None so Irish as Muhammad Ali

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | June 5, 2016 0

Muhammad Ali arrives at Turnpike Road in Ennis, County Clare, the location of the birthplace of his great grandfather Abe O’Grady, with his wife Yolanda (lonnie) right, in 2009.


“There is none so Irish as Barack Obama” sang an Irish folk group when Barack and Michelle Obama visited Moneygall in Co. Offaly in 2011. They were visiting the home of his ancestor Fulmoth Kearney, his great, great, great, grandfather who left Ireland in 1852, in the hungry years after the Great Famine to start a new life in America.

Now with the sad demise of “The Greatest” – Muhammad Ali, we recall that Ali also had Irish roots, so much so that in 2009 he was made the first Freeman of the town of Ennis, the ancestral home of Abe Grady, his great grandfather. The astonishing fact that he had Irish roots an Irishman from Ennis, County Clare only became known later in life.

He returned to Ireland where he had fought and defeated Al “Blue” Lewis in Croke Park in 1972 almost seven years ago in 2009 to help raise money for his non–profit Muhammad Ali Centre, a cultural and education centre in Louisville, Kentucky, and other hospices.

He was also there to become the first Freeman of this historic town on the banks of the River Fergus. Indeed the town of Ennis has a tradition of freedom. It owed its initial importance as a seat of Brian Boru, High King of Ireland. It grew in stature in the 17th and 18th centuries as Catholic merchants in Limerick who were forbidden under the Penal Laws of the English Crown from living within City Walls migrated to nearby Ennis, which was not walled. In the 19th Century it returned as MP “The Liberator”, Daniel O’Connell who campaigned for Catholic Emancipation and the restoration of the Irish Parliament and in the 20th Century it elected as both MP and later its representative to Dáil Éireann (Irish Parliament) Éamon de Valera, President of the breakaway Irish Parliament and later Prime Minister and President of Ireland. muhammad-ali-ireland-390x285alihurley

The boxing great was no stranger to Irish shores and previously made a famous trip to Ireland in 1972, when he sat down with Cathal O’Shannon of RTE for a fascinating television interview. What’s more, genealogist Antoinette O’Brien discovered that one of Ali’s great-grandfathers emigrated to the United States from County Clare, meaning that  the three-time heavyweight world champion joins the likes of President Obama and Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. as prominent African-Americans with Irish heritage.

In the 1860s, Abe Grady left Ennis in County Clare to start a new life in America.  He would make his home in Kentucky and marry a free African-American woman. The couple started a family, and one of their daughters was Odessa Lee Grady. Odessa met and married Cassius Clay, Sr. and on January 17, 1942, Cassius junior was born. Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali when he became a Muslim in 1964.

During his visit to Clare he was mobbed by tens of thousands of locals who turned out to meet him and show him the area where his great grandfather came from. Historian Dick Eastman had traced Ali’s roots back to Abe Grady the Clare emigrant to Kentucky and the freed slave he married. Eastman wrote: “An 1855 land survey of Ennis, a town in county Clare, Ireland, contains a reference to John Grady, who was renting a house in Turnpike Road in the centre of the town. His rent payment was fifteen shillings a month. A few years later, his son Abe Grady immigrated to the United States. He settled in Kentucky.


Also, around the year 1855, a man and a woman who were both freed slaves, originally from Liberia, purchased land in or around Duck Lick Creek, Logan, Kentucky. The two married, raised a family, and farmed the land. These free blacks went by the name, Morehead, the name of white slave owners of the area. Odessa Grady Clay, Cassius Clay’s mother, was the great-granddaughter of the freed slave Tom Morehead and of John Grady of Ennis, whose son Abe had emigrated from Ireland to the United States. She named her son Cassius in honour of a famous Kentucky abolitionist of that time.

Muhammad Ali fought Al ‘Blue’ Lewis in Croke Park, Dublin July 19th 1972. The arrival in Dublin of Muhammad Ali in his prime – with all his wit, charm and astonishing in-ring skill – for a fight in Croke Park with Al Lewis was one of the most special moments in Irish sporting – and cultural – history. aliennis

His magnetism was obvious when he sat down for an interview on Irish television, as he passionately spoke about the similarities between the civil rights process in America and the struggle of the Irish, while also extolling the virtues of Ireland’s whiskey, scenery and sports.

The Skibbereen Eagle

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