DUBLIN - Boxing legend 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 the motorcade carrying Ali as the three-time world heavyweight champion visited the home of his great-grandfather Abe Grady.
Fans adorned streets with red, white and blue USA bunting and flags, while shop windows competed to display the most impressive posters honoring Ali — including one tongue-in-cheek portrait of him appearing ready to knock out an unpopular Irish politician.
Ali, who is 67 and battling Parkinson’s disease, offered a few playful jabs to cameras but made no public comments and steered clear of throngs of autograph-seekers, among them hundreds of kids whose schools closed early for the event. Police blocked off roads and kept crowds in line with railings.
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 before.
His visit to Ennis Town Hall was broadcast live on big-screen televisions outside, where locals also took in a live concert by Irish traditional musicians, including best-selling accordionist Sharon Shannon.
Ali’s wife, Yolanda, said her husband’s Irish blood might help explain his legendary ability to bludgeon his opponents with blarney as well as punches. She stayed close at Ali’s side throughout the public events, talking to him and steadying him as they walked arm in arm.
“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. If he were alive today I bet he would be in every pub talking about it too,” she said.
Mayor Frankie Neylon presented Ali with a scroll as he 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 (kilometers) 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.”
“We’d have dearly loved to have known he was that wee bit Irish. We’d have given him some stick,” O’Sullivan said, using an Irish expression for good-natured ribbing.
Ali was driven through the town to Turnpike Road, where his great-grandfather lived before sailing for America. He met several representatives of the Grady clan, most of them O’Gradys — the O connoting “son of” in the native Irish tongue.
Later, Ali was guest of honor at a fundraising banquet at nearby Dromoland Castle, one of Ireland’s premier luxury hotels. He planned to travel Wednesday back to his Kentucky home.
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