Ali and Me – Sharing Irish Blood with The Greatest

by David Giltinan

RetroZap’s own David Giltinan has a little-known connection to the Champ–they’re related.

It seems that 2016 has been an especially unkind year when it comes to celebrity deaths. The passing of David Bowie and Prince earlier were hard to accept, but to hear that Muhammad Ali–the man simply known as The Greatest–was also taken away from us became borderline unbearable.

Like millions of others around the world, I was a fan of the boxer formerly known as Cassius Clay. He was as skilled in the ring as he was on a microphone. Being a fan of professional wrestling at the time, I considered him essentially The Rock before The Rock. Dwayne Johnson himself will make no claim to his gimmick being original in that regard. That just goes to show the influence Ali had. However, none could match the combination of gab and jab that truly made Muhammed Ali “The Greatest.”

While I admired his career, it was not until I learned of Muhammad Ali’s connection to my own family–the O’Gradys, on my mother’s side–that I started to take a more invested interest in the man. That’s right, me–a white American-born citizen with Irish roots–shares some of the same blood with one of the greatest boxers of all time. Trust me, I was floored to discover this also.

AliMuhammad Ali visits Country Clare, Ireland to an uproar of fans in 2009.

The discovery came when looking up information on Ali online one day. I noticed that Ali’s mother’s full name was none other than Odessa Grady Clay. Grady is an alteration of the original O’Grady, likely changed by an ancestor (whom we’ll get to soon enough) upon coming to America to avoid discrimination. Odessa carried the Grady name over from her father John Lewis Grady, who then carried the name from the mysterious Abe Grady. I say that Abe is mysterious since there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of concrete facts on him. However, this is what I have gathered from the man who would most famously be recognized as the great grandfather of Muhammad Ali, as well as the direct connection to the O’Gradys in my family.

It’s seems unanimous that Abe (original last name of O’Grady) came from County Clare, the part of Ireland where my mother’s side of the family primarily came from, and even still reside today. In the 1860s, he made a trip to America in order to start a new life, which was a popular decision for a lot of immigrants at the time. A popular notion is that Abe isn’t even his real name, instead being lifted from U.S. president Abraham Lincoln whom he admired. This was also shortly after the end of the Civil War, which resulted in him meeting and falling for an African American woman from Kentucky who was an emancipated slave. The only information I could find of her is that she carried the last name Walker.

From Ali’s family, they have the previously mentioned John Lewis Grady. Like his father, he also married an African American woman and emancipated slave with the name Birdie B. Morehead. One of their daughters would be Ali’s mother, Odessa Grady Clay. Odessa grew up primarily working as a domestic housekeeper and met her future husband–Cassius Clay Sr.–at the age of 16.

AliOdessa was a huge influence to her son and supported his boxing career since the beginning.

During Muhammad Ali’s boxing career, he was quoted in saying “she’s afraid of him” when describing his mother’s relationship to his father, hinting at an abusive relationship and troubled marriage. This part of his childhood may have also helped mold Ali’s mind that would lead him towards the Islamic faith and changing his name. While he denounced any white blood in him originally, stating that it was the product of “rape and defilement,” Ali did eventually come to recognize his roots after a trip to County Clare so as to bear witness to his great grandfather’s home.

I learned a majority of my information when in Ireland earlier this year. Afterwards, I had hopes to track down Ali so as to talk about our family ties. Unfortunately, that likely would not even been possible with how severe his Parkinson’s had progressed over time. My only hope now is to remember the self-proclaimed People’s Champ (sorry, Rock) for his amazing boxing career like everyone else. At least I can also hang on to the fact that there’s a part of him still fighting on inside of me.

Rest in peace, champ. You are greatly missed.

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