There are a few different narratives as to why the University of Notre Dame is called the ‘Fighting Irish.’
There was one incident that is often referenced in how the nickname became fortified within the football ranks of the famous Indiana University.
Back in the 1920s, there was a lot of anti-immigration sentiment throughout the United States, and in Indiana, anti-Catholic rhetoric was entrenched at the time. When the Ku Klux Klan planned a rally in 1924, it provoked a violent reaction from around 500 Notre Dame students, many of whom were of Irish descent.
The clashes were violent and included the students venturing to the local Klan office in South Bend where they started breaking the windows of the building by hurling potatoes from a grocery store located out front on the ground floor.
On the third floor of the building, there was a cross lit up with red lights outside the Klan headquarters. After the initial barrage, all the lights on the cross had been broken with the exception of the very top bulb.
Enter the Notre Dame quarterback Harry Stuhldreher, who let fly with a potato and hit his target with his first effort to the gushing support of his comrades.
The conflict garnered a lot of attention at the time and local newspaper headlines included: “Klan display in South Bend proves failure” and “Notre Dame Students Clash with Kluxers.” There is even a report that the county sheriff deputized 30 Klansmen to deal with the “lawlessness.”
On the third day of the conflict, as the violence threatened to get out of control, matters were calmed down by the arrival of President of Notre Dame Fr Matthew J. Walsh, who stated: “I should dislike very much, to be obliged to make explanations to the parents of any student who might be injured or even killed.”
During the rest of the decade, as Coach Knute Rockne’s successful football teams were characterized by a never-say-die attitude, the ‘Fighting Irish’ moniker picked up traction. Indeed, it was Fr Walsh himself who authorized its use as Notre Dame’s official nickname in 1927.
The Notre Dame football team has been on my mind due to their recent visit to Dublin where they started their college football season with a comfortable win against Navy. The game brought over $50 million into the Irish economy as Notre Dame brought a reported 39,000 supporters from the USA. All in all, it was a very successful event and it has been remarked to me that the Americans brought with them a lot of cheer and created a great buzz around Dublin as they warmed up for the match in the pubs around the city and in the fan zone downtown.
The sport of American Football continues to gain in popularity in Ireland, especially amongst the younger generations, who recognise the stars of the NFL just as easily as the top Premier League soccer players.
Last summer, the University of Limerick hosted a European flag football tournament, while this year Daniel Whelan became the first Irishman this century to make an NFL squad, when he was named the starting punter for the Green Bay Packers.
With each college game continuing to sell out in Dublin, the prospect of Ireland hosting an NFL game is on the horizon.
The Steelers are the team that makes the most sense given the Rooney family’s long-fostered connections to Ireland. It was a little over 10 years ago when Dan Rooney was the American ambassador to Ireland. I read his book about his 75 years with the Steelers that came out in 2007 and I liked the story he wrote about the time he brought his dad, Art Rooney, to Ireland for the first time:
“In the summer of 1975 following our Super Bowl victory, Tim and I brought Dad with us on his first visit to Ireland.
“The Rooneys originated in Newry, County Down, a small town about 35 miles south of Belfast. His (Art) father was actually born in Wales, where his grandfather had gone to find work. ‘Doesn’t that make you Welsh?’
“He would always say: ‘If a cat gave birth in an oven, would you call her kittens biscuits?’
“The Rooneys are Irish through and through. My father was proud of his Irish roots but he was even prouder to be an American.”
Over the last year or so, the Pittsburgh Steelers have built up a working partnership with the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), which is the largest sporting organization in Ireland. This November, the GAA headquarters are hosting a Steelers Watch Party when Pittsburgh plays the Cleveland Browns in the return AFC North divisional game.
The building of these ties is with the hope that the team will play an NFL game at Croke Park in the medium future and I believe the current expectation is that the Pittsburgh Steelers will play a game in Dublin within the next five years.
Such is the rising interest in American Football by the average sports fan in Ireland, a Pittsburgh Steelers game would sell out in minutes, while Steelers fans from all over Europe and the States would also be clamoring to bear witness to such a historic occasion.
At this point in time, the NFL in Dublin looks less of a possibility and more of a probability with every passing season.