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Jun 25, 2012

Reviving the Fighting Irish: Vol. II: Part II

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

Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies
May 10, 2010

In his book surveying the history of Irish-America titled The Irish Americans, professor emeritus of history at Notre Dame Jay P. Dolan pronounces that “the history of Ireland and Irish America changed forever when famine struck in the mid-1840s.” The same can be said about Notre Dame, which was founded as a small independent Catholic university just 5 years prior to the most devastating year of the Great Famine in Ireland, during which over 1.5 million Irish emigrated to the United States.

From 1851 to 1921, a total of roughly 3.7 million Irish left their shattered homeland for the Land of Opportunity, and it is estimated that over 90% were Catholic. Not by coincidence, this overlapped with the first real period of growth at Notre Dame. Giant increases in the Catholic population within America aided the development of Notre Dame by providing ways for the university to maintain enrollment and become economically stable. Since Notre Dame was “the only Catholic boarding school between Cleveland and Chicago” at the time, Irish Catholic immigrants who came from the poor working-class but still had enough money to educate their children put Our Lady’s University at the top of their lists.

The population of Irish immigrants coming to America and sending the next generation to become educated at schools like Notre Dame was strongly Irish-nationalist, intensely Catholic, and the vast majority joined the workforce as unskilled laborers. In response to this overwhelming wave of foreigners, a torrent of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish sentiment grew rapidly throughout the Eastern United States to a level that “remained endemic in American society for a very long time.”  As the Irish struggled to gain a foothold in America, they came up against discrimination in relation to nearly every aspect of their lives. Since protestant-dominated American society associated both Catholicism and the Irish with foreign allegiance, superstition, poverty, and vice, it was commonly believed that Catholic Irish-Americans could not be truly American. As a result, the Irish in America were feared, distrusted, and forced to remain “stuck at the lower end of the occupational hierarchy.” Bigotry continued even as second generation Irish started to become educated, and “No Irish need apply” signs became famous reminders that these newcomers were not always welcome in their new land.

Powerful negative stereotypes grew out of this common perception of the Irish. Once Notre Dame became prominent enough to draw public attention towards it, the same stereotypes would eventually be employed against those who were associated with the university as well.

As Irish-Americans became more relevant, stereotypes characterizing them in negative ways followed suit. The growing presence of Irish-Americans threatened the established powers of American society, and consequently they were largely depicted by the press as “an inferior race that was innately ignorant and violent.” Thomas Nast, who enjoyed a prolific career as the most influential political cartoonist of the era, popularized the image of a “monstrous Celtic beast” that reinforced negative racial images by depicting the typical Irish-American as a less than human “Irish ape-man.” Such images would remain embedded within American public consciousness throughout the era. 

Even as widespread stereotypes were purposefully engineered to degrade them and undermine their growing influence, Irish-Americans began to turn such negative images around into positive symbols of pride. Prizefighting became wildly popular in America during the 19th century, and fighting Irishmen soon dominated the sport. Its brutal nature attracted individuals with immigrant backgrounds who were out to make names for themselves with little but their toughness to work with. For this reason, Irish-Americans headlined most major fights. As the sport grew and newspapers brought fame to its top champions, Irish-Americans such as John L. Sullivan and "Gentleman" Jim Corbett became the first American sports celebrities. Such icons had a profound effect on the Irish-American community, which came to embrace stereotypes associated with fighting and toughness.

As society increasingly associated the exceptional ability to fight with Irish-Americans, these stereotypes created a general social image that in a way became respected. In his book Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football, sports historian Murray Sperber explains:

“The fame of these Irish-American fighters is the probable source of the Notre Dame nickname, “Fightin’ Irish,” but because nineteenth century boxing was attached to a drinking, gambling, brawling, and disreputable subculture, the priests who ran the university did not encourage or even condone the nickname until well into the twentieth century.”

To the rough-and-tumble crowd of fresh-off-the-boat Irish Immigrants, the reputations carried by celebrity Irish fighters became a tremendous source of pride for the entire Irish-American community. This newfound respect was also mixed with a sense of notoriety, however, and the “fighting Irish” culture clearly had a dark underbelly. By this point in time, the University of Notre Dame had become intimately connected to the Irish-American community through association. Though the swagger of famous fighting Irishmen did elevate toughness as an ideal throughout the Irish-American community, such roll models could not be embraced at Notre Dame because they were tied to lifestyles considered inappropriate for properly educated Catholics. Since the authorities at Notre Dame could not afford to associate the image of their fledgling university with such controversy, they made it a point to reject the “fighting Irish” culture and any images, stereotypes, or nicknames that may have portrayed it in a positive light.

