Brian O’Driscoll and Fr Peter McVerry now expected to protect Dublin from attack

Rugby international and homeless campaigner conferred as freemen of the city

Gordon D’Arcy eat you heart out. Freshly retired from international rugby, Brian O’Driscoll also acquired a new defensive partner over the weekend when he and Fr Peter McVerry became the latest freemen of Dublin at a ceremony in the Mansion House.

Along with certain ancient privileges, the award confers some ancient duties: chief among them that the duo are now expected to protect the city from attack, arming themselves for the task with, among other things, a “sword” and a longbow “made of yew”.

With weapons like that, they might also need the help of some of Joe Schmidt's defensive systems. But clearly emboldened by the thought of having the great No 13 alongside him, Father McVerry was up for the challenge.

Standing ovation
Accepting the award to a standing ovation on Saturday night, he reassured the audience that he would be "available at any time to defend the city of Dublin with my bow and arrow should the Russians roll their tanks in".

In another life, the Newry-born priest might also have been a rugby star. He went to a famous rugby school, Clongowes Wood, and by all accounts could play a bit too.


But having spent the last 15 years watching O’Driscoll being “beaten, battered, and pummelled”, he admitted being glad that his own heroics in the Clongowes “B team” were overlooked. Instead, in 1979, he opened his first hostel for homeless boys. Since then he has built a network of “11 hostels, more than 100 apartments, and a detox centre”, with 3,000 benefiting from his services last year.

And yet, by his own account, he remains a failure. "When I started off, there were 1,000 homeless people," Fr McVerry told reporters before the ceremony. "Now it's 5,000. Brian has achieved everything in rugby. What have I achieved?" The question was partly answered by O'Driscoll himself, who protested himself unworthy as a mere rugby player to follow in the footsteps of previous freemen like JFK, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela, or to be elevated alongside Fr McVerry, whose work was a "matter of life and death". But he too was given a standing ovation.

There then followed a last minute hitch during his formal signing of the roll — the pen wouldn’t work. Happily, the Lord Mayor had a second one. After a slick one-handed offload, O’Driscoll was in under the coat of arms, following Fr McVerry as the 77th freeman of the city.

Frank McNally

Frank McNally

Frank McNally is an Irish Times journalist and chief writer of An Irish Diary