Northern Ireland

Stars, presidents and sheep: Notable freemen and women

Van Morrison. George Best. Former prime ministers including Robert Peel and William Pitt.

They've all been previously awarded the freedom of boroughs or cities in Northern Ireland.

Sir Kenneth Branagh is the latest to join their ranks after it was confirmed he would be awarded the freedom of Belfast.

The honour pays tribute to individuals or organisations who have made a contribution to civic life.

Traditionally it conferred special status on a recipient - including, as we'll see, some very peculiar cattle-based privileges.

Those rights are gone these days, but that hasn't stopped some of our local recipients trying to get woolly with the rules.

Here's a run-down of some of the notable freemen and freewomen of Northern Ireland.


Dame Mary Peters

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The 1972 Olympic gold medal winner was awarded Belfast's highest civic honour in 2013 - and she celebrated with some ceremonial sheep-herding.

Traditionally, freemen or freewomen were bestowed with special status allowing them to do certain things that are simply not allowed for regular plebs.

This included herding sheep through the streets or letting them graze on common areas.

In modern times, the award gives no special rights to recipients - but that didn't stop Dame Mary getting the chance to direct some sheep at City Hall a month ahead of her ceremony.


Winston Churchill

It's a measure of the importance of the former British prime minister that he didn't come to Belfast or Londonderry to be made a freeman - they came to him.

In a ceremony conducted in the Mansion House City of London, representatives from each council awarded him their highest honours.

Lord Mayor of Belfast, Alderman RJ Harcourt, presented Churchill with a silver casket containing the certificate of freedom.

Derry was not to be outdone.

The city presented its certificate in a mini silver replica of Roaring Meg, one of the cannons used on the city's walls during the Siege of Derry.


Ulysses S Grant

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Churchill wasn't the only famous world leader to be awarded top honours.

Ulysses S Grant, the former two-term US president, arrived in Ireland in 1879 at the tail end of a two-year world tour.

At the time he was just 12 years removed from leading the Union Army to victory in the American Civil War, and had only been out of the White House for two years.

His fame led to thronging crowds throughout Ireland, particularly at railway stations where his train was stopping or passing through.

He got a particularly warm welcome in Ulster, the homeland of his ancestors.

Grant's maternal grandfather, John Simpson, emigrated from Deregenagh, near Ballygawley in County Tyrone.

Grant received freedom of the city awards in Dublin and Derry.

At a banquet in the northern city, he extended his own US invitation to locals - an invitation that seems almost quaint compared to recent times.

"We hope to see more of the people of Derry and Ireland there after a while, when you become more crowded and want more room," he said.

"We hope you will go there and establish your shirt factories - and linen factories, and all your other factories.

"Just go there and build up your factories, where you will have sufficient room and good markets and you won't have a word to say about a tariff."


Ronnie McFall

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He wasn't a president, a prime minister or a war hero but to football fans in Portadown he was something much better - the ultimate gaffer.

In 2016, McFall resigned as manager of Portadown FC after 29 years in charge. At the time, he was the longest-serving football manager in Europe.

For years, he was behind Alex Ferguson at Manchester United in terms of longevity and, now that he's retired, Arsenal's Arsene Wenger is Europe's longest-serving at a relatively paltry 21 years.

In almost three decades in charge of Portadown, McFall won four league titles and more than 20 trophies.

In recognition of his service, Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Council chose McFall to receive their first ever Freedom of the Borough award earlier this year.


Nurses of Belfast

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It's not just individuals who can claim be made freemen or freewomen: Some councils, such as Belfast, have chosen to bestow the honour on an entire profession.

In 2016, the nurses of the city past and present were granted the freedom of the borough.

The then Lord Mayor, Arder Carson, said it was the "city's formal expression of thanks to those who have made such a positive contribution to everyday life".

The city had previously conferred the honour on the Royal Ulster Rifles and Merchant Navy.


Liam Neeson

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He's a man of a particular set of skills and the Hollywood star is pretty much free to practice them in the borough of Ballymena.

Hundreds of people gathered at the Braid Centre in Ballymena in January 2013 when the Star Wars and Schindler's List actor was awarded the borough's highest possible honour.

He became the fourth person awarded the honour after Ian Paisley, rugby player Syd Millar and former mayor Sandy Spence.

The award came 13 years after it was first proposed: In 2000, DUP councillors objected to Neeson being granted the award because of remarks he made about feeling "second class" as a Catholic growing up in a mainly Protestant town.

At the time, Neeson said he would "always remain very proud" of his upbringing in Ballymena, a feeling he echoed when receiving the award years later.