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Thousands gather at the Turnpike to meet The Greatest

THE sound of distant sirens stirred the approximate 2,500 people gathered in the Turnpike on Tuesday afternoon. An eclectic gathering surrounded the protective barriers, straining for optimum position, from where they hoped to acquire a view of Muhammad Ali.

Gripped by excitement, dozens of children, most not tall enough to see over the barriers, peered through them. Many of their parents weren’t even born when Ali was king of the boxing world and a figure who spoke out on issues of race, war and religion.Making sure of a good vantage point for the arrival of Muhammad Ali at Turnpike road, Ennis. Photograph by John Kelly

Yet the anticipation was sincere, regardless of age, race or home address of the people crammed together in Turnpike on September 1.  
Decades removed from his peak, Muhammad Ali still has the capacity to unite and excite.
As for the sirens, the first blast steered a tremor through the crowd. A minute or so later, a guard arrived on a motorbike, pursued by a BMW.
Sensing that Ali was seated inside, a handful, including Kilfenora man, Johnny Keane, chased down the car, as it ground to a halt. They realised they had made a false start though when a couple of suited, unidentified yet startled passengers looked out at them as they scanned the vehicle for Ali.
The houses fronting the green in the Turnpike were laden with Irish flags and messages of welcome. Available balconies teemed with families, which seemed to have swelled in numbers for the day.
As the hour of Ali neared, the area inside the barriers filled with suit after suit, who mingled with the gardaí and what seemed an in-ordinate civil defence presence.
Most of the suits were worn by town councillors, county councillors and TDs, including Timmy Dooley and Pat Breen. They really came into their own once Ali arrived.
When he did, the crowd squeezed together in an effort to clinch a clearer view of one of the most iconic men of our time. They did this while attempting to keep their balance and hold either their camera phones or actual cameras aloft.
The politicians really hit their stride though when the press photographers and the television cameras trained on Muhammad Ali as he unveiled the commemorative plaque, cut in his honour.
TDs – Dooley in particular – and Breen did their county proud with their uncanny ability to step into view as the cameras clicked. While town councillor Frankie Neylon, in his role as town mayor, was entitled to be hemmed inside the protected ‘ring’, alongside Ali and his wife, Lonnie, what his town council colleagues and electoral area county councillors were doing there, is a mystery. Were the politicians deluded enough to believe that their presence was somehow necessary?
“In fairness, I can’t really comment on that,” Ennis Town Manager Ger Dollard said, when asked what the TDs, town and county councillors, were at.
“We would have invited people to the civic reception. One text I got last night said it was ‘respectable but stylish,’ was the summary of it. But in terms of the open area, [in Turnpike] nobody had real control,” he added, with reference to those who entered the Turnpike ‘ring’.
Such was the enthusiasm for Ali in the Turnpike, one young lad, who was no more than eight or nine, tumbled in over the barriers and hared towards Ali. Before he got there, he was picked up by a sprinting security guard, who put him under his arm and deposited the youngster back where he came from.
A couple of younger children enjoyed less a less eventful entrance, when they were selected from the crowd to meet Ali and get their photograph taken with him.
“Ali, Ali, Ali,” the crowd chanted as the man himself was escorted towards the barriers by his wife, Lonnie.
Back in the patch of the planet, where his great-grandfather, Abe Grady, was born and bred before leaving for the US, it looked as if Muhammad Ali was definitely moved by the reception accorded to him.
Half an hour after zooming into the Turnpike and 149 years after Abe Grady left Ennis, Ali clambered into the back seat of his car and prepared to depart. 
Before driving through the throng congregated on each side of the road, as the car nosed past the Alymers Rest and onwards towards Clonroadmore, Ali waved through an open window, letting those who waved back know that he appreciated what he’d seen and heard.
Eventually the crowd dispersed, reuniting themselves with real life, bearing a glow perhaps, resonating from Ennis’ greatest day since September 1995.

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