Saturday 1 October 2016

The magical moment when Ali came 'home' to Ennis

Barry Duggan

Published 06/06/2016 | 02:30

Muhammad Ali with his wife Lonnie Ali (right) in Ennis, Co Clare, during his visit to the town in 2009, where a plaque was unveiled on the Turnpike Road as he was honoured as the first Freeman of the town Photo: Julien Behal/PA Wire
Muhammad Ali with his wife Lonnie Ali (right) in Ennis, Co Clare, during his visit to the town in 2009, where a plaque was unveiled on the Turnpike Road as he was honoured as the first Freeman of the town Photo: Julien Behal/PA Wire

It was the image that resonated most when 'The Greatest' came to visit his ancestral home.

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Muhammad Ali was sitting in the back of a car preparing to leave the Turnpike area of Ennis, having just met other descendants of his great grandfather, Abe Grady.

Ali alongside then mayor Frankie Neylon Photo: Steve Humphreys
Ali alongside then mayor Frankie Neylon Photo: Steve Humphreys

Outside the Audi, thousands were cheering and applauding - they had just met the world's most legendary sportsman and as far as all of Clare was concerned, he was as much one of their own as Patrick Hillery or Brian Boru. Carefully cradled in Ali's hands was a glass bowl and piece of sod from Turnpike. The gaze of the 67-year-old was intently fixed on the mementos just presented to him, and a tear rolled from his eye.

Standing nearby was then Mayor of Ennis, Frankie Neylon, who had just made Ali the town's first honorary freeman.

"It was absolutely a magical moment. It's something that always stays with you," Mr Neylon recalled.

"His wife, Lonnie, was talking for him and she realised the expression in his face. There was no words needed. It's something we'll always cherish," he told the Irish Independent.

A woman in the crowd holds up a picture of Ali Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
A woman in the crowd holds up a picture of Ali Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The visit on September 1, 2009, had taken months of planning.

"People from all over the country wanted to be in Ennis that day. Media interest from around the world was incredible. I must have done 130 interviews from all over. Everyone wanted to know about Ali visiting the home of his ancestors," Mr Neylon said.

The ceremony at which Ali was presented with his scroll took place at Waterpark House in front of invited guests and distant relatives from Ennis.

But the real party was on the streets outside as his cavalcade slowly drove through Ennis. Mundy, Sharon Shannon, Tommy Fleming, the Kilfenora ceili band, former boxer Mick Dowling and Marty Morrissey kept all entertained at Abbey Street car park. "Ali, Ali, Ali…" was the chant of the day.

Shopkeepers in the town show their inventiveness Photo: Julien Behal/PA Wire
Shopkeepers in the town show their inventiveness Photo: Julien Behal/PA Wire

The crowds were 10 deep at Turnpike and every vantage point was taken. Trees, walls, porches, rooftops and signposts - anything that could be climbed upon.

Mary Grady Gormley - since deceased - was the great-great grandniece of 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," she said at the time.

Here, Ali was presented with a picture of his great-great grandfather's home place.

His wife, Lonnie, said: "It's probably singularly the most exciting days of our lives with regards to visiting a town which has opened its arms totally to Muhammad and adopted him and accepted him as their long-lost son. To visit his ancestral home and visit his distant relatives is an amazing, amazing day."

Before flying home to Kentucky, Ali stopped off at Dromoland Castle, where he met over 200 guests supporting the Alltech-Muhammad Ali Centre Global Education and Charitable Fund. Former Clare senior hurler Gerry Quinn was one of the lucky few to greet him. "To be in his presence was an incredible experience - I was very lucky. He was a legendary sportsman and all here in Clare will always remember the day he came to visit," Mr Quinn said last night.

- Clare County Council will open a Book of Condolence at its office from 11am tomorrow morning.

Irish Independent

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