Belfast Telegraph

Liam Neeson: Hollywood A-lister, action hero... and now Freeman of Ballymena

By Chris Kilpatrick

Hollywood action hero Liam Neeson says he is “honoured” and “delighted” with his latest starring role — Freeman of his home town of Ballymena.

Neeson has officially been recognised as an A-lister in the Co Antrim town after Ballymena Borough Council voted unanimously in favour of a motion to bestow the accolade on its most famous son.

While it was being passed, Neeson's mum Kitty was above the council chamber in the Braid Centre taking in a play on the life of former First Minister Ian Paisley.

Neeson, star of hit films including Taken, The A-Team and Schindler's List, said he was proud to be given the highest civic honour possible by his home town.

“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,” Neeson added in a message to the council on Monday night.

The move came 12 years after DUP councillors in the town objected to offering Neeson the Freedom of the Borough following controversial comments attributed to the star in an American magazine regarding his upbringing in Ballymena.

The magazine claimed Neeson had described Catholics as feeling like second-class citizens in the predominantly Protestant town.

The actor subsequently denied making any such comments. Any bad feeling caused back then was overwhelmingly replaced by a jovial mood in the council chamber on Monday night.

One of the perks Neeson can enjoy in his new role, if he chooses, is the right to herd sheep through the centre of Ballymena.

But the mayor, PJ McAvoy, is hoping the 60-year-old will instead opt to bring a flock of his movie star friends along for the official ceremony, scheduled to take place in Ballymena early next year.

Mr McAvoy — a close friend of the Neeson family — became the first nationalist mayor of the borough back in June. He said he was delighted the council was finally honouring “the best-known Ballymena man in the world”, albeit 12 years after it was first mooted.

The leader of the DUP on the council, Tommy Nicholl, who seconded the proposal, said the honour was proof of how far Ballymena had moved on.

“It's a great day for Ballymena. Everyone in the town is very proud of Liam Neeson.”

Neeson will become just the fourth Freeman of Ballymena and follows Ian Paisley, who was given the title in 2004.

Liam’s mother didn't wish to comment on the move but asked Mr McAvoy to pass on her gratitude at the gesture, saying it had made the family “very proud”.

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