Connect to share and comment

Ireland's new favorite son? Muhammad Ali

The former world heavyweight champion visits the Irish town where his great-grandfather was born.

Muhammad Ali arrives in the town of Ennis in Ireland on Sept. 1, 2009, where his great-grandfather was born. (Press Association)

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.”