Gone but not forgotten: Obamas’ Freedom of the City clouded by controversy

Cormac Murphy reports on the debate surrounding Dublin City Council’s controversial decision to award the Obamas Freedom of the City.


In a move surrounded by controversy, former US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle are to be awarded the Freedom of the City of Dublin.

The Lord Mayor of Dublin, Brendan Carr put forward the contentious proposal to grant the Obamas the title on Monday, 6 February. The motion was passed by a majority of Dublin City councillors with 30 votes for the measure and 23 against.

The vote followed a heated exchange between those who opposed the motion and those who supported it. Members of the Anti-Austerity Alliance, People Before Profit, Sinn Fein and the Green Party were represented among the parties who opposed the decision. 

Defending his position in a press release, the Lord Mayor stated “The award is often a political statement… at this juncture in world politics our city can make a clear statement about what example we would wish the paramount global political leader [the US President] to set… I believe Barack and Michelle Obama set the right direction for the US both domestically and in international relations.”  



He elaborated that Obama’s presidency oversaw several important international developments such as the cessation of military activities in Afghanistan, the Iran nuclear deal and Obama’s normalisation of relations with Cuba. He also noted Michelle Obama had campaigned throughout her husband’s term in office for women’s rights around the globe as well as drawing attention to the plight of refugees.

Speaking to the Thecity.ie, Councillor Michael O’Brien of the Anti Austerity Alliance said, “Obama is guilty of heinous acts that should disqualify him from being bestowed the award”. He cited examples of drone strikes in the Middle East, Pakistan and Somalia as examples and claimed Ireland has a “blind spot about the nature of the Democratic Party”.

The decision also divided opinion online with several users taking to Twitter to vent their anger. One Twitter user called Obama the “drone king” and blasted his record in office.



Another Twitter user implied it was just a photo opportunity for the Labour Party which currently controls Dublin City Council.


However, others welcomed the decision. One British expatriate stated the move was “lovely”.



Dublin City Council’s decision to grant the Obamas the prize means that Barack and Michelle Obama will become the 82nd and 83rd beneficiaries to receive the title.

Dublin City Council buildings At Wood Quay, Image by YvonneM via WikimediaCommons

What is Freedom of the City of Dublin?

The Freedom of the City of Dublin is the highest civil honour granted by the Dublin City Council. Irish Home Rule pioneer Isaac Butt was the first to receive the award in 1876.

Notable recipients include Nelson Mandela who received the title as a freeman of Dublin in 1988 and Aung San Suu Kyi, a leading advocate for democracy in her home country of Myanmar (formerly Burma). Other famous people include General Ulysses S Grant, President John F. Kennedy, Pope John Paul II and musicians such as Bob Geldof and Bono.


The award acknowledges the contribution to the life of the city or Ireland in general, which includes politicians, public servants, humanitarian activists, artists and entertainers. Honourees sign the roll of freemen at the City Hall or the Mansion House.

Freedom of the City is mostly ceremonial. The benefits offered to freemen include ancient privileges such as exemption from octroi, a duty once imposed on various goods entering the city, and pasturage of sheep on city commons such as College Green or St. Stephen’s Green. Bono attracted considerable media attention when he exercised the right to graze sheep in 2000.

It’s not the first time the award has sparked controversy. Distinguished Celtic scholar Kuno Meyer who received the award in 1911 for his role in the promotion of Irish culture, was removed from the roll of freemen in Dublin for his pro-German views during World War One. This decision was later retracted posthumously in 1920 when Sinn Fein won control of the city council.

The couple indicated to several contacts that they are happy to receive the award.  A meeting with US embassy officials will reportedly be held within days and could result in an official visit by the end of the year.



Barack Obama and his wife Michelle visited Ireland back in May 2011. The former US President has ancestral links to the country through his mother Ann Dunham who has relatives from Moneygall in County Offaly.



Featured Image: Barack and Michelle Obama at the Lincoln Memorial in 2009 by Mark O’Donald via Wikimedia Commons



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