An estimated 1600 students greeted Eamon de Valera upon his arrival at the University of Notre Dame on October 15th, 1919. They stood in formation to spell out the letters UND with their bodies and repeatedly chanted his name. Once the adulation died down and the formal introductions were over, de Valera laid a wreath at the statue of Father William Corby, a former president of the university, who also served as chaplain to the Irish Brigade during the American Civil War. At a college which had just started offering classes in the Irish language and Irish history, the rest of de Valera’s visit went off equally well.
So well indeed that when the Notre Dame grid-iron team run on to the field in Miami in college grid-iron’s national championship game on January 7th, their supporters will wave banners that, in a curious way, pay homage to de Valera. As the current crop of players take on Alabama for the right to be called national champions, all those Fightin’ Irish logos on t-shirts and jackets and flags can trace their origin back to somebody whose favourite sport was rugby. When Dev fetched up at the campus in South Bend, Indiana, he unwittingly begat a legend.
Back then, the college’s footballers had a number of interchangeable and equally popular nicknames, including “Ramblers,” “Nomads,” “Hoosiers” and “The Fighting Irish,” the last moniker having a couple of theories claiming to explain its origin.
Some contend that a group of rival fans once chanted “Kill the Fighting Irish” at Notre Dame during a close game, more trace its emanation from one of their own players making an impassioned halftime speech calling for increased effort on the grounds that most of the squad were of Irish descent. All agree it may ultimately come from the heady reputation Irish boxers held in America in the last couple of decades of the 19th Century – the pugilists being equally renowned for drinking and gambling meant many priests at the university originally despised the “Fighting Irish” description.
No matter, de Valera arrived in this place to a rapturous welcome, predictably feted by students used to hearing critics dismiss their sports teams as “Dumb Micks,” “Dirty Irish” or “Papists.” Just months earlier, he had dramatically escaped from Lincoln Jail in England, and shortly before his sailing for the U.S. on a fund-raising tour, he had been elected priomh-aire (chief executive) at a private sitting of the first Dail in Dublin’s Mansion House. Against this tumultuous background, the president of Notre Dame, Fr. James A. Burns, caught the mood of the occasion and assured his visitor that they were proud to be the first university in the country to establish a branch of the Friends of Irish Freedom. Unbeknownst to them all, the seeds of something very big had also just been sown.
“De Valera’s visit applied momentum to the Fighting Irish nickname and the Scholastic [the college newspaper] began employing it in game accounts,” writes Murray Sperber in his definitive book, “Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football.” “After the 1919 game over Army, the student reporter wrote that the “game unmistakably rebranded the Notre Dame warriors as ‘The Fighting Irish.” In the early ’20s, the students’ fondness for the nickname also led to Notre Dame’s first mascot, an Irish terrier called Tipperary Terence. Other Irish terriers succeeded Terence, and the one in 1933, named Clashmore Mike, learned performing tricks.”
Eventually, the alumni decided that a whelping pup was not quite in keeping with the image they were trying to convey, and after a brief flirtation with a “lucky” black Kilkenny cat, they happened upon another symbol of Irishness, the leprechaun. More than 90 years after de Valera left town, Notre Dame continues to profit from its association with Ireland, even going as far as to drop the g and register “Fightin’ Irish” as the official spelling in order to better capture the authentic Irish-American argot of the 19th Century.
The historical exactitude is galling given that every item of merchandise the college sells still contains a leprechaun with his fists raised in classic put-up-your-dukes pose. Despite holding such a legitimate place in Irish-American lore — from legendary coaches like Frank Leahy to fabled players like Jim Crowley, the line is drawn — this famous academic and sporting institution seems strangely out of kilter with the modern world on this issue. It seems anachronistic to be making money off a hideous logo that is probably the closest thing we have today to those simian-featured Irishmen depicted in the 19th Century Punch magazine cartoons.
Worse again, students at the university actually compete for the honor of being named Notre Dame’s official leprechaun mascot each season. The winner’s prize is to gambol up and down the sideline at games, garbed in the most garish green suit, replete with floppy hat, wearing a red beard without a moustache and carrying a shillelagh as he prowls the sidelines. This ersatz little green man is said to bring good fortune to the team, although some may argue it causes offence to the denizens of modern Ireland. Indeed, it’s a wonder that in a politically correct climate that has seen other colleges drop native American mascots that were deemed too offensive, Notre Dame has never come under any serious fire.
All that stuff probably won’t bother coach Brian Kelly. Back in late August, he brought this team to Ireland to take on Navy at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, with many wondering whether they had it in them to break into the top 25 this season. Against that background, this has been quite the achievement. All the more so because Kelly has turned Notre Dame into a powerhouse while boasting just one truly great asset, defensive lineman Manti Te’o. His superlative performances have bulwarked an impressive defence that has been the main reason why Notre Dame, the most storied and celebrated team in college sports, may be about to win the national title for the first time in nearly quarter of a century.
During that fallow time, they have remained one of the most covered teams in the American media. All their games are live on national television and this outsized profile has often caused huge resentment towards them. Many college football aficionados believe any other university with such a mediocre record over a matter of decades would have long since faded from view. That Notre Dame has stayed in the spotlight is down to its unique tradition and, as de Valera’s walk-on part demonstrates, a history like no other school.