Belfast poet Michael Longley awarded Freedom of the City
A new chapter in the life of poet Michael Longley has opened after the acclaimed Belfast writer was awarded the Freedom of the City last night.
And the former Arts Council member used the historic occasion to warn politicians that even in difficult times, the arts "must be at the heart of civic life".
Mr Longley said he had been overwhelmed by the award.
"I am deeply moved by this great honour - the Freedom of the City which is still my home," he said.
"I have lived in Belfast for most of my life and brought up my children here.
"For 20 years I worked for the Arts Council and I remain convinced that the arts - especially in troubled times - must be at the heart of civic life.
"Without the beautiful things, our society will die."
Irish President Michael D Higgins - a poet himself - led tributes to Longley (75) at a gala event in the Ulster Hall.
"Michael Longley has looked history straight in the face - and Ireland is the better for it," Mr Higgins told an audience of Belfast's civic and artistic dignitaries.
"Today, the City of Belfast confers its seal of honour on a great and noble spirit: and it is an honour to stand here and offer to this great poet, as a grace note to the occasion, a garland of laurels."
The Freedom of the City was conferred in recognition of the contribution Mr Longley has made to the city's cultural and artistic life through his poetry and writing over the past 50 years. It is the greatest honour which the City Council can bestow upon citizens who have made positive contributions to both the city and its reputation - and the last time it will do so before it becomes Belfast District Council in April.
Lord Mayor Nichola Mallon said Belfast was "honouring one of our most famous yet humble sons".
"Michael has lived, worked and socialised among us in Belfast for most of his life and through the gift of words has created a deep affection and affinity for the city, even among those yet to visit our shores," she said.
"For over five decades, primarily in his wonderful poetry, but also in other writings, he has created and bestowed upon Belfast and the world a legacy for generations to enjoy."
Ms Mallon added: "It is also Belfast's greatest way of saying thank you to Michael - a citizen of such creativity, compassion and unassuming grace."
The City Council has also created a special bursary in Mr Longley's honour, designed to help emerging Belfast poets develop their writing talent. Mr Longley himself will be involved in choosing the recipient.
A winner of the Whitbread Poetry Prize, TS Eliot Prize and the Hawthornden Prize, Mr Longley has drawn inspiration from sources as varied as Greek mythology, the military career of his father, Belfast, the Troubles, Sligo and nature.
He is the third wordsmith to be awarded the Freedom of Belfast, following in the footsteps of poet John Hewitt and legendary blues singer Van Morrison.
Earlier in the day, Mr Longley attended the Poetry in Motion for Schools reception at the Ulster Hall. He also presented the Seamus Heaney Award for Achievement to pupils of Grange Primary School in Kilkeel.
Thousands of schoolchildren have taken part in this project every year since it was established, with over 2,000 poems published.