Even so, the same forces that led to the commonly held notion of Irish-Americans as tough and dodgy brawlers translated onto the football field at Notre Dame, where the “Fighting Irish” nickname would eventually transform from a loose stereotype into the predominant symbol by which the entire world would recognize the university.

Negative stereotypes associated with being Irish and Catholic were applied to the Notre Dame football team from the very beginning, as recounted by Colonel Frank “Dutch” Fehr who played in the first intercollegiate football game at Notre Dame in 1887. Fehr recalled games at Northwestern that would evoke chants of “Kill those fighting Irish!” from the opponent’s fans. According to Fehr, such derogatory comments were based on religion more than any other factor:

“Although only a few of the players were of Irish descent at the time, sometimes the name became a synonym for Catholic. I think that was why the Northwestern students kept taunting us. Northwestern, you see, also was a religious school, but Protestant in those days.” 

Since Catholicism was commonly thought of in association with the Irish, any representatives of Notre Dame were automatically treated as though they were Irish. The starting 11 on Notre Dame’s football team in 1887 did include players named McNerny, Healy, Murphy, Sheehan, and Shaughnessy, though. With nearly half of its on-field representatives sporting Irish surnames, the team that would one day refer to themselves as the “Fighting Irish” did lend some truth to the reference made by Northwestern’s fans. Even so, such chants showed how stereotypes affected the common perception of Notre Dame through football. 

Such stereotypes that associated Notre Dame with Irish-America clearly had negative connotations at the time, but their implications started to shift as the Irish-American community began to embrace them as a positive part of their group identity. Irish-Americans took pride in their ability to overcome the seemingly insurmountable odds they faced as members of the lowest rungs of society, and as a result they adopted disparaging remarks made by others as symbols of pride that motivated them and bonded them closer together. For this reason, as Sperber explains, “Irish Catholics gloried in many of their nicknames, particularly the one given to the Notre Dame football team: the ‘Fighting Irish.’”

An early sign of this transformation surprisingly appeared at Notre Dame in 1905 when editors of the student magazine The Scholastic unofficially embraced the stereotype through a description of a recent football game: “The plucky fight of our boys won the applause of the crowd, who rooted for the ‘game Irishmen’ all during the game....” Even at ultra-conservative Notre Dame, identifying with Irish-Americans as rough and scrappy fighters had begun to lose its stigma.

Conveniently, Notre Dame football followed a traditionally “Irish” storyline during the early decades of the 20th century by boldly striking out to make a name for itself and the little-known Catholic school it represented. It became the first team to travel long distances in order to take on well-known opponents. As recounted by Sperber in Shake Down the Thunder, “From 1913 on, because of the team’s annual trips east and its other travels, Chicago journalists began tagging them as the ‘Ramblers’ and the ‘Nomads.’” The Notre Dame administration was not fond of such labels that failed to represent the type of educated Catholic gentlemen they strove to cultivate. These terms were generally disliked by the students as well, who preferred to be associated with toughness and determination over becoming characterized as hapless wanderers. For these reasons, the “Fighting Irish” moniker began to gain popularity as a more desirable alternative.

Even as the popular image of the fighting Irishman as a tough and strong-willed individual worthy of admiration began to gain momentum after the turn of the century, various names used by the press to describe the Notre Dame football team prove that Catholic and Irish Americans were still subjected to widespread prejudice. As the underdog Notre Dame squad gained recognition throughout the Midwestern football world, the press began to take notice and refer to these newcomers simply as the “Catholics.” Others were more blatantly prejudiced and unabashed in their dislike for Notre Dame, calling the team “Papists,” “Horrible Hibernians,” “Dumb Micks,” or even the “Dirty Irish.” Needless to say, these names were not welcomed by students or administrators at the university, who referred to their own team simply as the “Gold and Blue,” the “Notre Damers,” or “The Domers.” 

By using characteristics widely associated with Irish-Americans to praise Notre Dame’s style of play on the football field, members of the press also brought the university’s students one step closer to espousing such stereotypes as their own. An early example of this came during a game at Michigan in 1909 when a sports journalist allegedly heard Notre Dame star Pete Vaughan motivate his teammates by exclaiming “What’s the matter with you guys? You’re all Irish and you’re not even fighting!” 

Notre Dame went on to prevail 11-3 in a game the editors of the Detroit Free Press described by writing, “Eleven fighting Irishmen wrecked the Yost machine this afternoon. These sons of Erin individually and collectively representing the University of Notre Dame…” Once statements like this began to appear more often, such comparisons were no longer automatically regarded as shameful and thus slowly became more and more accepted by the Notre Dame community. In years to come, university publications would continue to elicit praise for the “traditional Irish fight” of the Notre Dame football players and students...

