REPRESSIVE restrictions surrounding the visit of Muhammad Ali to the county town on Tuesday were lifted just hours before he was received at Waterpark House, where he was conferred with the Freedom of Ennis.
Until a close family associate intervened on the morning of the event, Ennis town manager, Ger Dollard, admitted that Ennis Town Council had found it very difficult to organise the civic reception and the former world heavy-weight champion’s visit to Turnpike, where his great grandfather Abe Grady was born.
“This was a pretty difficult visit to organise,” Mr Dollard confirmed to The Clare Champion.
“We were trying to deal with a number of different aspects. One of them was Mr Ali’s personal health, which, from the outset, we said we would do 100% what was required of us in that regard. But with some of the conditions that were being imposed upon us, we began to feel that it was making a little bit of a circus of the whole thing,” he added.
“But things changed dramatically early on Tuesday when one of the aides that travel with Mr Ali and is directly linked to the Ali family, came to our civic room at about 11.30am. From that moment on, the visit took on a completely different air,” Mr Dollard explained.
Too many chiefs and not enough indians didn’t help the town manager and those responsible for co-ordinating the historic visit.
“One of the issues here was you had too many cooks involved. We were dealing with Alltech. We were told there was a company 19E, we were told there was a company CKS and we were told there as an organisation called The Muhammad Ali Centre. It was proving impossible to get answers and most of the answers were either negative or were imposing restrictions which were going to make the visit, I think, an absolute disaster for everybody.
“But the picture changed about 11.30am on Tuesday morning, when the true spirit of the visit and the true reason for the visit became clear. The Ali family took over and decided what they wanted to get from the day. They certainly got it and they have left Ennis with Lonnie [Ali] describing it as one of the best days of their lives. I think that was the first time on Tuesday that we got any feeling that people were looking at the event in that kind of light,” Mr Dollard stated.
He says the Ali family described the visit to Ennis as the highlight of their trip to Europe, adding that Lonnie Ali was a rock of sense, amid the many corporations he had to deal with.
“An incredible woman,” is how he described Muhammad Ali’s wife. “She made the whole thing informal, very relaxed, very receptive. Certainly the Ali family completely understood the protocol and they completely understood that this was a town that wanted to embrace Muhammad Ali and wanted to give him a very big honour. He wanted it to be that way. We were told he wanted to walk onto the stage, he wanted to go to the Turnpike and he wanted to take some of the earth. This idea of curtains and everything else, that basically was option C rather than plan A, which was presented to us at the start,” he said.
However, on a less uplifting note, not all international media demands were dealt with in a manner the Ennis town manager would have liked.
“I think the media have experienced incredible frustration and a lot of that frustration has been taken out on Mark Dunphy (Clare County Council public relations consultant) and out on us. We had found it impossible to get answers to questions,” he maintained.
“When we got wind of this visit about three weeks ago, we had a couple of meetings with the organisers but the restrictions and the constraints were absolutely ridiculous. It became quite clear to Ennis Town Council that any member of the public who was coming to Ennis on September 1, may go away saying ‘what was all they fuss about?’ They wouldn’t see Ali – he was going through the town in blacked out windows! Media weren’t being allowed in and numbers were being limited for the civic reception. So the whole thing was taking on a very much cursory pass through the town,” he said.
Mr Dollard also expressed regret that the civic reception wasn’t available to television networks.
“The only disappointment I have in relation to Tuesday was that the civic ceremony couldn’t be released live to the TV networks. We pushed that very hard. Around 1pm we thought we had agreement on it but very shortly afterwards, we were told it couldn’t be released live and even at this point, I’m still waiting for what clearance I have to release any audio-visual footage of the ceremony,” he noted.
Meanwhile given that Muhammad and Lonnie Ali live in Phoenix, Arizona, which is twinned with Ennis, the towns may foster even closer links.
“One of the key things that came out of Tuesday was the Ennis–Phoenix connection. The Alis live in Phoenix, Arizona. Lonnie Ali was quite surprised and taken aback when she heard that Ennis had been twinned for 20 years with Phoenix. I think there is a lot that can be done with that connection and she has made a promise that she will be back,” he revealed.
As for an annual Muhammad Ali festival in Ennis, Ger Dollard and his event organisers need to draw their breath first.
“On the wider thing of festivals, I think we just need to take a little bit of time and sit back and plan to see what is the best way to take it on to the next stage,” the town manager concluded.