Neeson awarded freedom of Ballymena


Liam Neeson returned to the stage where it all began today when he was granted the freedom of Ballymena.

The Hollywood star of blockbusters including Schindler’s List and Michael Collins started out in his home town performing pantomimes with the Slemish Players.

Today, he returned to receive the town's highest honour.

Mayor PJ McAvoy said to the former Star Wars actor: “May the force be with you.”

Ballymena Borough Council in Co Antrim, Northern Ireland, rolled out the red carpet amid pomp and ceremony as Neeson said he was still “99.9 per cent Ballymena” in his dedication to hard work.

“I am aware of the work that you have been doing the past few years, coming out of the darkness that we all had and hopefully leaving all that behind us - new days, new times - and I am just privileged to receive this,” the star said.

Neeson arrived at the Braid Theatre to be greeted by friends and family, including his mother Kitty.

Wearing an open neck blue shirt and dark suit, he gave the thumbs-up as he shook the hands of well-wishers outside.

Neeson was offered the honour in 2000 but turned it down because of a controversy over some alleged derogatory comments he had made about the town.

He was quoted as saying that he felt “second class” as a Catholic growing up in the mainly Protestant town and felt he had to stay indoors during the loyalist July 12th celebrations.

Today, he said he regretted the decision to turn down the honour.

“They were different times, just different times, and luckily we have moved on,” he said.

Another freeman of Ballymena is the former DUP leader Ian Paisley, who was among 250 guests attending a celebratory dinner.

Neeson said he was approached about playing Paisley in a film about his life.

“I read a couple of scripts but they were atrocious,” he said.

“There is a saying: if it ain’t on the page it ain’t on the script.”

He said Ballymena had changed since he left for New York and paid tribute to the council for honouring him.

“If it did not change I don’t think I would be sitting here,” he said.

Neeson, who towered over most of the councillors who bestowed the honour, said he was blessed.

“I was very, very lucky. I say to my kids, find something you love doing in life, pursue it and never take no for an answer.”

A video was made by his former school, St Patrick’s College, and students from the Northern Regional College featuring scenes from his films and memories from childhood friends.

School friend Seamus McQuillan said he and Neeson were undecided whether to take part in a school play during their childhood.

“Then somebody said a certain young lady in the class was going to be in the play so then we said ‘right, we will go’.”

Neeson was spotted by film director John Boorman while at the Abbey, subsequently appearing in Boorman’s film Excalibur in 1981.

He was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of a German businessman who prevented many Jews from being sent to Nazi death camps in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.

Another of his most prominent roles has been his portrayal of Irish rebel leader Michael Collins in the film of the same name.

His other work includes parts in The Mission, Suspect and Rob Roy.

A musical interlude was played by solo violinist Rebekah Durston before the civic banquet. Liam’s “home from home” menu twinned Co Antrim with New York, with a starter of warm darne of Glenarm Salmon with Manhattan style clam broth.

Corn chowder was combined with soda bread croutons.

Neeson’s mother Kitty and other family members headed the guest list. Others included former Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan as well as Health Minister Edwin Poots, Environment Minister Alex Attwood, North Antrim MP Ian Paisley Jnr, and Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín.