Shawn Pogatchnik, AP, September 1, 2009
Muhammad Ali made a sentimental journey Tuesday to discover his Irish roots, and met distant relatives during celebrations at the local town hall and a nearby castle.
Thousands lined the streets of Ennis, western Ireland, to cheer his motorcade as the three-time heavyweight champion visited the home of his great-grandfather Abe Grady.
Grady settled in Kentucky in the 1860s and married a freed slave. One of their grandchildren, Odessa Lee Grady Clay, gave birth to Ali–then Cassius Clay–in 1942.
Genealogists pinpointed Ali’s Irish links in 2002, but Ali had never visited Ennis.
“When you look at Muhammad’s pugilistic skills and his loquacious ways, I am sure if his great-grandfather was alive, he would swear it came from him,” she [Ali’s wife] said. “If he were alive today I bet he would be in every pub talking about it too.”
Mayor Frankie Neylon presented Ali with a scroll and proclaimed him Ennis’ first “freeman,” an honor conveying him special privileges in the County Clare town of 23,000. The mayor said the most valuable privilege would be free parking.
Yolanda Ali said the couple would return to Ireland “now that we know that Muhammad is an Ennisman.”
People traveled hundreds of miles from across Ireland to see Ali, among them veteran Irish boxers who sparred with Ali in New York training decades ago.
Former Irish national champ Jim O’Sullivan recalled sparring with Ali and his trainer Angelo Dundee during a U.S. tour by Irish boxers in 1978–and wished he’d known then that “The Greatest” was “just a Paddy like us.”