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Paul Vallely: Oirish emigré? What a load of Paddywhack

Reflections on Muhammad Ali's 'return' to Co Clare

There was one dissenting voice amid all the adulation as the 20th century's greatest boxer made his way down the Turnpike Road in Ennis in Co Clare from where his great-grandfather Abe Grady had set out for the New World almost 150 years ago.

Amid all the flag-waving and the cead mile failte was the voice of an Irish commentator who described as "cringe-inducing" the footage of Muhammad Ali's trip to the homeland of the ancestor who emigrated to Kentucky in the 1860s and there married a freed African-American slave. It was, said the writer Ian O'Doherty, shameless Paddywhackery by the gombeen-men of Ennis.

Even so, it is easy to see what is in it all for the Irish. It is yet another tourist attraction to add to the Blarney Stone, Bantry Bay and the Mountains of Mourne to lure in a few more of the 30 million US citizens who claim Irish ancestry. But what is in it for the foreigners who flock to the auld country in pursuit of some elusive dream?

It is easy for us Brits to mock. American history is, relatively speaking, so brief that its denizens are forced to look elsewhere when they feel the pull of their roots. Some 20 US Presidents – from John Adams to Barack Obama – claim Irish antecedents in some degree. Long before anyone had ever heard of Cassius Clay, world boxing champions bore names like Sullivan and Dempsey. Given the deracination produced by slavery it is even less surprising that black Americans should share the need to assuage the itch of this psychological rootlessness.

Many fall for the romance of it. My boyhood memories in the northern steel town of Middlesbrough were of parties at which the grown-ups would place dining chairs around the room and sit in a big circle, drinking bottled beer and port-and-lemons, and sing. Everyone had their party piece. My gran always sang the old Delia Murphy standard "If I Were a Blackbird". My mum, an Englishwoman, always did "I is for the Irish". In our Roman Catholic community we spoke of bonfire night, not Guy Fawkes night. The boys at my grammar school all had names like O'Brien, Flynn, Murray, Duffy or Murphy.

It was only later, on reporting trips to Belfast and Dublin, that I discovered that the manners and mores of my birthplace were those of Ireland. Our accents may have been northern but the rhythms and rituals, customs and cadences, tunes and temperaments, weddings and wakes, were those of another place. For many years I hankered after visiting Armagh city – from which my great-grandfather, John, had emigrated sometime in the 1880s – to track down Vallely antecedents.

I finally tracked down some Vallelys in the city. But though they were hospitable and pleasant, their lives were more removed from mine than might have been supposed from our shared lineage which comprised, my relatives said, the poets to the king of Armagh. It was another country and another culture and no amount of Oirish emigré nostalgia could disguise that.

Maybe this week the world's greatest living boxer realised that too, as Muhammad O'Lee packed away his souvenir tricolour and returned to his old Kentucky home.