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May 16, 2012

Reviving the Fighting Irish: Part I

Reviving the Fighting Irish: 
The real significance of the words 'Fighting Irish' at Notre Dame

Part I:

May 10, 2010 

Notre Dame first caught my eye one Saturday afternoon during my senior year of high school as I watched college football on TV.  As the camera surveyed a sea of ugly-shirt-wearing students cheering their hearts out, I decided right then and there that I wanted to be part of the energy that filled Notre Dame Stadium.  Though I knew next to nothing about the place, I did know that I had found something special the first time I set foot on this campus.  Here stood an opportunity to become part of a one-of-a-kind community that takes tremendous pride in its Catholic faith, its academic standards, its athletics tradition, and its overall commitment to excellence.
As an incoming freshman, I arrived on campus completely ignorant of the unfathomable ocean of tradition that exists here.  Over the course of my four years as an undergrad under the Golden Dome, I came to realize that Notre Dame is far more than a university wedded to its football team, an elite academic institution, or even a major center of Catholic faith.  It is all of those things, but it is also much more. 
I now realize that Notre Dame exists powerfully as a "nation."  Dictionaries define the word “nation” as signifying “a large aggregate of communities and individuals united by factors such as common descent, language, culture, history, or occupation of the same territory, so as to form a distinct people.”  At Notre Dame, our unique culture has evolved from the earliest years after Fr. Sorin founded the university up until now, as those who are proud to call themselves part of the Notre Dame Nation continue to grow in numbers. 
The Notre Dame Nation is not bound to any specific territory.  Rather, it exists as a collection of all those connected by a common legacy, memory, pride, and language.  The seemingly endless host of influences that have come together to create this remarkable nation is awe inspiring, and the source of my inspiration as I attempt to learn as much as I can about the nation of which I am proud to call myself a member.

One of the most distinct peculiarities of the Notre Dame Nation has to do with the language used by its members.  A single two-word phrase has come to symbolize the combination of influences that binds its members together as they call themselves the “Fighting Irish.”  As a student of Irish Studies at Notre Dame, these words took on a special significance that made me want to know how they came about and what they actually mean.  Through classes and research within the Irish Studies Department, I have learned that the nickname signifies past connections between Notre Dame and the Irish in both Ireland and America, the remnants of which remain integral to the unique cultural legacy of the Notre Dame Nation. 
Shared language plays an essential role within any nation because it ties members together through common modes of perception and expression.  Language also ties the culture of a nation to its past by preserving its legacy through memory.  When considering the term “Fighting Irish,” which remains a common phrase that all members of the Notre Dame Nation identify themselves with today, it seems remarkable how few truly understand its significance.  In order to fully comprehend the culture of Notre Dame, knowledge of the origins and meaning of this phrase must regain a central place within the collective memory of the Notre Dame Nation.

My motivation to learn more about the term “Fighting Irish” and all that it entails also has to do with my position as the official “Leprechaun” mascot of Notre Dame Athletics.  The minute I was chosen to carry such an honor as a representative of the Fighting Irish, I felt as though it became my duty to grasp and embody the true meaning of the name as well as I possibly could.  I felt that if I could not understand why Notre Dame had officially sanctioned me to become the face of the Fighting Irish, then I would fail to respect the legacy that I was called to represent.

How did the Fighting Irish Leprechaun come about?
Why is Notre Dame symbolized by a logo depicting a short, squat, and simian looking Irishman with a scruffy beard, green suit, hat cocked forward, and fists raised in a defiant fighting stance?

Isn't it odd that the living leprechaun mascot, meant to purvey the tough mentality and swagger of a fighting Irishman by “brandishing a shillelagh” and “aggressively leading cheers” is also expected to represent the university in a family-friendly way as something akin to a living cartoon character?

As much as those two roles seemed to clash, I also had to reconcile my desire to become an authentic representative in terms of what I had learned through Irish Studies with the expectations placed upon me to become an over-the-top plastic-paddy stereotype who “supposedly brings magical powers and good luck” to Notre Dame. 

The more I became familiar with the position, though, the more I came to realize that the leprechaun stands as just one amongst many end-products of a long and complex evolution of what is meant by the words “Fighting Irish.”

