall, Ireland: Its Scenery, Character, etc. 3 vols. (London: Hall, Virtue & Co. 1841-43), 8o.; reprinted as Hall’s Ireland: Mr & Mrs Hall’s Tour of 1840, ed. Michael Scott, 2 vols., London: Sphere 1984), 1984 edn. Vol. 2, p.426 [see extract];
  • Benedict Kiely, Drink to the Bird (London: Methuen 1991), p.38 [see extract];
  • Terence O’Hanlon, The Highwayman in Irish History (Dublin: M. H. Gill 1932), viii+185pp.
  • Michael Holden, Freney the Robber: The Noblest Highwayman in Ireland (Cork: Mercier Press 2009), 256pp.
 
See also Mary Campbell, review of Life and Adventures of James Freney, ed. Frank McEvoy, in Books Ireland, 159 (May 1992), pp.96-97 [extract].
 
Note that a tale of James Freney is told in Sean O’Sullivan, Legends of Ireland (London: Batsford 1977), [No.83] narrating the beginning of Freney’s career in circumstances similar to the account given by Benedict Kiely in Drink to the Bird (1991) [as infra], and a subsequent act of kindness to an old man faced with eviction for lack of rent (pp.143-44). O’Sullivan cites Terence O’Hanlon, op. cit., and J.R.S.A.I, IV (1867), pp.53-60.

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Commentary
W. M. Thackeray [as ‘M. A. Titmarsh’], The Irish Sketch Book [first edn. 1842], ed. John A. Gamble (Belfast: Blackstaff 1985), pp.163-79: ‘[A] man will be puzzled to extract a precise moral out of the adventures of Mr. James Freeny [sic];…But are we to reject all things that have not a moral tacked to them? “Is there any moral shut within the bosom of the rose?” And yet, as the same (p.163) noble poet sings (giving a smart slap to the utility people the while), “useful applications lie in art and nature,” and every man may find a moral suited to his mind in them; or if not a moral, an occasion for moralizing. / Honest Freeny’s [sic] adventures (let us begin with history and historic tragedy, and leave fancy for future consideration), if they have a moral, have that dubious one which the poet admits may be elicited from a rose; and which every man may select according to his mind. And surely this is a far better and more comfortable system of moralizing than that in the fable-books, where you are obliged to accept the story with the inevitable moral corollary, that will stick close to it. / Whereas, in Freeny’s [sic] life, one man may see the evil of drinking, another the harm of horse-racing, another the danger attendant on early marriage, a fourth the exceeding inconvenience as well as hazard of the heroic highwayman’s-life — which a certain Ainsworth, in company with a certain Cruikshank, has represented as so poetic and brilliant, so prodigal of delightful adventure, so adorned with champagne, gold-lace, and brocade. / And the best part of worthy Freeny’s [sic] tale is the noble naïveté and simplicity of the hero as he recounts his own adventures; and the utter unconsciousness that he is narrating anything wonderful. It is the way of all great men, who recite their great actions modestly, and as if they were matters of course; as indeed to them they are. […] And so with Freeny [sic], — his great and charming characteristic is grave simplicity; he does his work; he knows his danger as well as another’ but he goes through his fearful duty quite quietly and easily; and not with the lease air of bravado, or the smallest notion that he is doing anything uncommon.’(p.164.) Further: ‘Thus it is with FREENY. It is fine to mark his bravery, and to see how he cracks his simple philosophic nuts in the jaws of innumerable lions. (p.165.) ‘What further exploits Mr. Freeny [sic] performed may be learned by the curious in his history; […] His escapes from his enemies were marvellous; his courage in facing them equally great.’ (p.174).

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Samuel Carter Hall & Anna Maria Hall, Ireland: Its Scenery, Character, etc. 3 vols. (London: Hall, Virtue & Co. 1841-43), 8o.; reprinted as Hall’s Ireland: Mr & Mrs Hall’s Tour of 1840, ed. Michael Scott, 2 vols., London: Sphere 1984), xix, 480p: ill: maps; includes a transcription of the title as Life of James Freney, commonly called Captain Freney, from the time of his first entering upon the highway of Ireland, to the time of his surrender, being a series of five years remarkable adventures, written by himself, with the comment, ‘now a “rare book”, although an edition of it has been printed in nearly every town in the south of Ireland.’ (1984 edn., Vol. 2, p.426).

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Mary Campbell, review of The Life and Adventures of James Freney, ed. Frank McEvoy (Kilkenny: Hebron 1988), in Books Ireland, No.159 (May 1992), pp. 96-97; Campbell recounts how ‘In 1842 Thackeray was in Ireland, and describes in his Irish Sketchbook how he found, for the development of his [fictional] character, the tone of voice he had been looking for – the voice of calm complacency in recounting personal villainy. //He [Thackeray] tells how, marooned by rain in Kilroy’s Hotel in Galway, with nobody to play cards nor a decent cigar to smoke, he took refuge in a little collection of books “strictly Irish” that he had bought for threepence each in Ennis. Among them was the Adventures of James Freney, the autobiography of a notorious Hibernian highwayman, which captivated him. Freney recounts his criminal activities “with such noble naïevty [sic] and simplicity”, with such untroubled confidence in his own excellence, that it fitted Thackeray’s idea of the morally insensitive like a glove.’ (p.96).

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Benedict Kiely, Drink to the Bird (London: Methuen 1991): ‘Yet I never knew a barber who in his spare time was a highwayman, as a certain Irish lady of the eighteenth to nineteenth century did, and as she so recorded in her journals. This is what the lady wrote: “The roads in many places were almost impassable in wet weather and the great robber was always on the alert to stop passengers. But as he was a native of Inistioge he was known to have lain down in a ditch to let Lady Betty Ferguson pass by unalarmed. [...] He began life as a servant, and while dressing his master’s hair at Woodstock told him of a robbery which had been committed the night before, his master little suspecting that he, i.e., the servant, had been the robber himself and had returned to the house in time to dress him.” / The great robber was Captain Freney, no more a captain than yourself and myself, who harassed the roads of the southeast of Ireland in the early nineteenth century and about whom P. J. McCall wrote a good ballad: “I met Captain Freney beyond Monasterevan, / Dark night in his pistols, bright day in his eye, / But he seemed out of sorts, for says he, / “Tommy Devin, Did you see the King’s man with his bags riding by[?]”’ (Kiely, op. cit., p.38.) Kiely adds: ‘Caroline’s comment on Freney I found in a history of the family compiled for the use of the family by the late Admiral W. G. S. Tighe’. He also quotes from Mary Tighe’s Psyche. (p.39.)

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