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Opinion: Suggesting the 'Fighting Irish' mascot of Notre Dame is offensive is neglectful to history

Notre Dame is an iconic marker of the various expressions of Irishness in this country, writes Eugene O’Driscoll.

Eugene O'Driscoll First generation Irish-American historian

LIKENING NOTRE DAME’S mascot of the “Fighting Irish” to those depicting American Indians such as the Cleveland Indians, Washington Redskins, and Chicago Blackhawks is an argument that is a non-starter – not least because American Indians are, to this day, victims of abject poverty and systematic oppression to devastating levels while the Irish in America are generally not discriminated against in this country to a harmful degree.

However, a simpler reason as to why the ‘Fighting Irish’ is acceptable while the ‘Redskins’, ‘Blackhawks’ and ‘Indians’ are not is available. It is the issue of agency, of who is representing whom.

The latter three are franchises owned by white men who profit off of predominantly white fan bases with a brand depicting whimsical, caricaturised American Indians, promoting colonialism and racism at once while giving American Indians no real voice in the matter.

The ‘Fighting Irish’ was a nickname consciously adopted by a predominantly Irish-American institution. It was chosen to symbolically celebrate the school’s triumph in defying the prejudices hoisted upon Irish-Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries from various elements of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant America.

90272635_90272635 Anna and Frank Carlin in Temple Bar during tailgate celebrations before the Emerald Isle Classic between Notre Dame and Navy in the Aviva Stadium Source: Sam Boal via Photocall Ireland

In a sense, the adoption of this nickname, and subsequently, the leprechaun as a symbol for the school was an action that contested harmful and hateful stereotypes and flipped them into cultural markers of pride and self-representation.

‘Irish-American identity’

The name almost definitely descends from the “Fighting Irish” brigades in the American Civil War. One narrative claims that the “Fighting Irish” gained currency as a name following de Valera’s stop to South Bend in 1919 on his tour to America in order to drum up support for Irish independence.

Another credits its eventual salience to the frequent references of a writer for the Daily News in New York covering the football team in the 1920s for the city’s Irish-American audience.

While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment in which Notre Dame became the “Fighting Irish”, the message in its name is clearly a nod to the school’s Irish-American identity and to its status as one of the most important (if not the single most important) Irish-American institutions.

90272640_90272640 Sharon Opheim from Killen, Alabama USA in Temple Bar during tail gate celebrations before the Emerald Isle Classic between Notre Dame and Navy Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

It would be impossible and inaccurate to write a history of 20th century Irish-America without accounting for the significance of Notre Dame, in both sporting and educational contexts.

The “Fighting Irish” football team challenged the ascendancy in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s of schools which at the time were bastions of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant elitism such as Yale and the University of Chicago. It became the most successful and popular college football team in the nation over the course of the 20th century, evolving into a national spectacle which attracted the support of Irish-Americans and Catholics more generally from coast to coast.

‘Brainwashed by the age of six of going to Notre Dame’

At the same time, Notre Dame as an educational body is synonymous with the upward mobility and success of Irish-America over the decades. It is well-known that Irish-Americans historically emphasised education as the means to trans-generational social ascendancy over the years, and Notre Dame represented the golden standard of Irish-American education, from coast to coast.

For years and years, it provided an avenue for a high-level college education to Irish-Americans when Ivy League schools remained blatantly inaccessible for working-class Catholics.

Many Irish-Americans incorporated Notre Dame into their own idea of the American dream. To see their children and grandchildren go to Notre Dame was, and still is, a great wish for many.

I witnessed this firsthand. The influence of Notre Dame was so pervasive in the Irish-American community that, even 20 years ago, my immigrant grandfather, as a bus driver in New York, had me thoroughly brainwashed by the age of six that I would be going to Notre Dame.

To this day, Notre Dame’s connections with Ireland are substantial. The university runs academic centers in Dublin and at the iconic Kylemore Abbey in Connemara. In 2012, the famous football team travelled to Dublin to play a game in the Aviva Stadium, a move which was hitherto unprecedented. Notre Dame apparel with the leprechaun logo in question can be seen regularly throughout Ireland.

Notre Dame Training The Notre Dame American College Football team train at Aviva Stadium Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

The Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies is a world leader in the field of Irish Studies, in an era in which many think that higher education is crucial to the reproduction of Irish-American identity. The Irish Language and Literature Department is the first in the country to establish a major in the Irish language, and the only workplace in America where Irish is the spoken language.

As a student there, the reassurance, familiarity, and encouragement I gained from the Irish community almost single-handedly ensured that I sanely survived the depths of Indiana winters.

‘Neglectful to history’

To be sure, Notre Dame is not institutionally a flawless and authoritative body on what it means to be Irish-American. As a first-generation Irish-American student there, I found St Patrick’s Days in South Bend to be particularly cringy celebrations.

At football games, the marching band is bizarrely led by a line imitating the London Guard and I remember the Provost of the University once praising Margaret Thatcher as a “compassionate” friend of his in front of thousands of students.

Still, the “Fighting Irish” nickname is above all, a testament to the university’s historical and present-day status of a powerful and significant Irish-American institution, celebrating the symbiotic relationship between Notre Dame and Irish-America over the years.

To suggest that the name is offensive is neglectful to history, at best, and extremely damaging in the discussion over American Indians, at worst. It risks plunging to the depths of foundationless self-victimisation not entirely dissimilar from that of the promotion of the Irish slave myth.

Notre Dame, like St Patrick’s Day, is an iconic marker of the various expressions of Irishness in this country. If one actually feels that the nickname is guilty of “cultural appropriation” to an offensive degree, then they should also go ahead and leave March 17 as just another day. More green beer for the rest of us, I suppose.

Eugene O’Driscoll is a native New Yorker and an historian of immigration and the Irish diaspora, holding degrees from the University of Notre Dame and Oxford.

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About the author:

Eugene O'Driscoll  / First generation Irish-American historian

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