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Old April 18th, 2004 #3
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Default From google, Ali's Irish heritage

New York Irish embrace Ali as a native son
By Kerry Burke

Irish and Irish-American New Yorkers are celebrating the discovery of boxing legend Muhammad Ali's Irish heritage.

The Clare Heritage Centre in Corofin, Ireland, says a man named Abe Grady from Ennis, County Clare, who emigrated to America in the 1860s is the three-time heavyweight champion's great-grandfather.

"We knew it all along," said Brian McCabe, 46, a proud Brooklyn Irish-American and former fight trainer. "Anyone that could fight and speak that well has to have some Irish in him.

"What about Ali's greatest opponent, Joe Frazier?," added McCabe, toasting both former champs. "He led with his face -- there must be some Irish in him too."

Abe Grady arrived around the time of the American Civil War. He landed in New Orleans and worked his way up along the Mississippi as a laborer before settling in Kentucky and marrying an African-American woman, according to Antoinette O'Brien, a Clare Heritage Centre genealogist.

Their son John married and had a daughter, Odessa, who married Cassius Clay Sr. in the 1930s. Those were Muhammad Ali's parents. Ali, 60, was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. but changed his name when he converted to Islam in 1964.

Some Irish expatriots expressed surprise at the connection.

"I'm thrilled," said Amelia Peart, 29, a painter and Manhattanite from County Kildare. "I love him. Muhammad Ali is like Picasso -- I knew about them before I even knew about their arts. But why had we not heard before?"

The Irish ancestry was not, however, news to Ali.

When Ali visited Ireland in 1972, he mentioned his Irish forefather Grady twice to the press, but nobody picked up on it, said O'Brien, the genealogist. A researcher discovered the interview while preparing a documentary for the Irish language TV channel TG4, she said.

Some Irish-Americans said that Grady's marriage to a black woman was not very far-fetched, despite the racism of the time. After all, Grady's social and economic position was not far removed from that of Reconstruction-era black farmers and sharecroppers.

"Ali's Irish great-grandfather was as good as a slave in the 1860s," said John Murray, 36, a sound engineer from Woodside, Queens by way of Dublin. "So, it's no wonder an Irish immigrant laborer found companionship with an American black woman."

Others said that Muhammad Ali's Irish connection might not have been celebrated in the early '70s, when Ali was a prominent draft resister. While many within the Irish-American community were split over the war, relatively few shared Ali's political position against the Vietnam War.

"There was a lot of anger during the Vietnam War," Chris Burn, 39, an Irish-American barkeep and former police officer from Staten Island. "In my neighborhood people said 'Ali would fight in the ring but not for his county.'

"But we've mellowed and so has Ali," said Burn. "It's great that he turns out to be Irish."

Indeed, sons of Ireland are eager to claim their own.

"Muhammad Ali's poetic abilities have always had an Irish flavor," said William Cobert, 40, executive director of the American Irish Historical Society in Manhattan. And he follows a long line of Irish-American world heavyweight champions-- John L. Sullivan, James Corbett, Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney, said Cobert.

The president of the New York State Ancient Order of Hibernian, Martin Kelly, 59, gave Ali's ancestry a wider historical perspective.

"Ireland is the land of saints and scholars," said Kelly proudly. "Muhammad Ali is one of our scholars."