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gold standard Will Olympic champion Kellie Harrington soon be made a freewoman of Dublin too?

Friday Review


Kellie Harrington during an open-top bus parade in Portland Row

Kellie Harrington during an open-top bus parade in Portland Row

Kellie Harrington during an open-top bus parade in Portland Row

So why might Kellie Harrington soon have another rare achievement to put on her CV?

Because she's on course to become only the fourth ever freewoman of Dublin.

Although the Olympic boxing gold medal winner enjoyed an emotional homecoming on her native Portland Row last Tuesday, Covid restrictions meant that she couldn't have a full civic reception.

As a result, Dublin City Council (DCC) is being urged to create an opportunity for all her fans to show their appreciation - by awarding Harrington the freedom of the city later this year.

"Kellie's inspirational achievements must be formally recognised with her being conferred with the highest award the city can give," says former Lord Mayor and family friend Nial Ring.

"If and when my fellow councillors support my proposal, we can let the whole of Dublin and Ireland celebrate… the wonderful north inner city girl."

'Freeman' or 'freewoman' is a grand title, but what does it actually mean?

It's a tradition that first started in ancient Rome, when the inner city was considered a sacred place and even top army generals needed special permission to enter there.

The custom then developed into medieval times, with large population centres divided between people who were "free" and others who were "vassals" or slaves of a local lord.

Today the honour lives on in many English-speaking countries, but it doesn't have any practical value - it's just a way for city authorities to publicly salute a local or an international hero.

How does the Dublin version work?

The process is simple. First the Lord Mayor nominates someone, then that nomination must be approved by a majority of councillors.

If the lucky person is available to accept in public, they are presented with an illuminated scroll at City Hall or the Mansion House.

Usually the vote is just a formality, but some choices have split DCC members down the middle.

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In 2017, for example, Lord Mayor Brendan Carr's nomination of Barack and Michelle Obama was only passed by a 30-23 margin.

Critics pointed to president Obama's use of drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere, with Socialist Party councillor Michael O'Brien accusing DCC of "spitting on the graves of victims".

Don't 'free' citizens of Dublin get any special privileges at all?

There are some unique rights and responsibilities, but they're purely symbolic.

Most famously, freemen and freewomen are entitled to graze their sheep on common ground.

Bono and The Edge did just that at St Stephen's Green after they were honoured in 2000, which prompted some wag to dub them "Ewe 2".

On a more disturbing note, "free" Dubliners are legally required to join a militia if the city is attacked and must provide their own sword.

Kellie Harrington might argue that her boxing gloves would be an equally powerful weapon.

If Kellie does get the nod, what sort of club will she be joining?

A pretty exclusive one. Only 83 people have received the city's freedom since Dublin Corporation began its current system in 1876, which works out at one every 1.7 years.

The list includes international politicians (John F Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev), Irish ones (Charles Stewart Parnell, Douglas Hyde, Éamon de Valera), entertainment figures (George Bernard Shaw, Noel Purcell, Gay Byrne) and sports stars (Stephen Roche, Kevin Heffernan and Jack Charlton, who said he was "happy as a pig in muck").

Just one Olympic champion has made it so far, the 1956 gold medallist runner Ronnie Delany.

Most glaringly of all, the roll call features only two women (since one has been axed - see below), pantomime queen Maureen Potter and missionary nun Mother Teresa.

Is the award for life or can it be taken back?

Cancellations are extremely rare, but they have been known. During World War I, the Celtic scholar Kuno Meyer had his freedom of Dublin revoked due to anti-German sentiment. It was restored in 1920.

More recently, controversy erupted over Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was given the honour when under house arrest in 1999 and came here to collect it 13 years later.

By 2017, she was a tarnished figure due to her regime's mass rape and torture of Rohingya Muslims, which the UN described as ethnic cleansing.

"We believe her failure to stand up for the rights of the Rohingya constitutes a betrayal of the principles for which she was so revered," wrote Suu Kyi's former supporters U2 in a letter to DCC, urging it to take away her freedom of the city.


Aung San Suu Kyi with Barack Obama

Aung San Suu Kyi with Barack Obama

Aung San Suu Kyi with Barack Obama

Councillors agreed by a vote of 59 to two.

So that proved the system works?

Yes, but there was some collateral damage. Shortly before the decision, U2's fellow musician and campaigner Bob Geldof went to City Hall and handed back his own freedom scroll in protest.

He called the Burmese leader "a killer" who had "let us Dubliners down".

While councillors duly removed Suu Kyi's name from the list, however, they voted to take Geldof off too.

The then Sinn Féin Lord Mayor Micheál Mac Donncha accused the Boomtown Rats singer of hypocrisy for accepting a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth, "given the shameful record of British imperialism across the globe".

Geldof pronounced himself "absolutely disgusted", since "I'm a very proud Dubliner… [the award] means a lot to me."

Wouldn't it be simpler if Ireland had a national honours system like many other countries?

Maybe, but attempts to create one here have never get off the ground.

Critics say it's against the equality principles of a republic and would be wide open to abuse.

Britain, for example, has had 'cash for honours' scandals dating back to 1611 when King James I created the title of 'baronet' and flogged them for £1,500 to fund a war - in Ireland.

Finally, what are the chances of Kellie Harrington's arm being raised in triumph again as a freewoman of Dublin?

It looks like a question of when, not if. According to Nial Ring, Lord Mayor Alison Gilliland has promised that she will start the ball rolling once Covid restrictions are eased and we can hold mass gatherings again.

Only an extremely brave or foolhardy councillor would vote against - so as the champ herself said in Tokyo, "Hakuna matata!" ("No worries!)

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