The Irish Come Home

Author: Megan Kelleher

Bt22 5 1"
Kiaya Jones

The Band of the Fighting Irish queued up their instruments to perform on the steps of Notre Dame Street — correct, not South Bend’s Notre Dame Avenue, but Notre Dame Street. The city of Dublin renamed their famous Dame Street in honor of the Notre Dame football team’s season-opening match against Navy in the Aer Lingus College Football Classic at Aviva Stadium.

The band's performance on Friday night, Aug. 25, mirrored the “Concert of Steps” the band performs before home games on the steps of Bond Hall back on campus. This scene encapsulated the whole trip for Notre Dame: Even though the Irish were 3,614 miles from South Bend, their time spent in the Emerald Isle made them feel at home.

The next day, Saturday, Aug. 26, Notre Dame began their 2023 campaign with the annual Shamrock Series game, taking on the Navy Midshipmen in Dublin. Estimates suggested between 30,000 and 40,000 fans flocked to the country’s capital, garnering the Irish economy roughly 168 million euros ($178 million) according to event organizers and the Lord Mayor of Dublin. Read on to learn more about the history of the Shamrock Series, the connection between Notre Dame and Navy, and what it was like for the Irish “to come home.”

What is the Shamrock Series?

Beginning in 2009, the Fighting Irish have taken to a neutral location to play an opponent in a “home-away-from-home game experience,” a tradition dubbed the “Shamrock Series.” The inaugural game was the 2009 blowout win against Washington State in San Antonio’s Alamodome and was the only Fighting Irish win of the 2009 season. Since its inception, the series has had a few interruptions, pausing in 2017 because of Notre Dame’s $400 million stadium renovation project, an intentionally scheduled bypassing in 2019 and, most recently, the unfortunate postponement of the 2020 Navy game due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s competition, a rescheduling of the 2020 match against Navy, secured an 11-0 Shamrock Series winning record for Notre Dame.

Why play Navy?

Although the Shamrock Series began in 2009, the annual Navy-Notre Dame game has a much longer history, dating back to World War II. At the height of the war in 1942, Notre Dame was struggling financially as the majority of their all-male student body had either been drafted or enlisted to serve in the military. Desperate to boost enrollment and keep Notre Dame’s doors open, university president Rev. Hugh O’Donnell, C.S.C., contacted the US Armed Forces offering campus facilities for military training. While the Army declined the offer, the Navy accepted, and established the V-7 program, or the “Midshipmen’s School” on Notre Dame’s campus. For use of the facilities, the Navy compensated Notre Dame $487,711, as well as a monthly stipend for every enrollee. The payment ultimately allowed the university to maintain operations.

In 1943, the Navy expanded their use of the Notre Dame campus, creating the V-12 program, which permitted enrollees to take undergraduate classes and participate on athletic teams while becoming naval officers. According to historian for Lou Somogyi, the Fighting Irish’s 1943 championship football team featured 14 Navy apprentice seamen (including 1947 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lujack), 12 transfers from the Marines and 17 Marine privates (including 1943 Heisman Trophy winner Angelo Bertelli).

Following the championship season of 1943, the entire staff, including head coach Frank Leahy, volunteered for active duty in the US Navy, bringing the total number of commissioned officers passing through Notre Dame’s programs to 12,000 people, in addition to the 35 military chaplains from the university that served. In a now legendary quote, former Notre Dame president Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., described the Notre Dame-Navy bond: “Navy came in and kept us afloat until the war was over … they’re the best friends we’ve got.”

The 2023 Navy-Notre Dame game in Ireland was the teams’ 96th face off and their third competition in Ireland. The Midshipmen first took on the Fighting Irish in 1927, playing each other every year until 2020. In their historic rivalry, Navy’s longest winning streak has been 2 games while the Irish won 43 games in a row from 1964 to 2006. Notre Dame’s 2023 win continued their winning streak from 2017, sealing their series lead at 81-13-1.

