Muhammad Ali: Boxer's ancestral Irish town pays tribute after death

image copyrightRTÉ
image captionThe town of Ennis marks Ali's ancestral home with a monument to the boxer

Muhammad Ali's death has been marked by the Irish town of Ennis, County Clare, where floral tributes have been laid at the site of his former ancestral home.

Ali's great-grandfather, Abe Grady, hailed from Ennis but emigrated to the United States in the 1860s.

The boxer celebrated his Irish roots and in 2009 he was granted the Freedom of Ennis during a visit to the town.

The then Mayor of Ennis, Frankie Neylon, who helped to organise the visit, has special memories of the day.

"On that particular day I'd say there were 30,000 people in Ennis, 15,000 of them in the car park, watching it on the big screen and 15,000 on the streets, watching the cavalcade when he came to town.

"There were people from all over Ireland, a lot of people from Northern Ireland who would be involved in the boxing family up there, and a lot of people from Europe.

"They just wanted to be in Ennis because the great man was visiting his ancestral home."

image captionThe then Mayor of Ennis, Frankie Neylon, hosted Muhammad Ali on his visit to Ennis in 2009

At the time, Ali was in the advanced stages of Parkinson's disease and did not address the crowds, allowing his wife to communicate on his behalf.

However, the boxer still made an emotional connection with the people of the town who turned out to welcome a long lost son.

"He was so delighted to be in town, you could see it in his eyes and the reaction of his face - the fact that he was home," Mr Neylon said.

The home that Abe Grade left in the 19th Century has long been demolished and a new housing estate is in its place but a monument marking the spot was unveiled by Ali during his 2009 visit.

image captionThousands of people came to see Ali in Ennis in 2009

Mr Neylon went to the site to pay his respects to the boxer on Saturday morning.

"We laid some flowers there this morning and, lo and behold, I was there at about 11am and people had laid flowers there earlier than that.

"So, when the news broke, people had visited the plaque since early this morning and they're continuing to call there all through the day."

Special Olympics memories

There were poignant memories too, for those who saw Ali at Croke Park, Dublin on 21 June 2003. It was the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics.

Ronan King was a member of the organising committee and deputy chairman at that time.

"It was a magical night," he said.

"It was truly a night of the stars and, probably, the favourite for many many people, was when Muhammad Ali was brought into the stadium.

"He had been diagnosed with Parkinsons and he was driven in on a golf cart. But he just stole hearts, the cameras went to him, there were 80,000 people in the stadium, if there had been a roof it would have lifted.

"He was an icon of sport and for the athletes themselves, he was the pinnacle.

"When Muhammad Ali came there was joy and, at the same time, tears. A great celebration of a great sports person."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionAli training in Ireland ahead of his 1972 fight at Croke Park - years later he would return as a guest for the 2003 Special Olympics

Mr King said that Ali was "more than a sportsman".

"He had a dream and he realised that dream, but he also charmed people. Even after he was struck down with illness, he still had that wonderful charm."

A highlight of that visit to Ireland was Ali's meeting with Nelson Mandela. They came across each other in a hotel.

"There is a wonderful picture of Mandela delivering the right upper cut to Muhammad Ali's chin," said Mr King.

"The expression, the fun and the outpouring, the meeting of two wonderful wonderful human beings will shine forever."

The three-time world heavyweight champion died on Friday at a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, at the age of 74.

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