Ireland's new favorite son? Muhammad Ali

DUBLIN — Muhammad Ali has become the latest high-profile African-American to be feted in Ireland for his Irish roots.

The legendary boxer got an ecstatic reception Tuesday when he was made the first freeman of the town of Ennis, County Clare. The great-grandfather of the former world champion heavyweight, Abe Grady, emigrated from the west of Ireland town to the United States in the 1860s.

U.S. President Barack Obama can expect an even more tumultuous reception if he ever visits Monegall, County Offaly, where his great-great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side, Falmouth Kearney, was a shoemaker.

“Welcome home Ali O’Grady” declared one banner in Ennis, population 18,000, where life came to a standstill as local people and visitors climbed every wall and rooftop to catch a glimpse of “The Greatest.” To the delight of the cheering onlookers, Ali, who is in the advanced states of Parkinson’s Disease, got out of the car and stood beaming among the public housing in the part of the town where his ancestors once lived in a thatched cottage with a small yard.

Genealogist Antoinette O’Brien of County Clare Heritage Centre, who established the family connection, told me that Ali’s reaction was similar to that of thousands of Americans who come to the west of Ireland looking for their roots. “It just means so much to them to stand in the street where their ancestors came from, it’s a very emotional moment,” she said in a telephone interview.

Ali’s wife Lonnie said the reception was better than any medicine the former boxer could be given. “I have never seen anything like this before, and neither has he,” she told Irish television. “He was overwhelmed by it, really ecstatic. He was excited and surprised by the outpouring of people, even the children who were out in the street. It was wonderful.”

Abe Grady was a late teenager or in his early 20s when he emigrated to the United States in the 1860s, said O’Brien. In those days cargo ships, returning empty from Britain to the United States, picked up Irish emigrants and brought them to New Orleans. Some went from there up the Mississippi looking for land, as did Abe Grady, who settled in Kentucky.

There, O'Brien said, Grady married an African-American woman. Their son also married an African-American and this couple had a daughter, named Odessa Lee Grady, who became Ali's mother. She married Cassius Clay Sr. and went to live in Louisville, Ky., where Cassius Clay Jr. was born in 1942. He changed his name to Muhammad Ali when he converted to the Nation of Islam in 1964.

According to O’Brien, Abe Grady had brothers and sisters who did not emigrate to the United States, which indicates that Ali could still have relatives living in Ennis. Indeed, there to welcome the former world boxing champion were Mary O’Donovan, Mary Grady and Imelda O’Grady, who could claim to be distant cousins.

Ali smiled happily during the ceremony making him the first honorary freeman of the town of Ennis. At the reception in the Ennis council office, “lots of hands went up” when the Gradys present were asked to identify themselves, said O’Brien.

Ennis was decked out in Irish and American flags for the visit, held in sunshine after weeks of non-stop rain. A giant screen relayed the ceremony to the town center, where an open air folk concert went on most of the day. The visit was the conclusion of Ali's two week fundraising tour of Britain and Ireland. He later returned by private jet to his home in Kentucky.