My personal inquiry about the status of the nickname, logo, and mascot chosen to represent Notre Dame Athletics led me towards more significant questions of a much wider scope.  I began to struggle with questions regarding the various meanings of the term “Fighting Irish” in relation to both Notre Dame and all of Irish-America, as well as the myriad of influences that determine the ways in which these meanings continue to change.  Through my desire to understand this process, I came to realize just how much this important part of the cultural legacy at Notre Dame is largely unknown and underappreciated.  I therefore decided to undertake this project not only so I could gain a better personal understanding of the topic, but so I could convey the significance of what it means to be part of the “Fighting Irish” to others.

As graduation nears and I sit in the Hesburgh Library at a window just to the left of Touchdown Jesus overlooking Notre Dame Stadium, I find myself reflecting about the past, present, and future of this university.  The overall culture of Notre Dame has changed along with the times, and the meaning of the term “Fighting Irish” has followed suit.  Football was integral to Notre Dame’s early success and subsequent rise to national prominence, and it will always remain a central aspect of our culture.  Even so, the modern era of lofty academic standards, financial elitism, the big-time business of intercollegiate athletics, political correctness, and top-level competition in all aspects of the university has overshadowed part of the mentality that once defined our football team, shaped our culture, and gave rise to the “Fighting Irish” nickname.  As Notre Dame has become an increasingly elite institution, the term “Fighting Irish” has lost something of its past significance.  At times, it represents little more than a leftover reminder of a nearly forgotten past.  It does not have to be this way, though, and the relevance of the term “Fighting Irish” can be revived through efforts to make its meaning widely remembered and understood...

(Part II to come on Monday, May 21)

May 7, 2012

Reviving the Fighting Irish: A Weekly Series

Recently inspired by a Her Loyal Sons post that brilliantly put ND Football’s soon-to-be-worn “Irish Flag cleats” into context, I believe the time has finally come to share my thoughts on the “Irishness” of Notre Dame:

As I read the above-mentioned post, my thoughts returned to the 69 page senior thesis I wrote in 2010 for the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, which I dubbed: “Reviving the Fighting Irish: The real significance of the words ‘Fightin’ Irish’ at Notre Dame.”

As an Irish Studies student at Notre Dame, the phrase “Fightin’ Irish” took on a special significance that made me want to know how it came about and what it actually means.

As the official Leprechaun mascot of Notre Dame Athletics, I also felt as though it became my duty to grasp and embody the true meaning of the name as well as I possibly could.  I felt that if I could not understand why Notre Dame had officially sanctioned me to become the face of the Fighting Irish, then I would fail to respect the legacy that I was called to represent.

As we prepare to kick off Notre Dame’s 125th football season in Dublin, I see no better time than now to release a blog-friendly edited (and much shorter) version of my senior thesis through a series of segments leading up to the game on September 1.

My greatest hope in doing so is that we will not let this opportunity to return to the Emerald Isle pass us by without any real recognition of Notre Dame’s “Irishness” or what it actually means that we call ourselves “The Fightin’ Irish.”

(Part I to come on Thursday, May 17)

2012 Notre Dame Football Schedule

2012 Notre Dame Football Schedule
DateOpponent / EventLocationTime / Result
09/01/12vs. Navy Dublin, IrelandW, 50-10
09/08/12vs. PurdontNotre Dame, Ind.W, 20-17
09/15/12at SpartyEast Lansing, Mich.W, 20-3
09/22/12vs. SkunkbearsNotre Dame, Ind.W, 13-6
Shamrock Series
10/06/12vs. Da UChicago, Ill.W, 41-3
10/13/12vs. TreesNotre Dame, Ind.W, 20-13 (OT)
10/20/12vs. BYU Notre Dame, Ind.W, 17-14
10/27/12at Oklahoma Norman, Okla.W, 30-13
11/03/12vs. Pittsburgh Notre Dame, Ind.W, 29-26 (3OT)
11/10/12at Backup College Chestnut Hill, Mass.W, 21-6
11/17/12vs. Fake Worest Notre Dame, Ind.W, 38-0
11/24/12at U$C Los Angeles, Calif.W, 22-13
1/7/13vs. AlabamaBCS CHAMPIONSHIP
(Miami, Florida)
L, :(