Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

I’ll always be an ambassador for Ballymena says freeman Liam Neeson

Liam Neeson is welcomed by Ballymena mayor PJ McAvoy and Carla Speer

Hollywood star Liam Neeson on Monday returned to the stage — and trod the very boards he first set foot on as a budding young actor more than four decades ago.

Hundreds of fans gathered from early morning in poor weather to greet Neeson who was back in his home town of Ballymena to receive the Freedom of the Borough.

The Oscar-nominated actor, who starred in hit films including Schindler's List, Taken and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, said while he has been living in America since the mid-1980s, he was still “99.9% Ballymena”.

He said: “I'm absolutely delighted to be here today. This is the Ballymena I was privileged to grow up in. So, in the name of my grandfather Bernard, my father Barney and the good, decent people of Ballymena, I can promise all of you that I will continue to be an ambassador for Ballymena, as I have been.”

Neeson ensured his family and friends formed an integral part of Monday's ceremony at the Braid Arts Centre, and arrived at lunchtime with his mother Kitty, who still lives in the town.

He was also joined by sisters Bernadette and Elizabeth.

The 60-year-old greeted those who braved the rain to catch a glimpse of him before going inside Braid Arts Centre to be reunited with family friend and mayor of Ballymena, PJ McAvoy, and other council dignitaries. Among the guests was fellow Freeman Lord Bannside (Ian Paisley) and his wife Eileen.

Asked about rumours he was being lined up to play the former First Minister in a biopic, Neeson replied: “I read a couple of scripts but they were atrocious.” Mayor McAvoy said that, in the past, Freemen of the Borough “earned tax benefits” — including the right to herd sheep.

Neeson jokingly stood up as if to leave the building when told he would not receive such a right.

At the ceremony, Mr McAvoy formally proposed the honour, seconded by DUP councillor Tommy Nicholl, before being given the approval of the council.

Neeson was then invited to sign the Book of Burgess.

“May the force be with you,” quipped Mr McAvoy, using the famous line from Star Wars.

Signing his name, Neeson replied: “I owe Ballymena...”

Before a meal, a video 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 was shown to the audience of 250.

Despite being renowned across the world for his acting roles, a visibly nervous Neeson admitted to a fear of public speaking.

School friend Seamus McQuillan said he and Neeson were undecided whether to take part in a school play when they were boys.

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

Neeson pledged continued transatlantic support for the Lyric Theatre in Belfast and as an ambassador for Ballymena, but said he had to take into account his responsibilities as a single parent.

His wife, Natasha Richardson, died in 2009 in a skiing accident. After the dinner, Neeson met the families of the ‘Disappeared’ in a room. No information was given regarding the meeting.

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