Neeson accepts top hometown honour

Neeson accepts top hometown honour

Hollywood star Liam Neeson has returned to his native Ballymena for a ceremony to present him with the highest honour his hometown can bestow on him.

Despite inclement weather conditions, the actor first took time to go on a walkabout and greet the hundreds of well-wishers who turned out in the Bridge Street area of the Co Antrim town.

"It's great to be back," he said, later declaring: "I owe Ballymena."

Guests - including Ian Paisley Snr - were also present for the big event, which saw Neeson receive the Freedom of the Borough from Ballymena Council.

"I am aware of the work the borough has been doing the past few years, coming out of the darkness as we all have and hopefully left all that behind us - new days, new times - and I am just privileged to receive this," the star said.

"If it did not change I don't think I would be sitting here."

It's an obvious honour. When I accepted it, I did a little bit of research to see what it actually meant and what it was about, and then I started to get nervous.

Liam Neeson

Neeson also revealed that he had been approached about playing Paisley in films about the veteran politician's life, but added: "I read a couple of scripts, but they were atrocious."

The now New York-based actor grew up in Ballymena, where he attended St Patrick's school, learned to box at All Saints club, and first honed his acting skills as a member of the Slemish Players.

He had originally sought a career as a teacher after attending Queen's University, Belfast and majoring in physics, computer science and maths.

But Neeson set teaching aside in 1976 to join the prestigious Lyric Players Theatre in Belfast and, after two years there, joined the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

His big break came when film director John Boorman spotted the actor in the Dublin theatre, which led to his role in 1981's Excalibur.

His portrayal in Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List saw him nominated for an Oscar, while one of his most prominent roles was playing Irish rebel leader Michael Collins in the film of the same name.

Neeson has become something of an action star in recent years, with appearances in both the Star Wars and Batman franchises - and also starring as ex-CIA man and vengeful dad Bryan Mills in the hugely popular Taken.

In years gone by, Freemen of the Borough earned tax benefits and could drive their sheep unimpeded through the town. I'm afraid Liam won't reap those rewards, but he will certainly gain an insight into the esteem in which he is held in Ballymena.

Ballymena Mayor PJ McAvoy

"May the force be with you," Mr McAvoy solemnly told the actor, who played Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars, on Monday.

"Well done, big fella."

Among those paying tribute to Neeson as an ambassador for his hometown were his All Saints sparring partner Harry McKeown and a teacher at his former school, Catherine Magee.

Mr McKeown said: "He is a great inspiration for how far he has come. Liam was always dedicated in everything he ever did."

Ms Magee added: "He has left an indelible memory at the school. Anyone who has lived and worked with him wants to be able to acknowledge that. The school is very proud."

DUP council members voted against a previous proposal to offer the actor the accolade in 2000, after he commented in the press that he had felt like a "second-class citizen" growing up in the then mainly Protestant 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 said, on accepting the invitation in November.

The Freedom of Ballymena Borough has only previously been given to three other people - former First Minister Ian Paisley, rugby legend Syd Millar and former mayor of Ballymena Sandy Spence.

Neeson was awarded his OBE in 2000.

© UTV

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