The cheers that rang through the streets were a match for those which rumbled a jungle during his titanic title fight in Zaire where he demolished George Foreman.
Up to 15,000 people thronged the town to catch a glimpse of the man generally regarded as the greatest athlete of all time. Before he left Ennis, he was brought to The Turnpike, the part of the town where the old Grady home once stood and which Abe Grady left in the 1860s. Not only did he just greet Liam Mulcahy, but Ali also handed Liam a watch with his picture on it. His cousin Pat Mulcahy from Nenagh, who assisted Liam, said: “He just came over to Liam. Amazing, I am in tears.”
Two members of the local residents association, Assumpta Sheehen and Bella Hehir, presented Ali with a painting of The Turnpike as it was in the 1800s. Ali even did a few of his famous boxing poses for photographers. The several thousand people who gathered at the Turnpike chanted “Ali, Ali, Ali” as the hero walked, assisted by his wife, to unveil the specially commissioned sculpture. The monument was erected in The Turnpike across the road from where it is believed, Ali’s great-grandfather once lived. Fans had climbed trees, garden walls and poles to get the best possible view of the event. One local said: “He genuinely seemed touched when his cavalcade stopped. It must have been an awesome sensation, even for a man who has been to every part of the globe and seen so much in his lifetime to come to where his Irish ancestry originated.”
Sculptor Michael McTighe from Kilnamona did a special piece in stone depicting a boxing ring and gloves to mark Ali’s visit to The Turnpike. Shop windows were done up in boxing themes and emblazoned with “Welcome home Ali” messages. In his address conferring Ali with the freedom of the town, Mayor Frankie Neylon said: “Your great grandfather Abe Grady emigrated from Ennis in the 1860s. Like many Irish emigrants he travelled to America and settled in Kentucky where he raised a family.
“Your success as a boxer is widely respected but your greatest triumph lies in your legacy as a champion, a leader, a humanitarian and an artist. Your work inside and outside the ring truly makes you the greatest of all time.” Mr Neylon recalled that among the honours bestowed on the new Freeman of Ennis was the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest honour that the US bestows.
“To mark your sporting and other achievements and to acknowledge your role and contribution to the less fortunate in society, it gives me great pleasure on behalf of Ennis Town Council, to grant you the Freedom of Ennis. I truly hope that your visit to the home of your ancestors will be an enjoyable, memorable and treasured occasion for you.”
While about 30 people were present at the Freeman ceremony itself, up to 4,000 gathered in nearby Abbey Street car park to view the proceedings on a big screen.
After the civic reception, one of the three Grady family members who were invited to meet their famous relative, Mary Grady Gormley said: “As the old song goes ‘When O’Grady meets O’Grady there will be ructions and a fight, ‘cos there’s a hooley on in Hannigan’s house tonight’. This is as good as the home coming for the Clare hurlers when they won the All Irelands in 1995 and 1887. It’s a great day for the O’Grady’s everywhere.” Another of the O’Grady clan present at the ceremony, Imelda O’Grady said: “I presented him with a framed picture.”
Other guests at the closed ceremony were Fr Martin Blake on behalf of Bishop of Killaloe Willie Walsh, Canon Bob Hanna on behalf of the Church of Ireland and Mohammad Abrahim representing the Islamic community. Many boxing fans travelled from all over the country and abroad to catch a glimpse of the greatest of them all. Noel Bennett came from New Ross with his wife, Rosaleen. He said: “Ali has been my idol all my life. I did a lot boxing and won a county... title in the 1870s as a featherweight. I would have walked here just to see him.” The crowds gathered in front of the big screen were entertained before Ali’s arrival by Sharon Shannon, Mundy and the Kilfenora Céilí Band.
The story of Ali’s homecoming was world news with Sky News and Fox picking up on it. The Clare People even brought out a special edition. The Grady family tree which was researched by Antoinette O’Brien of the Corofin genealogical centre shows that Abe Grady married an African American woman. Their son also married an African American and one of their children Odessa Lee Grady was Muhammad Ali’s mother. Speaking from Dromoland Castle last night Mohammed Ali’s wife Lonnie said the visit to Ennis was one of the most exciting days of their lives.
She said “he was overwhelmed by it, totally excited, a most exciting day. The outpouring from the people, the children, the old, the young people was so wonderful. It will be something we will be talking about for a long time in our family”.