Emerald Heritage | Why are Notre Dame called “The Fighting Irish”?
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Why are Notre Dame called “The Fighting Irish”?

The University of Notre Dame du Lac, to give its full title, is one of America’s most famous college football institutions, but why is a mid western college, with a French name, called “The Fighting Irish”?

We decided to explore the history behind one of the biggest Irish sporting institutions, outside of the Emerald Isle. 

Notre Dame Football

American football, known on a global level primarily due to the professional NFL, isn’t as popular as other sports in Ireland, like football, hurling, gaelic and rugby. However, in large part due to the NFL staging league games in London annually, its popularity is growing year on year.

Despite that, most Irish from the Emerald Isle or other parts of the world might not know what Notre Dame is all about. 

Notre Dame was founded in 1842 by a group of French speaking priests. It was traditionally a Catholic school and opened the first Catholic Law School in 1869 and the first Catholic School of Engineering in 1873. The football programme began in 1887.

Due to the schools Catholic background, many Irish immigrants sought to send their children there in a bid to progress both in economic and societal standing. Thus began a long relationship that begins to explain the introduction of the “Fighting Irish” nickname.

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Notre Dame Fighting Irish Name

Despite “The Fighting Irish” being one of the most recognized names in American sport, and further afield, debate still exists around its origins and beginnings. 

Numerous stories have crept into public thinking over the decades and it’s most likely a combination of everything, as well as a few unknowns.

Many think the name derives from the Irish immigrant soldiers’ brigade who fought on the Union side, during the Civil War. This band of brothers were known affectionately as “The Fighting Irish” and the connection to Notre Dame was strong as the brigade’s chaplain, Father William Corby, later went on to become the 3rd President of the college! 

The name is also rumoured to be the result of the University turning around a half-time loss, against Michigan, in a 1909 game, and thus being dubbed “The Fighting Irish” by a watching journalist.

Another theory behind the name includes the first President of Ireland, Eamon de Valera.

On the run after the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, de Valera visited the United States in 1919 and specifically visited Notre Dame on October 15th 1919 to a huge welcome and fanfare. Many say the nickname was inspired as a result of this visit.

During this period of transition between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Notre Dame were known by many names. They gained the monikers “Rovers” and “Ramblers” for there willingness to travel the country to play the best teams across America.

They were also known, at one point, as the “Terriers” in homage to the Irish Terrier breed of dog.

As “The Fighting Irish” nickname grew in popularity, it wasn’t until 1927 that the University officially accepted and supported it. The 11th President of Notre Dame, Reverend Matthew Walsh, accepted the name on behalf of the team and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Modern Connections

Nowadays, most Irish have a general awareness of Notre Dame primarily due to the nickname. 

As American Football has grown in popularity, so too has the connection to the team and college.

The biggest example of that is the Emerald Isle Classic, a semi-regular college exhibition game held in Dublin. It first started in 1996 and has been held numerous times since. 

On two occasions, 1996 and 2012, Notre Dame have visited Ireland and beaten Navy on Irish soil. A fitting tribute to the nickname and connection. 

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