Tuesday 22 May 2018

The highwayman who took the high road

Fiona O'Connell

The sun sometimes shines even during showers, these late August evenings - which is when I wander up to a hilly area with beautiful vistas of this country town, to pick blackberries for my breakfast.

The ancient woods there are full of rustling sounds, which mostly turn out to be a bothered blackbird scratching around for sustenance. But it's easy to imagine the days when a traveller would have been terrified in case the trembling leaves suddenly unleashed the infamous figure of James Freney - a highwayman who plied his trade on the roads of Kilkenny, until the end of this month in 1748, when he was given an ultimatum to surrender or else face a charge of high treason, which carried the death sentence.

And while the centuries have rolled on since his robbing, the landscape where he lived has not changed that much. Indeed, Ballyduff House looks almost the same as when its landlord paid for the education of a servant couple's son. No doubt both parents and prospective employer had high hopes for the likeable lad. Though Mr Robbins probably didn't reckon on young Freney following in his footsteps quite so literally, by becoming a Mr Robbins of the rural gentry.

Blame it maybe on Freney's blood, since his ancestors were descended from a noble line with links to the kings of France. A fondness for the good life, without the means to enjoy it, seems to have soldered this gentleman robber. Locals loved this cad, who was so soft-hearted when it came to looting the ladies that he often returned their jewellery if they grew tearful. While he made sure his victims had enough money to hoof it home after the hijack.

Freney didn't take his thieving too seriously. But it was this cavalier attitude to crime that turned him into an outlaw, after he carelessly let his face be seen when trying to rob a frequent visitor to Ballyduff House. From then on, this robber was on the run.

So it was just as well he hadn't run out of charm, for many folk were willing to shelter him. This allowed Freney to establish a network of helpers, and hence carry on nicking.

Until, that is, the authorities caught up with Freney's fan club and piled on the pressure to reveal his whereabouts via threats of torture and hanging. A reward of £100 was an added incentive. Some say Freney betrayed his bandit of brothers to save his own skin. The other version has a virtuous Freney trying in vain to save his closest companion, James Bolger, before managing to escape. Whatever the facts, it seems this highwayman had friends in high places, for Freney kept his freedom. He lay low for a few years, during which time he wrote his autobiography, before reinventing himself as a sort of customs officer at the port in New Ross - where the only hold ups were due to rural rush hours. And merchants having to stand and deliver their cargo for this former highwayman's approval.

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