Saturday 3 December 2016

A long, long way from Clare to here: the historic day Ennis welcomed home 'Ali O'Grady'

The boxer's visit to the birthplace of his great-grandfather was like another All-Ireland win, writes Barry Duggan

Barry Duggan

Published 05/06/2016 | 02:30

FINDING HIS ROOTS: Ali in Clare in 2009. Photo: Julian Behal
FINDING HIS ROOTS: Ali in Clare in 2009. Photo: Julian Behal

They have had some great days in Clare. Most notably the homecomings of the county's all-conquering senior hurlers in 1995, 1997 and 2013 brought some memorable occasions, but right up there with them is the day 'The Greatest' came to Ennis.

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In truth, the Banner men and women might as well have won another All-Ireland the way they greeted and celebrated Ali on September 1, 2009. The country was in the height of a recession, everyone was trying to figure out what Nama was and swine flu was a feared pandemic but all was forgotten when the great-grandson of emigrant Abe Grady came calling.

They couldn't have celebrated a Liam McCarthy success any better when they made Ali the first honorary freeman of the town. Bunting, Irish and American flags and posters were on display at every business and shopfront. 'Welcome home Ali O'Grady', proclaimed the banners.

Up to 15,000 people packed the streets and gave the then 67-year-old an ovation similar to the cheers he heard when he skipped triumphantly across the canvass.

The Clare homecoming made international waves with Sky News and Fox picking up on it. A specially erected screen was placed in Abbey Street carpark and when another legendary Clareman and MC for the event, Marty Morrissey, asked the thousands who was the world's greatest, all of Ennis roared in unison - "Ali, Ali, Ali…"

Frankie Neylon was the lucky mayor who presented Ali with his scroll of freedom. "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," he said.

To roars of approval, he added that Ali's work inside and outside the ring "truly makes you the greatest of all time".

All schoolchildren were given a half day while thousands of their parents simply took the day off work. The Turnpike area of the town was the place to be, where a specially commissioned sculpture of the boxer stood. As Ali's cavalcade made its way to the home of his ancestors, people jumped up and down on porches, clambered up trees and hung on to walls. All roaring, "Ali, Ali, Ali..."

Mary Grady Gormley's great-great granduncle was Abe Grady. "This'll be a very, very late night. This is as good as the All-Irelands in 1995 and '97. We'll be lucky to get home at all. As the lines in the old song goes: when Grady meets O'Grady, there'll be a ruction and a fight 'cause there's a hoolie at Hannigans' house tonight," she joked.

Ali was presented with a picture of his great-grandfather's home place by locals Assumptha Sheehan and Bella Hehir before meeting residents and shaking hands.

The never-ending Banner roars went up when Ali unveiled the statue. Ever the showman, Ali shook hands with all those in wheelchairs and pulled off his famous boxing pose to the delight of the assembled photographers.

His wife, Lonnie, said they were overwhelmed: "It is a rare opportunity that we get to come to Ireland and especially to Ennis, and to the wonderful people of Ennis. You have been so overwhelming in your outpourings of love to this man. We are sincerely appreciative and thankful to each and every one of you."

This weekend, all of Ennis and Abe Grady's descendants are fondly remembering the day 'The Greatest' came home.

Sunday Independent

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