Madrid: It’s a 10-minute walk from what used to be Dublin’s Dandelion Market to City Hall, the seat of the city’s corporation that runs its local government. For Bob Geldof, whose musical career began with his Boomtown Rats at the pop-up market on Saturday afternoon, that 10-minute walk has taken a lot of years for a man who has become more famous for his humanitarian work than for his band’s hits.
This week, Geldof said that he is handing back the Freedom of the City of Dublin, an honorary award that has been handed out by Dublin’s city fathers since the mid-19th Century and whose recipients include Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan and, controversially, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi. She is Myanmar’s de facto ruler and a woman whose leadership — and lack thereof — has drawn international criticism for her government’s treatment of the Rohingya. The United Nations has likened Myanmar’s organised and brutal crackdown on the Muslim minority as a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.
For Geldof, a proud Dubliner, Irishman and international campaigner, sharing the Freedom of Dublin with Suu Kyi is too much — and he has handed back the honour, saying he would be happy to have it restored if and when those city fathers see fit to remove the award from Suu Kyi.
Geldof is a man who has a long record of speaking out and supporting causes and humanitarian projects that were unpopular, shining a light on issues and bringing high-profile star qualities to bear on famine, child labour, slavery, third-word debt, the environment, globalisation and Aids funding.
The son of a shoe salesman who himself was the product of a Belgian immigrant chef and a Jewish English woman, Geldof was born in 1951 and raised in Dun Laoghaire on the city’s south side, attending the private and posh Blackrock College as a teen. He was bullied for being a poor rugby player and for his Jewish ancestry — an anomaly then in Roman Catholic-dominated and socially conservative nation where 95 per cent went to Catholic Mass on Sundays.
As soon as Geldof was old enough to leave, he did, working canning peas in Germany, building roads and in an abattoir, before eventually finding his way to Vancouver and a stint as a music journalist for an avant garde weekly there.
He returned to Ireland in 1975 and formed the Boomtown Rats, a band that was energetic if not entirely skilful — but good enough to be at the popular edge of punk music and its message of revolt and anarchy. He was also active in Amnesty International.
Like most bands, success was hard to come by, playing the city’s Dandelion Market and other small club and pub venues around the city. His break came with the band’s UK Rat Trap hit, followed up by the classic I Don’t Like Monday’s. In Ireland, however, the band was shunned, in part for Geldof’s attack on the Catholic church.
The scale and tragedy of the Ethiopian Famine of 1995-86 deeply moved Geldof, inspiring him with other musicians to form Band-Aid and record the first charity single Do They Know It’s Christmas? That led to the Band-Aid concerts in London, New York and Philadelphia, raising Dh750 million for famine relief and beginning an era where rock musicians had the freedom and moral leadership to speak out on third-world issues, globalisation, debt and child labour. In effect, he paved the way for others like Bono to follow.
His personal life is painful, losing both his wife, Paula Yeats and daughter Peaches in drug-related deaths. He’s an entrepreneur and media professional who has received an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II.