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Liam Neeson awarded freedom of his home town Ballymena

The 60-year-old says despite his globetrotting and international fame, he remains “99.9 per cent Ballymena”.

Liam Neeson signs the Register of Burgess as he accepts the freedom of Ballymena today.
Liam Neeson signs the Register of Burgess as he accepts the freedom of Ballymena today.
Image: Paul Faith/PA Wire

HOLLYWOOD STAR Liam Neeson went back to the stage where he first trod the boards as he was awarded the freedom of his home town of Ballymena in Northern Ireland today.

The star of ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Michael Collins’ started his acting career performing in pantomimes at the town’s Braid Theatre.

Ballymena’s mayor PJ McAvoy referred to his role in the later ‘Star Wars’ as he told Neeson during the ceremony at the theatre: “May the force be with you.”

A delighted Neeson, 60, said that despite his globetrotting life he was still “99.9 per cent Ballymena”.

He was offered the honour in 2000 but refused it because of a furore when he was quoted as saying he felt “second class” as a Catholic growing up in the mainly Protestant town.

Today, Neeson said he regretted turning down the honour, but said he was happy to return to Northern Ireland at a time when the North – torn apart by three decades of sectarian strife until the 1990s – is largely peaceful.

“They were different times, just different times, and luckily we have moved on,” Neeson said.

“I am aware of the work that you have been doing the past few years, coming out of the darkness that we all had and hopefully leaving all that behind us – new days, new times – and I am just privileged to receive this,” he said.

His mother Kitty was among friends and family who greeted Neeson as he arrived for the ceremony.

One of his school friends, Seamus McQuillan, recalled that he and Neeson had been undecided about whether to perform in a school play.

“Then somebody said a certain young lady in the class was going to be in the play so then we said, ‘Right, we will go’.”

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