13 years after honour was first suggested, a Liam Neeson returns home to be hailed by town of his birth
The hard men and killers that Liam Neeson has created for box office blockbusters of late haven’t exactly been renowned for their capacity to forgive and forget.
For ruthless ex-CIA man Bryan Mills in the money-spinning Taken movies, the invitation to bury the hatchet would probably be construed as a cue for a bloodbath rather than a reconciliation.
Only a brave man would offer the pipe of peace to Neeson’s onscreen nasties, dreading where it might end up.
But the other big man from Ballymena swept into his home town on Monday to show he’s an even bigger man who doesn’t hold grudges, as he came to accept the Freedom of the Borough a mere 13 years after the honour was first mooted for the star from Corlea Gardens. The move by the SDLP in 2000 was panned by Neeson’s critics from the DUP who were angered by comments attributed to him in a magazine where he had talked about growing up as a Catholic, feeling like a second-class citizen in the mainly Protestant town.
Neeson decided to bow out of the process gracefully, but his old friend, brewery boss and football manager PJ McAvoy, didn’t throw in the towel, and when he became Ballymena’s first SDLP mayor last June he decided to revive his Freedom idea.
On Monday DUP councillors were only too happy to give Neeson a standing ovation at the Braid Arts Centre and council building.
Later they watched without a whisper of complaint as clips of his movies were screened, including his passionate portrayal of Irish rebel leader Michael Collins in a movie which wouldn’t have been high on the DUP’s favourite biopics. Neeson told me that he regretted the controversy which blew up over the Freedom of the Borough in 2000. “Yes I do, but they were different times and luckily we have moved on.”
Earlier outside the Braid, several hundred people — mostly women it has to be said — waited in the cold and wind for up to six hours to see their town’s most famous son.
One fan, Ann Patton, said: “He’s a lovely man, a wonderful actor and he’s totally down to earth. And he’s never lost or tried to disguise his accent.”
Lynda McKeown said: “People sometimes forget he's one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. I call him the eighth tower in the City of the Seven Towers.”
Rumours among the waiting crowds were that Hollywood A-listers would be accompanying Neeson, but the likes of Robert De Niro somehow managed to say no to the blustery charms of Co Antrim on a bleak January.
But Neeson didn’t disappoint his fans and broke away from the official party for a quick word with them.
Inside the Braid, Neeson showed he hasn’t lost his touch for comedy as he told 200 guests that he was delighted to be there “to pick up my Academy Award”.
When he was told that the ancient right of driving sheep through Ballymena may no longer be part of the Freedom package, he pretended to walk out in a huff.
The busiest movie star in Hollywood — he’s made 14 films in the past three years — said it was an honour to accept the Freedom award at a time when “Northern Ireland was coming out of the darkness”. Rumours that flag protesters would try to hijack the Freedom ceremony proved wide off the mark.
Mind you, anyone who had seen the 6ft 4in former boxer in his roles as an assassin might have had second thoughts about blocking the path of his limousine.
Neeson, who said he was still “99.9% Ballymena inside” and proud of the town which had given him his work ethic, revealed he hadn’t seen much coverage of the trouble in America, but he added: “There’s always a few cowboys. But the people of Northern Ireland have voted for peace and I have always said this country is the world’s best kept secret.” Waiting to greet him in the Braid was one of the other three Freemen of the Borough, former DUP leader Ian Paisley. It’s not known if they talked over lunch at the same table about speculation of a new movie about the Big Man being played by the other Big Man.
Neeson revealed he would like to come back to Northern Ireland to make a new movie at the Titanic Quarter film studios and hinted that a play at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast might be a more realistic prospect.
“We are actively trying to find something,” he added.
He strode into the council chamber to receive his Freedom scroll in a ceremony steeped in ancient tradition and language. PJ McAvoy lightened the proceedings with a brief tribute to his friend, and he said: “Well done, big Fella.”
Before a lunch of salmon and New York sirloin, the mayor said: “You wouldn’t get a reception like this at the Oscars.” After watching a 10-minute DVD made by pupils of his old schools, he became emotional and said: “Steven Spielberg had better watch out.”
Standing on the same stage where he took his first steps as an actor with the Slemish Players, he ensured that he ticked all the right boxes by thanking the council and their staff for their honour to him and their efforts on the day.
But it was as he talked about his family and the characters he knew in Ballymena in the old days that his voice wavered.
“I grew up hearing stories of neighbour after neighbour.”
Arthur McBride, George Gardiner, John Brown, Miss Kenny, Con McErlean, Jack Doherty, Harry McKeown, Tom Balmer, Norman Harcourt and Alex Millar were just some of the names he remembered.
He singled out one man in particular — a former teacher and am-dram colleague Gerry McKeown. “He’s responsible for me being here today,” said Neeson, who added that he had been privileged to grow up in Ballymena.
“In the name of my grandfather Bernard, my father Barney and the good, decent people of Ballymena, I can promise all of you I will continue to be an ambassador for Ballymena.”
It was clearly a day which he had not Taken for granted.
Being made a Freeman is the highest honour Ballymena Council can award. It is now an almost purely honorary award but historically it allowed the holder immunity from certain taxes. One of its more quirky privileges was the right to drive sheep down the main street — a right Liam Neeson jokingly indicated he wants to exercise.