More than 1,000 of the Brave and Faithful gathered at the steps of Limerick City Hall, as 6ft 6in Paul O’Connell reached for the city’s highest honour, and became a Freeman of Limerick.
Adding to the occasion, 43 members of the Munster Rugby supporters choir gave a stout-hearted rendition of ‘Stand Up and Fight’.
Limerick mayor Jim Long declared the Munster captain as “an incredible ambassador for Limerick”.
“He is an inspiration to young and old, men and women. He carries the Limerick badge of honour with him always and displays it with pride. We are blessed and proud of our new Freeman of Limerick.”
The man himself said he was humbled at the honour, and that receiving the freedom of the city meant so much to him because previous recipients included inspirational figures who made an impact on the city, the region, the country, and on the world stage.
“They showed courage in the face of adversity, integrity and hard work,” he said in a rousing speech about the future of his home city. “And one common theme which went through their achievements was focus.
“Limerick City needs to advance, and it is only through genuine focus that his can happen. I applaud the recent steps taken by Denis Brosnan and Michael Noonan and would like to offer them my support, and remind you we all have a role to play in the future of our city.
“I am privileged to be part of the entity called Munster Rugby. When it comes to Munster Rugby, Limerick people show incredibly solidarity, pride ambition, unity in supporting the team.
“We need to take this solidarity, pride and ambition and apply it to our city.
“When Munster play, we hold our players and staff to the highest standards. We need to continue doing this for our city and stand up to antisocial behaviour, crime, and obstacles to our ambition.
“When Munster wins a trophy, Ronan O’Gara’s name or David Wallace’s name does not go on the plaque. No one records how many Cork players or how many Limerick players on the plaque.
“The only thing that goes up is ‘Munster’, in big block capitals, and we need to adopt this support for the city’s success. In Limerick, we need to co-operate for the greater good of the city.”
Paul’s partner, Emily O’Leary, and their son Paddy, 2, sat in the VIP section with Paul’s parents, Michael and Sheelagh, and his brothers Justin and Marcus.
Justin was accompanied by his wife Linda and the eldest of their four children, Julie, aged nine.
The O’Connell clan included Paul’s uncle, Frank, who lives in the family home at Dunedin, Ballinlough, and his aunt, Carrie Miller from Coachford. His uncle, Fr Dan O’Connell, could not make it from the US.
On receiving the freedom of the city, Paul also sent a message to his aunt, Mary.
His mother’s family, the Quiltys, also turned out in force, led by retired army officer Martin Quilty who travelled from Dublin, along with Bobby Quilty, from Wexford; Patsy, who lives in Croom; Sean, who lives in Athlone’ and Carmel O’Regan, from Croagh.
Former president of the GAA, Sean Kelly MEP, one of the many sporting figures present, said: “It’s a great honour for Paul, his family, and rugby. But I think in the broader sense it is an honour for sport, because sport reflects what we all aspire in being Irish — fair, competitive, giving 100%, being strong and never complaining.
“I think Paul O’Connell epitomises all that. He reached the highest standard in the world. He was one of the best rugby players in the world over the past number of years and I think his example to young people was fantastic.
“Honouring him in his own city sends out a great message that you can play fair, you can be tough, you can be strong, but you can be a real man at the same time and inspire millions.”