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Column: President Higgins was conferred with the freedom of the city of Cork ... but what does that mean?

Michael D Higgins joined a prestigious list this week, but what is a freeman (or freewoman)?

Image: Joe Giddens

ON THURSDAY, the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, was conferred with the freedom of the city of Cork. The honour of receiving the freedom of the city is bestowed by many municipalities across the world in recognition of those who have distinguished themselves, contributed to the community or brought high esteem on a municipality through their works or actions.

In the Republic of Ireland, for example, a national system to honour citizens does not exist and the freedom of the city conferred by local councils fills that void. As such it is symbolic of the esteem in which a particular city holds the person. The tradition in the United States, for example, is to award the ‘key to the city’; in essence however it is the same as the freedom of the city. Interestingly, the first woman to receive the freedom of the city of New York was Cork’s Muriel MacSwiney (née Murphy) on 31 December 1920.

The ‘modern’ award of freedom of the city

In Cork, the tradition of being made a freemen goes back to the 14th century but at that time it was not an honorary award – rather the status was attained by birthright, servitude and marriage – not to mention those who bought their ‘freedom’ in order to take advantage of the opportunities and benefits associated with the title. It was the Municipal Privileges (Ireland) Act of 1876 which established the honorary freedom of a city on an entirely new plane. Therefore the year 1876 represents the starting point of the ‘modern’ award of freedom of the city.

However, the Cork City Council website commences its listing from 1887, giving us 61 Freemen of Cork up to the present time (an average of one recipient every two years). We might expect the council to commence its listing from 1876 (as is the case with Dublin City Council) with the passing of the Municipal Privileges Act. However, due to the burning of the courthouse in 1891 there is no surviving record of admissions to the freedom register from the period of 1876 to 1887. The register accordingly begins its listing of freemen with General Patrick Collins (United States Member of Congress) but between 1876 and 1887, there were some notable recipients of the freedom of Cork, including Isaac Butt, Charles Stewart Parnell, William Gladstone, Sir John Pope Hennessy and William O’Brien.

Gender imbalance

A number of things stand out from the official list of 61 recipients between 1887 and 2014. One is gender imbalance with the award only being made on five occasions to women, starting with Mary Robinson who was elected a freewoman in November 1990 and conferred in February 1991.

A second feature is that while the freedom conferring ceremonies are splendid events, it is the date of election which is more important as this is formally the occasion when the city council passes the motion to elect a new freeman or freewoman. In some cases from the list of 61 recipients, conferring ceremonies did not take place at all, for example Woodrow Wilson who was elected in January 1919. In other cases, there was a long gap between the election and the conferring – Archbishop Robert Spence was elected as a freeman of Cork in August 1920 but was conferred a decade later in November 1930.

In the case of Cardinal Vincenzo Vanutelli, the election and conferring took place on the same day, 5 August 1904. A third feature from the list is the relative dominance of the Catholic clergy. This is especially apparent during the years from 1922 to 1989 but has continued right up to present times with the election of Dean Denis O’Connor and Sr Eucharia Buckley in March 2009.

People proposed for the honour

One thing which cannot be gleaned from the official list of freemen is an appreciation of the people who were proposed for the honour but who did not receive it. Cork Corporation minutes from the early 1920s show that James Larkin, the trade union leader and socialist activist, was discussed as a possible recipient of the freedom of Cork but the matter was not progressed.

In January 1987, Councillors Kelleher and Lynch proposed a motion that the freedom be conferred upon Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress (ANC) ‘in recognition of his life-long struggle for justice in South Africa and in recognition of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ANC’. The motion was defeated by eight votes to five and so Mandela was not elected a freeman of Cork.

Michael D Higgins joins a prestigious list of recipients, including five former Presidents of Ireland – Douglas Hyde, Seán T O’Kelly, Éamon de Valera, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese (though Hyde was presented with his freedom of the city a full 32 years before he became President). Two American Presidents have been made honorary freemen of Cork, Woodrow Wilson and John F Kennedy, as have two British Prime Ministers, William Gladstone and John Major (though neither was the serving Prime Minister at the time of the award). In addition, the Cork freedom list boasts two Nobel Peace Prize winners (Woodrow Wilson and John Hume) as well as a winner of the Pulitzer Prize (John F Kennedy).

The President receives no special privileges as a freeman of Cork, though, unlike in Dublin where recipients are conferred with the right to pasture sheep on St Stephen’s Green and defend the city with a longbow and arrow.

Aodh Quinlivan (Twitter: @AodhQuinlivan) is a lecturer in politics at the Department of Government, University College Cork. His book, The Freedom of Cork: A Chronicle of Honour was published by the Collins Press in November 2013.

Read: Michael D Higgins gets the freedom of Cork, mentions how much Corkonians like to say ‘like’


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