Jun 19, 2012

Reviving the Fighting Irish: Vol. II: Part I

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

Vol II: Part I:  Origins

Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies
May 10, 2010

Any full account of the meaning behind the words “Fighting Irish” at Notre Dame must begin with the original founders of the university.  Though they may not have consciously attributed their mindset to any sense of “Irishness” at first, they displayed the kind of character that would eventually come to be known as the “Fighting Irish” spirit.  Historian Robert E. Burns describes the small band of religious who founded the university in his book Being Catholic, Being American: The Notre Dame Story, saying, “The roots of Notre Dame were French, but half of the party arriving first at the site of the future University of Notre Dame had been born in Ireland.”

28-year-old French-born Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., the fearless adventurer who led this small group of Catholics into the wilderness, was described by many as a man driven by missionary zeal.  He was determined to establish a thriving Catholic university, and his fervor had an electrifying effect on his followers as he inspired them to stay the course despite the hardships they faced.

 Common legend at Notre Dame tells of Fr. Sorin’s return to campus after a fire had destroyed the Main Building, when standing over the ashes of the school he had poured his life into he said, “If it were all gone, I should not give up.” This short statement illustrated his sense of resolve as a man who came to a foreign land, settled in a brutally unforgiving environment, and eventually succeeded through sheer determination despite beginning with almost nothing.  Though he was French, his story was very “Irish.”

Fr. Sorin did eventually come to identify with the Sons of Erin as well. He sympathized with those who he saw struggling under intolerable oppression in Ireland, and thus made his support for the cause of Irish Nationalism known to the public in 1885 when he published his views on the subject in the Chicago Citizen.  Despite his public admiration, however, he also displayed some prejudices against the Irish that were commonly held at the time.  He had been known to claim that those of Irish decent at Notre Dame tended to exhibit “a penchant for complaint, and a disposition to blame others for their own failings along with an excessive affection for hard liquor.” (seems about right, even today…) Even so, his identification with the ideals of Irish Nationalism and the relationships he developed with the many Irish priests and students at Notre Dame allowed him to overcome his prejudices.  As a friend of the Irish, he generated an atmosphere throughout the university community that was emotionally tied to the very real connections they shared with Ireland.  Already infused with the “Fighting Irish” spirit by its founders, Notre Dame thus began to acquire a sense of “Irishness” as well.

(Vol II: Part II: to come on Monday, June 25)

Jun 11, 2012

Reviving the Fighting Irish: Part III

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

In order to live up to our self-proclaimed title as the “Fighting Irish,” we must attempt to revive the connections between the Notre Dame Nation of today and the legacy of our past. In the pages that follow, I intend to provide material that will spark a sense of responsibility within all members of the Notre Dame Nation in hopes that we can see ourselves as guardians of our own cultural legacy.
May 10, 2010

The direct source of my inspiration for this Irish Studies thesis came from the current president of Notre Dame, Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., who was awarded with the Gold Medal Award by the American Irish Historical Society in 2009. During his acceptance speech, Fr. Jenkins spoke about the enduring spirit of Notre Dame in relation to what it means to be Irish. He began by explaining how the university had become “universally linked with the Irish” throughout its history. In doing so, he mentioned that most of those religious who accompanied French missionary Fr. Edward Sorin in the Northern Indiana wilderness as he founded Notre Dame in 1842 were Irish, and that nearly every president after Sorin could claim Irish ancestry. Most importantly, he claimed that a “strong Irish presence” had always persisted throughout the student body. By starting his speech in this way, Fr. Jenkins acknowledged the direct influence that a sense of “Irishness” had on the early development of our cultural identity at Notre Dame. 

Fr. Jenkins went on to speak about the early history of Notre Dame during a time when “stereotypes and ethnic slurs were openly expressed against immigrants, Catholics and the Irish.” He mentioned the first use of the term “Fighting Irish” in reference to Notre Dame, telling his audience how the phrase, which was meant to be a biting insult, was turned around “into an expression of triumph” by the resilient and upbeat student body. Not only did this show how Notre Dame was directly involved in the Irish-American experience at that time, but it also demonstrated one of the ways in which students at the university identified positively with what it meant to be Irish in America. Whether or not Irish blood flowed through their veins, the men of Notre Dame were undoubtedly conscious of their “Irishness.” 

The story of the “Fighting Irish” continued throughout his speech as Fr. Jenkins related to the importance of football at Notre Dame, telling how success under legendary coach Knute Rockne “first put the small private school on the national map.” 

