By Dave Hannigan
When the University of Notre Dame’s football team take the field for the Fiesta Bowl against Oregon State on Jan. 1, their supporters will wave banners that in a curious way pay homage to no less a person than Eamon de Valera. As the players seek to end a season of surprising success with one more victory, all those Fightin’ Irish logos that will fill the stadium at Tempe, Ariz., can be traced back to the influence of Ireland’s first president.
In 1919, de Valera’s fund-raising tour of America fetched up at the campus in South Bend, Ind., and unwittingly begat a legend.
At that time, 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 emanate from the heady reputation Irish boxers held in America in the last couple of decades of the 19th Century, although the pugilists’ reputation for drinking and gambling meant many priests at the university 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."
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Just months earlier, de Valera himself had dramatically escaped from Lincoln jail in England, and shortly before his sailing for the U.S., 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 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 80 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 a tad 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.
Believe it or not, 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 offense to the denizens of modern Ireland.
That probably won’t bother coach Bob Davie and his players as they set about etching their names in university lore, but in a climate that has seen other colleges drop native American mascots that were deemed too offensive, it might be something for the Notre Dame authorities to consider.
The Fiesta Bowl will be televised by ABC on Jan. 1 at 8 p.m.