Boxing legend Muhammad Ali was given a hero's welcome on Tuesday when he visited Ennis, his ancestral home town in Ireland, and was made an honorary freeman at a reception watched by hundreds on big screens outside.

Like millions of other Americans, Ali, a champion of the black civil rights movement, has Irish forebears.

The 67-year-old's great-grandfather, Abe O'Grady, emigrated from Ennis, County Clare, in the 1860s and distant relatives of the three-times world heavyweight champion were overjoyed that The Greatest was paying them a visit.

Shopkeepers in Ennis, a bustling town 150 miles southwest of Dublin, festooned their premises with boxing gloves, American flags and pictures of the boxer in his prime.

Residents of Turnpike Road, where Abe's home stood and a plaque to his great-grandson will be unveiled, had scrubbed their windows before the boxer's drive through the town.

Ali, who has been battling Parkinson's disease for years, was made an honorary freeman of the town at a reception broadcast on screens for hundreds of fans outside the building, and local schools had a half day off for the occasion.

Television showed a frail-looking Ali, who is in Ireland for charity events, making boxing moves to fans.

I believe every citizen of Ennis was lining the streets to welcome Muhammad home, I've never seen anything like this before, Ali's wife Lonnie told national broadcaster RTE. It was better than any medicine you could give him.

My father always spoke about Muhammad Ali, we always knew that there was a connection, Imelda O'Grady told RTE. Thank God we have lived to see this day.