Origins of the “Fighting Irish”

Notre Dame’s connection to Ireland might seem obvious today as the school proudly sports all things Irish, but taking a look at the university’s history, the ties between the university, Ireland and the Irish are not exactly clear.

One theory looks to the university’s founder, Rev. Edward Sorin C.S.C.. Though notably from France, Sorin and some of the Holy Cross Brothers that traveled with him are said to have Irish ancestry, according to Brendan O’Shaughnessy’s story for the Notre Dame website. Nevertheless, Sorin and his fellow travelers opted for the distinctly French “l'université de Notre Dame du Lac” when founding the school. Unfortunately, there was no mention of a mascot back in 1842!

Some stories suggest that the “Fighting Irish” name might date back to the 1889 Northwestern-Notre Dame football game when a Northwestern fan shouted “kill those fighting Irish,” in reference to the Notre Dame players. However, there is no official record of this occurring.

In Scholastic’s Oct. 22, 1904 issue, there was a game recap detailing that “the plucky fight of our boys won the applause of the crowd, who rooted for the ‘game Irishmen,’” a nod to the high numbers of Notre Dame players who were Irish Catholics. Still, Notre Dame archives cites sports journalists in the 19th and 20th centuries calling Notre Dame players “a number of monikers, ranging from Catholics, Hoosiers, Rockmen, Ramblers, etc.”

An often cited story is the 1909 football game against Michigan, in which one of the players is said to have shouted, “What’s the matter with you guys? You’re all Irish and you’re not fighting worth a lick,” leading to subsequent game reports attributing Notre Dame’s eventual win to “Fighting Irishmen.”

However, other sources contend that a May 1924 fight between students and Klu Klux Klan members earned the university its “Fighting Irish” moniker. In the 1920s, South Bend was a predominantly Catholic area, making it a target for the KKK. But, upon the Klan’s arrival parade, Notre Dame students allegedly descended on the members and furiously fought until the KKK retreated to their headquarters, at which point students were rumored to have followed them, throwing potatoes at the KKK’s headquarters building.

The Notre Dame website leaves out mention of the KKK, claiming 1927 as turning point for Notre Dame mascots when Rev. Matthew Walsh, C.S.C., officially endorsed the “Fighting Irish” nickname. “The university authorities are in no way averse to the name ‘Fighting Irish’ as applied to our athletic teams … I sincerely hope that we may always be worthy of the ideal embodied in the term ‘Fighting Irish,’’’ said Walsh.

The 1948 Editor of Scholastic, Joseph A. Doyle, published an entire piece in the Dec. 10 issue about “The Fighting Irish” name, describing how the press used “Irish” and “Catholic” interchangeably as equally dishonorable labels. Doyle argues that, at Notre Dame, “a slur became a symbol,” as the Fighting Irish moniker pays “tribute … to the men of Notre Dame who pioneered in the spread of good will and a better understanding of the world around.” Doyle ultimately suggests that “[the Fighting Irish] stands for the fidelity and courage of everyone who suffers from discrimination because of his race or religion.”

Interestingly, the use of “Fighting Irish” has been under much scrutiny for the last few decades with some arguing it is a discriminatory and offensive label. Various articles in “The Observer” in 2006 described the term “Fighting Irish” and the associated leprechaun logo as “racist” and “stereotypical.” A 2021 survey conducted by Quality Logo Products even found that respondents ranked the Fighting Irish Leprechaun as the “fourth most offensive college mascot” in the US, a category that has since been removed from Quality Logo Products blog, which no longer mentions Notre Dame at all.

Despite the controversy surrounding the mascot and logo, Dublin locals seemingly embraced the Fighting Irish fans with open arms. One father-son pair, even donning matching sweatshirts with Notre Dame’s logo, proudly walked the streets, sharing they were “excited to go watch the American football game.”

