Northern Ireland

Liam Neeson to receive freedom of Ballymena award later

Liam Neeson
Image caption Councillors voted for Liam Neeson to receive the Freedom of the borough on Monday night

Liam Neeson will receive the Freedom of the Borough from Ballymena Borough Council in a ceremony later.

The Oscar-nominated actor is best known for his starring roles in the Star Wars film The Phantom Menace, Schindler's List and Michael Collins.

The Freedom of the Borough is the highest accolade the council can award a citizen.

Mr Neeson and his mother Katherine will attend the ceremony at the town hall.

At that ceremony the Mayor P J McAvoy, will formally propose the honour which will be seconded by Councillor Tommy Nicholl before it is given the approval of the members of the council.

Mr Neeson will then be invited to sign the Book of Burgesses.

'Gathering of friends'

Councillor McAvoy said: "This is a significant civic occasion but we have been at pains to keep the formalities to a minimum, in keeping with Liam's relaxed style and recognising that this is, above all, a gathering of friends.

"It will also be a real Ballymena-style celebration, with some of our fantastic local talent providing the music; Ballymena students providing their own cinematic tribute to Liam's life and work and local produce providing guests with a literal 'taste of the region'.

"Liam will find himself very much at home when he steps onto the stage to speak to his Ballymena audience, for he started his acting career by treading those very boards as a young member of the Slemish Players."

Councillor McAvoy said that in the past Freemen of the Borough "earned tax benefits and could drive their sheep unimpeded through the town".

"I'm afraid Liam won't reap those rewards on Monday but he will certainly gain an insight into the esteem in which he is held in Ballymena," he added.

"We look forward to honouring an outstanding individual who has proved to be both an exceptional talent and a superb global ambassador for Ballymena."

Image caption Liam Neeson has starred in dozens of films including Five Minutes of Heaven with James Nesbitt.

Ahead of the ceremony, Liam Neeson said he was honoured and delighted to accept the award from Ballymena Borough Council.

Mr Neeson said: "Enormous strides have been made in my native Northern Ireland in the past decade, demonstrated by political, social and economic changes that came about through a combination of courage, generosity and persistence."

'Very proud'

Only three people have been awarded the freedom of Ballymena, they include Ian Paisley, Syd Millar and Sandy Spence.

It is not the first time Ballymena council has planned to grant the actor the honour.

In 2000, Democratic Unionist Party councillors objected to the proposal because of alleged derogatory remarks Mr Neeson made about his experiences growing up in the County Antrim town.

At the time, Mr Neeson was quoted as saying in an American magazine 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 12 July commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne.

Following the controversy, Mr Neeson wrote a letter to the council.

It said: "I will always remain very proud of my upbringing in, and association with, the town and my country of birth, which I will continue to promote at every opportunity.

"Indeed I regard the enduring support over the years from all sections of the community in Ballymena as being more than sufficient recognition for any success which I may have achieved as an actor."

More on this story