You won’t find his name in the records of Kilmainham Gaol in 1921, or Portlaoise Jail later. But he was in both places, under assumed identities on each occasion. Frankie seems to have been fond of an alias or two in his home country. His real self was reborn in America.
There is a fascinating article about him online. Written almost 24 years ago by his US-born son Peter David (sadly deceased since 2009), named in honour of an Old IRA uncle he never met.
A Son’s Tribute
Harsh criticism unintended, but to this writer Peter’s tribute to his dad was aimed at a US and/or Irish-American audience. Romanticised, uncritical hero-worship. Almost gullible and naive in some ways. Yet, it should not be dismissed entirely. Some factual elements, including one tragic incident and nice family stories, are included. After all, a kid from New York seeing places and characters in Dublin of old and hearing tales of derring-do would have picked up lasting impressions conjuring up vivid images. Peter brings to life meeting old comrades with his father. Sadly no names are mentioned. But one thing we can be fairly sure of is that two particular Old IRA guys were hardly on the list for visits. The reason will emerge below.
The son unsurprisingly did not mention a single black mark against his father’s character between leaving the Army and heading to the USA. Perhaps he never learned of it. But maybe if he had, he would actually have admired his father even more over how the man bounced back afterwards?
In any event, Peter’s article is the only known insight into another side of Frankie Freyne who left no Witness Statement. It is great to have, gives some glimpses into the life of one Old IRA man in the States and is worth a read and respect on that basis alone.
Frankie Freyne began life named James Francis on 15 February 1902 in Famma, Kilcullen, a rural area in south Co Kilkenny. He was the eldest of 9 surviving children for John, a Farmer and Ellen (nee Hanrahan). A year after him came the brother Peter after whom Frankie’s son would be named. The pair appear to have been very close.
Tragedy struck them and their family on the double in Christmas Week 1915. They lost a baby brother Patrick David only 8 hours old on the 21st. Two days later their mam Ellen was dead from spinal cancer, aged just 41.
No hints why, but in 1917 the two lads joined the local Irish Volunteers, Inistioge Coy, 2nd Battalion, Kilkenny Brigade. Frankie took part in parades and local raids for arms. According to him, by early 1920 himself and Peter had their fares to emigrate to the USA and headed to Dublin en route. However, he claims that they valued the future of their country more than their own personal dreams and decided to stick around to help. They transferred to E Coy, 2nd Battalion, Dublin Brigade.
Frankie took part in operations such as attacks on British forces in Dublin at Drumcondra Road, Newcomen Bridge and North Strand. He was also on jobs destroying British military supplies and raiding for war materiel in the docklands.
Death by the Liffeyside
One action both Freynes did fight together in was the big attack by their unit on Auxiliary Q Company’s base at the London & North Western Railway Hotel, North Wall on 11 April 1921. Sadly it was to be their last joint action.
Frankie claims that “C. Lawless and myself shot the sentry on the front door” (Cadet Gerald A. Body) at the outset. The Auxy survived his wounds. But the younger Freyne became the only fatality during the firefight after new-type incendiary bombs failed to work. The kid was shot in the head in the act of throwing a grenade according to the Auxy who fired at him.
A secret military inquiry found that Peter’s death was “justifiable homicide by crown forces in the execution of their duty”.
Repression, But No Surrender
The Freemans Journal reported on the lad’s funeral, censored from other papers. A crowd of thousands of mourners and a large force of Auxiliaries and RIC were present at Thomastown railway station to meet Peter’s remains off the Dublin train. The tricolour on the coffin was seized by the crown forces who surrounded the procession and entered the church. People leaving after the requiem were harassed and searched; four were arrested. All bitter pills for Frankie who could not be present.
Understandably from then on he would have wanted to keep his identity and connection to his dead brother hidden from the authorities. But the war had to go on. The surviving Freyne volunteer didn’t quit and six weeks later took part in the Burning, not far upriver from where Peter had met his end.
Arrested by the Liffeyside
Frankie was among the men captured and gave the name George Lewis, recorded by the British military of 6 St Joseph’s Terrace, Phibsborough (should have been Philipsburg Avenue, Fairview). The alias was obviously pre-arranged with another prisoner, Francis Lewis – really Thomas Kilcoyne, a fellow Kilkenny man – who said he lived at no. 4 on the same road.
Freyne/George Lewis – along with his ‘brother’ – was interned in Kilmainham He became one of the Custom House Fire Brigade and was not released till 8 December 1921.
Recent discoveries by our own John Dorins are the signatures of George Lewis (Freyne), Cell B 24 and Kilcoyne, riskily using his real name as Gaeilge, in autograph books from Kilmainham Gaol in August and September 1921.
The Dying Mother
Or did he get out earlier? A celebrated tale involving the “Lewis brothers” has been told, apparently without any proper research. Here is the story, followed by the facts.
The teller is the redoubtable Tim Pat Coogan who is known to get basic facts wrong and fails to check sources – but does write some great stories. In “The Twelve Apostles” Tim Pat paraphrases Paddy O’Daly’s deadpan account of an amazing charade arranged by Dublin Brigade to fool the authorities into paroling two prisoners. It features:
- Two jailed Kilkenny volunteers ‘Tommy Lewis’/Tom Kilcoyne and ‘Paddy Lewis’/Pat Swanzy;
- News coming that Tom Kilcoyne’s mam was terminally ill in Co Kilkenny;
- The IRA wanting the release of her sons (one real) for a final visit;
- Their ‘dying mother Mrs Lewis’ lodging at their pretended address, 17 North Richmond Street;
- The role of ‘Mrs Lewis’ filled by Mrs Catherine Byrne, matriarch of an active republican family at that address;
- A friendly doctor and a sympathetic DMP policeman;
- A last-minute hitch when sad news came of death of the real mother of one of the IRA men;
- As Tim Pat amusingly puts it, the Squad being stuck – for once – for a corpse;
- Both ‘Lewis brothers’ getting parole, going home to Kilkenny and never returning to jail.
Mrs Byrne played a blinder. The police were fooled by the crafty IRA plan and all the good guys lived happily ever after. Too good to be true?
There’s a lot of truth but a few errors and puzzles in the original story:
- The aliases were Francis and George Lewis. Swanzy was a Dub, not involved. Freyne is omitted altogether;
- The ‘Lewis brothers’ hadn’t given the Richmond Street address;
- If paroled, they later returned to Kilmainham. In their Military Pension files both men confirm they were there until the General Amnesty on 8 December 1921.
Joe Leonard also includes the incident in his Witness Statement. One sad fact was not elaborated on by him or Messrs O’Daly and Coogan. On 30 September 1921 while Kilcoyne and Freyne were interned, the real Mrs Kate Kilcoyne did pass away in Shankill, Gowran Co Kilkenny from heart disease. Her death is, however, acknowledged by Mrs Byrne’s daughter, Catherine Rooney, in her account of the episode which is very similar to Paddy O’Daly’s. There seems to have been some collusion over the story (shared errors etc) but it appears to have some basis in reality.
Back in Action
Frankie subsequently rejoined his Company. In February 1922 he enlisted in the National Army, serving initially with the Transport Section and then in his native Co Kilkenny during the Civil War at the rank of Commandant. An t’Óglach listed him as O/C 4th Battalion, Special Infantry Corps when discharged on 9 November 1923. It appears he then began studying accountancy back in Dublin.
A Mistake Severely Punished
Not long afterwards, things went badly wrong for Freyne. On 31 December 1923 he was arrested, charged with armed robbery and remanded in Mountjoy Jail under another alias, James Freeney. Two fellow defendants charged with receiving the stolen property were former IRA comrades who were granted bail. We will call them A and B.
