HE was introduced as a “proud Irish man”, and for those few lucky enough to gain access to the civic reception held in his honour, it was clear that for Muhammad Ali, Tuesday, September 1 the day he returned to his Ennis roots, was indeed a very proud day for both he and his family.
Ali and his family were visibly touched by the outpouring of support and love for this son of Ennis as he returned to his ancestral home.
The civic reception, in which Ali was conferred as the first Honorary Freeman of Ennis, was closed to many but that didn’t stop the crowds that thronged outside Waterpark House hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary boxer. At Abbey Street Car Park, proceedings were broadcast live to thousands of people, many of whom had travelled from all over the country to be in Ennis for the occasion.
Inside the Ennis Town Council building, the lucky invited guests gathered to pay tribute to the man known as The Greatest, whose great-grandfather Abe Grady left the Turnpike for the US back in the 1860s.
Speaking to those gathered, town manager Ger Dollard acknowledged the massive level of interest in the event and the thousands who had gathered in Ennis to witness Ali’s homecoming.
“The interest in today’s ceremony has been such that this chamber could not accommodate the many people that wished to be a part of such an occasion. Through the use of modern technology, we are joined by thousands of people who are watching this ceremony live on a big screen in Abbey Street or are listening to today’s ceremony on Clare FM.”
While Mayor of Ennis Frankie Neylon commented that Ali had certainly “lived up to that reputation” of being the greatest”.
He described Ali as “still the most recognisable man on earth” and “a magical figure known and loved throughout the world”.
“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. Your work inside and outside the ring truly makes you the greatest of all time,” he said.
President of Alltech, the company that facilitated the visit, Dr Pearse Lyons told those gathered, “We are here in Ennis because it’s from Ennis that this great voyage started. It’s from Ennis that Muhammad Ali’s Irish roots started.” He recalled how Ali first got involved in boxing and was set on the path that would change his life forever.
“A guy stole his bike and he thought he would fix that guy who stole it. A policeman said to him before you go beating up on somebody, why don’t you do something constructive rather than destructive and the rest of course is history. That is a lesson in inspiration for each and every one of us as we inspire people to be the greatest they can be.”
He described Ali as an “icon and a legend” whose impact on the world has transcended boxing. He outlined that Ali and his people stand for “respect, dedication, commitment and conviction”.
Introducing Ali to those gathered at the reception, Dr Lyons said, “He is an icon from Ennis, possibly the greatest inspiration in the world, the champ, a proud Irish man.”
Ali and his family were greeted with a standing ovation as they took to the stage for the ceremony in which town clerk Eddie Power conveyed the honorary freedom of Ennis on the three-times world boxing champ.
Ali’s wife, Lonnie, spoke on his behalf and thanked everybody present at the civic reception and everybody in Ennis for the “warm, warm welcome” they had received.
“I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is for us to be here and to be in Muhammad’s ancestral home and to finally know where his great-grandfather Abe Grady emigrated from,” she said.
The scroll of the Freedom of the Town was conferred on Ali and presented on calligraphy parchment with Celtic Gaeilge lettering. It was fitted in a piece of bog oak titled Heart of Oak. Mr Dollard explained, “Oak in the old thesaurus has its meaning as determined, strong and stalwart which are think are particularly appropriate to today’s recipient”.
The civic reception also saw the unveiling of a plaque which will be placed in the Turnpike area. The plaque forms part of a larger sculpture titled Wonder of the World which has been commissioned by Ennis Town Council from Michael McTigue, cousin of Michael McTigue, light heavyweight champion of the world from 1923 to 1925.
As a memento of the event, Councillor Neylon presented Ali with a print from the Lawrence collection showing an image of the Turnpike area in the late 19th century along with an official Ennis town tie. A specially crafted clock made from natural slate from near the Cliffs of Moher was given to Lonnie, while a copy of The Scattering – Images of Emigrants from an Irish County was given to Dr Lyons and Alltech for their contribution.
Also at the reception, Ali was conferred as honorary president of the Parkinson’s Association of Ireland.