By travelling across the country to take on highly regarded opponents and defeating them, Notre Dame Football earned widespread fame while Rockne used the “Fighting Irish” nickname as a way to promote the “underdog tenacity and never-say-die spirit of his teams.” 

The “Fighting Irish” name eventually came to symbolize a mindset that spread to all aspects of life at the university, and it was officially endorsed as symbol of the ideals that the men of Notre Dame were expected to live by. 

The success story of the “Fighting Irish” at Notre Dame also played out within the broader success story of the Irish in America who survived and prospered due to their relentless determination and refusal to give in.

Fr. Jenkins further developed the main purpose of his speech by comparing the “Fighting Irish” mindset that had developed at Notre Dame to the mentality of “Ireland’s people” in both Ireland and America. He saw the same driving spirit in both, and he claimed that together they reflected ideals he regarded as crucial to the mission of Notre Dame. 

In making these connections, Fr. Jenkins emphasized that the best way to live up to such ideals was to understand their significance and appreciate the traditions from which they came. These sentiments mirror the main purpose of this project, which is to find to a deeper understanding of the changing role played by the words “Fighting Irish” at Notre Dame. Hopefully it can inspire all those who carry on the legacy of the “Fighting Irish” at Notre Dame and throughout Irish-America to do so with dutiful pride and respect for the grand tradition of which they are a part. 

The “Fighting Irish” spirit described by Fr. Jenkins in his speech has persisted from the very humble beginnings of Notre Dame all the way to its current position of prestige. Though some form of that spirit has always been present, it has also undergone a tremendous amount of change over time. During the origination and early evolution of Notre Dame, the university enjoyed direct connections with Ireland and a sense of “Irishness” pervaded the consciousness of the entire campus. While Notre Dame continued to evolve over time, that same spirit proceeded to take on a life of its own as it began to reflect what it meant to be “Irish” in America, and more specifically what it meant to be part of the “Fighting Irish” of Notre Dame. Yet as times have changed and this transformation has continued to take place, the term “Fighting Irish” has always remained tied to some manifestation of the same indomitable spirit that can be traced all the way back to the founders of the university, where the next part of this story begins… 

(Volume II: Part I to come on Monday, June 18)

Jun 4, 2012

Reviving the Fighting Irish: Part II

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

Part II:

May 10, 2010

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...

If our cultural legacy is to endure, we must revive our sense of respect for the “Fighting Irish” mentality that once brought success to our football team as well as our entire university. 

The privileged position that Notre Dame now holds must not blind us to the very reasons that we were able to reach this level of success. The health of our nation must not be compromised by the dilution of campus traditions or attempts to create an artificial culture. Rather, we must come to understand who we once were and what we currently are so that we can instill a sense of pride in all those carrying on the legacy of the “Fighting Irish.”

Efforts that could prove crucial for the preservation of our cultural legacy at Notre Dame range from simple acts such as respecting campus traditions carried on by the students, to larger ventures such as injecting future football seasons with fitting tributes to the “Fighting Irish.” 

First and foremost, we all must come to know and understand the history of our nation at a deeper level. This can be accomplished in part by educating our campus through efforts such as offering a “Notre Dame History” course for all incoming students and/or providing readily available materials to explain our history and traditions for all those who come to visit/study/work at the university. 

We must also look to our football program to set the tone for the future by embracing it as the single most powerful influence on our culture.

Flexible football scheduling provides ample opportunities to revive meaningful rivalries against historical opponents. If promoted and carried out successfully, neutral-site games in locations such as New York City and Dublin could also create remarkable occasions for us to honor the important historical connections between Notre Dame and the Irish in both Ireland and America. 

We could easily pay tribute to our storied past by hiring a historical advisor within the Athletic Department to conduct research and organize such events in meaningful ways.

No matter which specific course of action we take, though, we must make a more concerted effort to bring back a sense of responsibility and respect for our most vital traditions. Since we enjoy an advantageous position as a nationally relevant university with widespread media coverage, we must use our prominence to revive a better overall sense of our “Fighting Irish” heritage.

Collective memory, which plays an integral role within any nation, involves not only retaining information but actually understanding it and conveying it to others. Our ability to
protect the cultural legacy of Notre Dame depends on an overall reinvigoration of our collective memory. As reflected by the evolution of the term “Fighting Irish,” elements of our cultural legacy have become far removed from their original meanings. In order to live up to our self-proclaimed title as the “Fighting Irish,” we must attempt to revive the connections between the Notre Dame Nation of today and the legacy of our past. 

In the pages that follow, I intend to provide material that will spark a sense of responsibility within all members of the Notre Dame Nation in hopes that we can see ourselves as guardians of our own cultural legacy.

(Part III to come Monday, June 11)

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, :(