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Welcome to Ireland, Muhammad Ali! The Greatest Irish Boxer of All Time

Officials of the Town of Ennis Eager to Promote Ali to Help the Economy

August 22, 2009       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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Silence struck like the bell of noon.

The stillness was palpable in the bustling barroom of the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis, County Clare, Ireland.

The open-faced youthful bartender, natty in black and white, had just spoken to his two incredulous male customers:

"Yes," he exclaimed breathlessly as the pair calmly sipped their Guinness, "Muhammad Ali is coming soon to Ennis to visit the home of his great-great grandfather."

My Irish lass Dolores and I, seated within earshot, could almost feel the shock and disbelief the silence shouted.

Perhaps the pair had read the O'Grady Family History by a local author who declared in print there was not a grain of truth in the report that Ali was descended from a local lad to immigrated to Kentucky in the 1830s, just as the Great Famine loomed.

The customers sat apparently dumbstruck as the bartender prattled on blithely, unaware of the mute consternation his words had caused.

I knew the drinkers would have to chew long before the idea that Ali was an Irishman would solidify as a concept in their minds -- if it would ever do so. More likely the disbelief would turn to a hearty Irish scoff.

But there it was, me boy, a great balloon hanging there in the shadow of the statue of the "Father of Irish Freedom," Daniel O'Connell. The same who had collaborated with one James G. Birney, resident of Lower Saginaw Michigan, in the early 1840s on behalf of the abolition of slavery in both Britain and the U.S.

I was tempted to approach the bar and explain to the apparently skeptical Irishmen "that's right, Ali's great-great grandfather was white, and Irish!" That's the part they likely found hard to grasp, but a claim that appears to be as true as an Irish rainbow.

The mating of Mr. O'Grady with a Negro woman was not a case of rape, as Ali had famously charged. A Christian marriage had occurred, according to a local author who has researched the matter extensively.

And then the daughter of O'Grady mated with a Clay, a noted Kentucky name, and eventually one Cassius Clay would descend from the roots in the ancient sod.

And Cassius Clay, the boxer, would disavow his Irish name and declare himself a Muslim, shaking the white establishment to its proverbial boots.

Now, as the world turns and the Irish economy is in desperate need of a boost, comes politicians from County Clare. The Town Council of Ennis, thunderstruck with the possibilities of the tourist potential of the worldwide publicity, extended an invitation to Ali to visit the home of his great-great grandfather.

And, Ali -- who for years had little to do with the white establishment and earned nationwide approbation as a conscientious objector in the Vietnam War -- has accepted and will make the trip to Ennis to high acclaim in a couple of weeks.

As the idea has caught on, the aspects have escalated; one politico wants to name Ali the first "honorary freeman" of Ennis; another politician wants to name a street in Ennis after Ali; another wants a display in the local museum to honor Ali or even an entire Ali Museum; a fourth thinks an annual Ali festival would be a winner.

Ennis Mayor Frankie Neylon enthuses: "We will never get an opportunity like this again. For the town of Ennis, this is as big as the Pope (the POPE!, food Lord!) coming to Ireland in 1979."

Topping it all is the suggestion to invite President Barack Obama to Ennis if he visits Ireland.

The publicity may provide a jolt for the lagging tourist economy of Ireland, all seem to agree. The Celtic Tiger of a few years ago has shrunk to a weak pussycat. The Irish are feeling the effects of the world recession perhaps even more than pole axed Michigan. Here in Ennis some families have had their electrical service shut off for failure to pay their bills. Joblessness is rampant.

Aero Lingus airlines flights into nearby Shannon Airport arrive less than half full, in contrast to a few years ago when a seat could scarcely be had on a tourist flight.

After the first writer on the O'Grady family declared the Ali connection patently false, one Antoinette O'Brien (a famous named in these parts) has taken it a step farther. Following is an interview on National Public Radio with Ms. O'Brien:

Ms. O'BRIEN: Well, believe it or not, it's not a very - it is a relatively common name in County Clare, but not so much in Ennis. And the Turnpike is just a little street within the old town of Ennis, and the records long ago, going back to the 1840s and 1850s, only place one Grady or O'Grady family there, and they're all descended from that original one. So almost certainly, and we are actually working on this at the moment, they are all connected because it's not very far back, really, in terms of generations.

RAZ: So they're all related to Muhammad Ali?

Ms. O'BRIEN: Absolutely, yes, distantly related, but they would all be connected to that John Grady who was living in the Turnpike, renting a house there in 1855. He was the father, we believe, of Abe, who went to America and never came home.

RAZ: So will the Irish now claim Muhammad Ali as an Irish boxer?

Ms. O'BRIEN: Well, we're pretty successful in the Olympics. It's probably one of - our only successful sports in the Olympics. So we're not short of boxers over here, but we are certainly claiming him as an Irishman, anyway.

RAZ: Well, which would make him one of your greatest athletes in history, I'd imagine.

Ms. O'BRIEN: Yeah absolutely.



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Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at carraroe@aol.com)

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