Domers in Dublin

Events celebrating the “Irish Coming Home” began in Dublin on Thursday, Aug. 24, starting with a Mass in the historic Newman University Church and a film screening of “Nets of Memory,” a story of immigration and memory connecting America and Ireland, directed by Notre Dame faculty members William Donaruma and Ian Kuijt. Notre Dame’s Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies hosted several other cultural events, and the Notre Dame Alumni Association sponsored a service project at the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital serving the greater Dublin Community.

Friday night, the city closed down a portion of the Dame Street, creating a “fan zone” for the Saturday game. The following morning, celebratory events began with the temporary renaming of Dame Street to “Notre Dame” Street, evoking roars of cheering and clapping from onlookers. The Band of the Fighting Irish performed on steps across the way.

As tens of thousands of fans flooded the street, lines formed around a warehouse building turned pop-up shop selling Notre Dame-Navy game day gear, footballs, posters and the like commemorating the event. Even the Lord Mayor of Dublin, councillor Daithí de Róiste spoke at the pep rally style gathering on “Notre Dame Street,” praising the university’s connection with Ireland.

When crowds started to settle, fans headed to local eateries and pubs, such as the legendary Temple Bar and other dining spots, emblazoned with Notre Dame flags, pennants and posters advertising the event.

The city was certainly brimming with Fighting Irish supporters and football fans, but more than just alumni, faculty, and staff filled the crowd. One couple, Mario and Marica Gonzalez, traveled all the way from Avon, Indiana, to support Notre Dame football. Neither Mario nor Marcia attended the university but both had been fans since they were kids and had traveled to the 2012 Shamrock Series game at Soldier Field in Chicago, making the Shamrock Series an annual tradition for the pair. The Gonzalezes had eagerly booked tickets to the 2020 game and even rebooked for the match in 2023 when COVID caused a cancellation. “We didn’t go [to school at Notre Dame], but the second best thing is just supporting the university,” said Mario Gonzalez explaining his commitment to watching the Fighting Irish football team each year.

Navy did have some representation, though fans brave enough to don Navy attire were few and far between. One bold supporter, a former Navy officer on a graduation trip with his daughter around Europe, described wearing his Navy hat because he felt like he “just had to support.”

Hats were a popular accessory considering the sunny day in Dublin. Four alumni from the class of 1970, Bill Litgen, Greg Ziombra, Tom Lemker and Joe Kunches, sported their bright yellow Notre Dame “Fifty Year’s Club” hats. Reminiscing on their days in Keenan Hall before moving into Lyons Hall for their final two years, the men laughed and smiled, sharing their old memories with former university President Rev. Edward “Monk” Malloy, who arrived at the school 20 years after they had graduated.

This fanfare continued well into the afternoon until approximately 5 p.m. when the crowds began to migrate toward Aviva Stadium, where Aer Lingus was hosting the Shamrock Series game.

Game Highlights

The stadium was a sight to behold as the Irish took the field on a somewhat rainy day in Dublin. The game opened with both the United States National Anthem and the Irish National Anthem, a well-received nod to Aer Lingus, Aviva Stadium and the host country.

From the start of the game, quarterback Sam Hartman demonstrated his skills, going on to complete 19 of 23 passes for 251 yards. In Hartman’s debut performance, he managed to match 1994 quarterback Ron Powlus and 2021 quarterback Jack Coan for most touchdown passes by a Notre Dame quarterback in his first game with the team.

Other notable performances included junior Audric Estimé’s 95 yards on 16 carries, scoring the first touchdown of the game, and freshman Jaden Greathouse’s two touchdowns. Jadarian Price, Jayden Thomas and Deion Colzie added 6 points each to the board, with kicker Spencer Shrader converting all six field goals.

On the defensive end, Jack Kiser led with eight tackles, followed by Marist Liufau with seven and Xavier Watts, Javontae Jean-Baptist and Howard Cross III putting up four tackles each.

Overall, the team’s first performance for the 2023 season proved successful as the Fighting Irish came out on top 42-3.