(article and audio copyright 2009 IrishCentral LLC)
In his first public speaking appearance since losing his wife Natasha Richardson in a tragic skiing accident, Irish actor Liam Neeson last night quoted poet Paul Muldoon on how art helps the heart heal.
Art “builds from pain, from misery, from a deep-seated hurt, a monument to the human heart that shines like a golden dome among roofs rain-glazed and leaden.”
Neeson was being awarded an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Queens University Belfast, at a ceremony in New York at the British Consulate. Ironically, the event came almost exactly a year after he and Natasha were honored by the American Ireland Fund at their annual dinner in May.
Expressing his deep gratitude for all the school had give him, Neeson said he learned one great lesson while there: "I think it is a message that a university always gives its students in the end: It’s time to move on, get on with your life. I got on with mine, and I’m still getting on."
Then, to a good bit of laughter from the star-struck crowd, Neeson thanked the university for finally giving him a degree.
“I started my course of studies at Queens 38 years ago. It’s been a long haul and a rather crooked path. It feels good to have a degree in my hand,” said Neeson, who left the college before graduating.
The actor's two sons, Michael and Daniel, sat with family friends closest to the podium, and chuckled when they saw their royally-robed father make his entrance. Neeson gave them a playful wink.
“You could hear a pin drop” said a person who was at the event. "The love in the room for Liam was very evident.”
Neeson appeared nervous at first, and apologized for reading his speech from notes. “Everybody assumes that actors are great public speakers. It’s terrifying. Forgive me for reading it,” he said.
He recounted his years in Queens and his lack of involvement with all that was happening in Northern Ireland during The Troubles.
Then, in January 1972 in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday -- one of the most violent days of The Troubles when 14 unarmed civilians were killed in Derry by a British paratrooper regiment -- Neeson suddenly woke up to a new reality .
“I’d go into my morning classes and was surprised to find them largely empty. Only two or three other students in my physics lecture hall. Leaving the building after class and walking back to the halls of residence, I was surrounded by a throng of about a hundred angry students who shouted at me, called me a scab. They were protesting against the Bloody Sunday killings, which had happened the day before, and were staging a university-wide strike.
"I had been totally unaware of the events the day before, totally unaware of the students’ strike, and almost totally unaware of the larger grim struggle that was going on in Ireland.
‘It was an experience that shook me deeply, in complicated ways. But the message I took then was, 'Boy, you’ve got to wake up. Get moving. You’ve got to get going.'
"It came to me maybe with more of a short, sharp shock than it does to most,” he said.
"But in a way, I think it is a message that a university always gives its students in the end: I got on with my life, and I’m still getting on."
He said he took the same message from the role he first played onstage in Brian Friel’s "Philadelphia Here I Come,” which he called "a play about the need to get on with your life, of the wrench of departure that comes with that need."
At the end of his speech, Neeson choked up, barely able to get out his last line. But the accomplished actor came through:
" I’m a deeply honored and humbled man from Ballymena tonight."