All three were tried and found guilty. Freyne was given the mandatory sentence of 5 years penal servitude, a fine of £100 and 15 lashes (which was mercifully remitted). Even the judge expressed unease that his hands were tied by the law to such a severe sentence. A and B were let off with a fine and caution.
Frankie Freyne otherwise James Freeney, Student and ex-Commandant, spent two years in Maryborough (now Portlaoise) Prison before he got a lucky break.
A Slice of Good Fortune
After new information emerged, Frankie’s case was re-examined by the authorities. Based on the findings, the Minister for Justice recommended the conviction be quashed and the Governor General ordered his unconditional release early in 1926. Legal experts would later decide this was effectively a full pardon but the conviction stayed on his record. That blemish must have severely limited Frankie’s options for employment in Dublin. So he returned home to work on his widower father’s farm in Co Kilkenny.
The conviction had also cost him his military pension. From his prison cell in 1925 Freyne had sent in an application which the then Minister for Defence was advised not to submit to the Assessment Board, based on his criminal record. The application was rejected outright. A double whammy for Frankie, because adding insult to injury, A and B were walking free and already receiving their IRA pensions.
A New Beginning
In 1929, exactly eight years to the day after the Burning, James F. Freyne (27), Farm Labourer of Kilcullen, Thomastown boarded the Cunard liner RMS Laconia at Liverpool, bound for New York. Frankie named his friend in the USA as his aunt Mrs K. Kearney of 331 West 101 Street, NYC. His description was height 5′ 8″, fresh complexion, blue eyes and dark hair (Interestingly it seems he had died his hair, recorded as fair back in 1924). He paid his own fare and intended to reside permanently in the States.
The ship would later meet its end in a controversial 1942 incident during World War II. But happily, passenger Freyne went on to prosper in his new home after qualifying as a Certified Public Accountant.
A New Battle Begins
Frankie returned to Ireland around 1934. On 14 August the following year he married Farmer’s Daughter Bridget Holden from his native Thomastown area. He was recorded as an Accountant from Kilcullen. That same year he started an appeal against the rejection of his military pension application almost 10 years before.
Allies in High Places
Fortune decided to smile on Frankie for a second time in his battles with the Irish authorities. In 1935 two significant personalities took up his case with the Department of Defence.
Dan Breen, T.D., the famous Old IRA man, wrote to Minister Frank Aiken asking what could be done “for this lad [Freyne], a real good man” (Freyne and Breen had met as prisoners in the Joy back in 1924).
Garda Assistant Commissioner (A/C) Ned Coogan (coincidentally the father of the writer mentioned above) was also approached on Freyne’s behalf. A/C Coogan (1896-1948), a fellow Kilkenny man, reviewed the file and wrote to the head civil servant in Defence with a comprehensive argument for the award of a military pension to Frankie.
The senior policeman believed Freyne had been badly used by his two stronger-minded co-defendants, Mr. A and Mr. B. He considered Freyne was “at the time a highly strung excitable young fellow who came under the influence of [A and B]” and “a rather reckless spirited youth who fell in with their scheme”.
The Fall Guy
It emerged that A and B ran a joint business which got into financial trouble. They owed £50 to one principal creditor in Drumcondra and were under pressure to repay. Their younger pal Freyne was persuaded to loan them £40 to help with the debt.
But they had no funds to repay him. So A and B concocted a plan to pay the creditor £50 in cash then steal the money back before he could bank it. Frankie, being unknown to the creditor, was picked to do the hold-up. He fell in with the scheme and duly robbed the man at gunpoint. He took the £50 plus some other valuables which he passed on to A and B. After A was questioned by the Gardaí, he allegedly implicated the others, leading to the arrest of all three.
Justice Is Served?
At his trial Freyne had kept back the full details out of loyalty to his old comrades and took the entire rap for the scheme. Obviously he had reconsidered while languishing in jail and regretted that decision. He petitioned for a review of his conviction. Luckily for him the wheels of justice moved quickly, professionally and humanely.
