Freney, James (c.1719–1788), robber, was born in Inistioge, Co. Kilkenny, son of John Freney, bailiff, and Alice Freney (née Phelan). John Freney was taken into the employment of Joseph Robbins at Ballyduff near Thomastown at the age of 10, was apprenticed as a gardener, married (1718) Alice Phelan, a maidservant of the house, and was subsequently appointed bailiff. The family was formerly more distinguished; they are presumed to be a junior branch of the de Freynes who had come to Ireland in the thirteenth century and been a leading Kilkenny family until 1699, when James Freney of Ballyreddy was outlawed as a Jacobite.
Freney attended a local school until he was ten, when he was taken into the Robbins household and instructed by a schoolteacher. Employed for some years as a household servant, he resisted learning a trade, his time being given over to hurling, racing, gaming, and dancing. After the death of Mrs Robbins in 1742 he married, moved to Waterford, and used his wife's dowry to set up as a publican. He soon fell foul of the Waterford corporation, who attempted to extract from him quarterage, an annual fee levied on catholics in trade. Freney refused to pay and was eventually forced to quit his business c.1744. Moving to Thomastown, he was soon £50 in debt to creditors. A neighbour, John Reddy, a former member of the Kellymount gang of robbers, persuaded him to rob passengers on the Gowran road. This gained Freney £50 and launched a career that lasted only five years but made him one of the most notorious figures in Kilkenny history. Over the following months he carried out a number of robberies on houses in the vicinity. In 1745 at the request of George Robbins (son of Joseph) he returned with his wife to Ballyduff, his main duty being to protect the Robbins house from robbery. Falling ill with smallpox he was incapacitated for a number of months, and was left facially scarred; the disease was probably also responsible for the loss of his eye, a disfigurement by which he was known around the county. His confinement meant that he did not fall victim to the manhunt launched by Lord Carrick, which lead to the jailing of John Reddy and the arrest of another associate, Richard Dooling, who was sentenced to death at the 1746 Lent assizes.
On his recovery Freney gathered around him former and new associates, including his closest friend, James Bolger, and he also recruited from among the Robbinses' servants. As the houses of the Kilkenny gentry were now under watch, the gang moved on to Waterford and Wexford, where they seized a quantity of plate and gold coins from Col. Palliser in Portobello. Rumour began to connect Freney to the robberies, so he removed to Cork and thence to Bristol, where he remained some months in the guise of a merchant. Returning to Kilkenny c.September 1747, he found the alarm unabated; local gentry had alerted Robbins's brother, a lawyer in Kilkenny, that members of the notorious gang might be employed on his brother's estate. Counsellor Robbins recruited a spy who elicited the names of Freney and three others.
Undaunted, Freney robbed four more houses: those of the Archbolds (Castledermot), Laffans (Kilkenny), Butlers (Luffany), and Droughts (Co. Laois), as well as several seizures on the Kells–Callan road. However, members of his gang were being apprehended and one of these, John Welsh, gave evidence that enabled Robbins to issue a proclamation on 13 January 1748 that Freney and Bolger had until 15 August to surrender, after which they would be automatically guilty of high treason, while those harbouring them would be guilty of felony. £100 was offered as reward for their capture. Freney had to go into hiding, which involved him in numerous adventures, including dressing up as a woman. During this time his horse Beefstakes died, which at least removed one source of identification, the horse being nearly as notorious as its owner. Freney continued his robberies; however, the net was closing in and several among his accomplices were rumoured spies. He therefore contacted Robbins and Lord Carrick who, on 10 April 1749, negotiated with the lords justices in Dublin a pardon for him on condition that he inform on all of his associates. Freney baulked only at James Bolger but eventually complied. All were arrested along with Freney himself, who was conveyed to Kilkenny jail. At the August assizes in 1749 seven gang members including Bolger were found guilty and hanged; three more followed suit in 1750. Lord Carrick and Robbins then proposed, unsuccessfully, a subscription among the gentry to enable Freney and his family to emigrate. Their next suggestion was that he publish his memoirs, which appeared, possibly ghost-written, in 1754 and were hugely successful. Within the next century there were at least seven separate printings and fourteen editions; the facts of the story were presumably arresting enough to compensate for the monotonous style. It is unknown whether Freney emigrated; his next sighting was in 1776 when he was appointed supernumerary tidewaiter at the port of New Ross, a position dependent on political patronage, suggesting that he still had powerful friends. He was paid £5 a year until his death on 20 December 1788, probably in his house in Quay St. He was buried in Inistioge in the old cemetery in an unmarked grave. The following month his widow, Ann Freney, was paid £1. 7s. due to him at his death.
The cult of Freney was strong in Kilkenny for a century after his exploits; the ballad of ‘Bold Captain Freney’ was written of him, and a lookout point in Carrigmore was named after him, as was a spring near Brandon Hill. Stories of his buried gold abounded across south Kilkenny, and a number of individuals claimed to own his blunderbuss. The dramatist John O'Keefe (qv) noted a sighting of him in a tavern and the author Michael Banim (qv) described him fancifully as a Robin Hood-like figure. Freney made no such claims; his memoirs make clear that his goals were entirely selfish, and relate unabashed his informing on his companions.