Perhaps justice was done when his subsidiary role (he did not benefit from the proceeds of the robbery) was accepted as a major mitigating factor. There was even a hint of admiration for his misplaced loyalty to his ‘pals’. The authorities concluded the court’s sentence had been disproportionate and overturned his conviction. He was released in early 1926.
But subsequently one arm of government bureaucracy did not liaise with another and Freyne became the victim again when his pension application was left in limbo.
A Belated Victory
The representations by A/C Coogan were successful. The Attorney General decided the refusal to assess Freyne’s original application had been wrong in law (as pointed out in 1925 by one civil servant who was ignored). The 1924 Military Pensions Board of Assessors was long defunct and the government had to reconstitute it (without official publication, presumably to avoid political embarrassment). The Board recommended a pension of £80 per year for Frankie based on 5 and one third years service, backdated to 1934. This was finally approved in 1942 and his Life Service Certificate issued (He applied for his Tan War Medal in 1944).
Freyne had returned to New York before all that transpired. Eventually, from July 1943 his payable warrants began to arrive (He had arguably lost out on 10 years of pension payments, but did not go down that road).
Rebound From Another Blow
Fate once more turned against him two years later when his wife Bridget (40) died on 11 June 1945 in Manhattan, leaving him with two young children to raise.
However, fortune sometimes favours the brave more than once. He went on to meet a new love, Welsh-born immigrant Agnes Cumming. They married in June 1948. Late the following year came the birth of their only child, Peter David, introduced at the start of this article.
Death in a Foreign Land
Frankie had to battle many things during his life. In the end, the one fight he couldn’t win – which of us can – was with the sands of time. They ran out for him on 27 December 1974 when he passed way at the age of seventy two. He was survived by his widow Agnes, sons Michael and Peter and daughter Maureen. Comdt. James Francis Freyne is buried in Westchester, New York.
There were no obituaries in his native country. But at least the Irish state did pay Agnes Freyne a military widow’s pension until 1988 when she died in Jacksonville, Florida.
Frankie Freyne’s life gave him plenty of knocks. Yet, each time, he bounced back fighting. He never gave up. It is hard not to admire the way he turned his life around. It appears he did well in the USA and lived happily with his family, settling in Hartsdale, Westchester, New York.
The fact that Frankie served time for armed robbery may cause some to tag him as another Old IRA man turned bad lad. But it is very unfair and wrong to allow one stupid mistake to define him. It was an untypical blip in the context of his military service and later achievements. Arguably his own country had done him great disservice twice, but it seems he just fought his corner articulately and with dignity and carried no bitterness.
In his son Peter’s tribute it is easy to pick out inaccuracies and hype. But the visit back to Frankie’s old haunts and pals in Dublin he recounts did actually take place. Maybe in 1957 as he recalled, or possibly later. Perhaps the Freynes came back more than once. Travel records show four of the family flew to New York out of Shannon in 1961 on Aerlinte-Irish International.
Hopefully Frankie enjoyed his return home as much as his son clearly did, although there must have been mixed emotions.
Their pilgrimage to the old L&NWR Hotel by the Liffey where the original Peter Freyne was shot dead in 1921 must surely have brought back sad memories for Frankie. Visits to Kilmainham and Mountjoy are mentioned, but strangely his son does not recall seeing the Custom House.
There was a lot more to Frankie Freyne than youthful recklessness. Only the parts of his life that appear in records are related above. “The Assassin” was a hero to his son Peter and nothing in this article should take away from that.
At first glance an “ex-con”, Frankie Freyne earned the right to rest in peace with dignity as an Old IRA man and loving husband and father. Another Custom House emigrant who forged a successful life and career when given a second opportunity in a new land.
UPDATE on 11 April 2021: For another interesting article on the two Freyne brothers by a local historian, have a look here.