What's in a Name

How Notre Dame became the Fighting Irish

When Irish freedom fighter √Čamon de Valera came to America in 1919 to gather money and hearts to his cause, the first stop was Boston’s Fenway Park, where a political rally of nearly 60,000 people still holds the venerable stadium’s all-time attendance record.

"The language you use here, the ‘Fighting Irish’ … what we actually mean mostly when we talk about it is an indomitable spirit, a commitment, never tentative, always fully committed, to life itself … that's really the spirit of the Fighting Irish."

Nearly a century later, when the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame descended on Fenway Park in November 2015, it was time to explore how a university founded in a northern Indiana wilderness by a French priest came by its nickname.

Surprisingly, one theory traces back to the visit from de Valera, who had been part of the 1916 Easter Rising and was imprisoned and sentenced to death. He was given amnesty, elected to Parliament and arrested by the English again. He escaped and slipped off to America to avoid recapture.

Barnstorming the country, the future president of Ireland was welcomed as a hero at Notre Dame on October 15, 1919. Accounts in Scholastic, a student publication, indicate that his visit tilted campus opinion in favor of the “Fighting Irish” moniker — though not completely. De Valera planted a “tree of liberty” as a memorial of his visit — only to have it uprooted a week later and thrown in one of the campus lakes by a student “of Unionist persuasion.”

A black and white photo of football team pose for a team photo on a football field.
The 1909 Notre Dame football team.
A black and white photo of a football team have mass inside a small trailer.
Mass celebrated by the Notre Dame football team on the road.

That’s one story anyway. Actually, no one really knows for sure how Notre Dame became universally linked with the Irish. All we have is conjecture. But that’s the Irish way, isn’t it? Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

It’s true that four of the six religious who founded Notre Dame in 1842 with French priest Edward Sorin were Irish; that nearly all of Fr. Sorin’s successors claim Irish descent; and that the student body has always had a strong Irish presence.

The Fighting Irish nickname was first coined for the Irish immigrant soldiers who fought for the Union during the Civil War in what became called the Irish Brigade, including three regiments from New York. Their valor was later memorialized in the poetry of Joyce Kilmer. That’s also the Irish way: Ireland’s poetry is often better than its fighting, turning defeat into eternal glory. The University has a valid claim to the nickname because the brigade’s beloved chaplain was Rev. William Corby, C.S.C., who later became the third president of Notre Dame.

The first use of the nickname “Fighting Irish” for Notre Dame sports teams may have been in 1909, when legend says that a player’s speech at the halftime of a football game against Michigan inspired a furious comeback. He reportedly yelled to his teammates — with names like Dolan, Kelly, Glynn and Ryan: “What’s the matter with you guys? You’re all Irish and you’re not fighting worth a lick.” The news reports that picked up the story attributed the victory to the Fighting Irishmen.

A painting of Fr. Corby giving general absolution to the Irish Brigade before the Battle of Gettysburg.
Fr. Corby giving general absolution to the Irish Brigade before the Battle of Gettysburg. This painting was completed in 1891 by Paul Wood, a Notre Dame student at the time.

According to historian and author Murray Sperber, the most widely accepted explanation of how the nickname settled on Notre Dame sports teams is more gradual but still dramatic. During the 1910s and 1920s, stereotypes and ethnic slurs were openly expressed against immigrants, Catholics and the Irish. The press often referred to Notre Dame teams as the Catholics — or worse, the Papists or Dirty Irish — because the school was largely populated by ethnic Catholic immigrants, many of them Irish. University leaders bristled at such descriptions, and school publications called the team the Gold and Blue or the Notre Damers.

This was also the Knute Rockne era, when the Notre Dame football team first put the small private school on the national map. Rockne’s teams were often called the Rovers or the Ramblers because they traveled far and wide, an uncommon practice before the advent of commercial airplanes. These names were also an insult to the school, meant to suggest it was more focused on football than academics.

Rockne may have been Norwegian, but he had the Irish flair for storytelling and drama. A natural salesman, he hired student press agents to tell the team’s story. Some of them began using the “Fighting Irish” nickname to characterize the underdog tenacity of his teams. They found a way to turn the derisive taunt, with its suggestion of drunken brawling, into an expression of triumph. Some students came to cherish the nickname. By owning the epithet, they transformed it into a symbol of pride. In the 1960s, the same process would be repeated for the leprechaun, which had traditionally been an English caricature of the Irish. Now, it’s the team mascot.

Knute Rockne buys a magazine from a boy.
Knute Rockne buying a copy of Collier’s, for which he wrote a series of articles in 1930.

Still, the nickname “Fighting Irish” was embraced by some and opposed by others by the time de Valera visited Fenway and Notre Dame. In a 1919 Scholastic issue, a letter appeared from an alumnus who criticized the nickname because many players were not of Irish descent. Others rushed to defend the phrase, with one alum writing, “You don’t have to be from Ireland to be Irish!”

In the early 1920s, the press began to pick up the “Fighting Irish” nickname to characterize the never-say-die spirit of Rockne’s teams. One of Rockne’s former press agents, Francis Wallace, popularized the term when he became a columnist for the New York Daily News.

A little-known event occurring in 1924 may have inadvertently contributed to Fighting Irish lore. In a recent book, alumnus Todd Tucker describes how Notre Dame students violently clashed with the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan in that year. A weekend of riots drove the Klan out of South Bend and helped bring an end to its rising power in Indiana at a time when the state’s governor was among its members.

Finally in 1927, university president Rev. Matthew Walsh, C.S.C., decided that the “Fighting Irish” was preferable to the school’s more derisive nicknames. He said in a statement, “The university authorities are in no way averse to the name ‘Fighting Irish’ as applied to our athletic teams… I sincerely hope that we may always be worthy of the ideal embodied in the term ‘Fighting Irish.’”

Today, Notre Dame has the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, with distinguished scholars of Irish language, literature, history and society. Notre Dame has an international study program in Ireland, and the campus is the largest center for the study of the Irish language outside Dublin. Above all, Notre Dame was shaped, and is still influenced, by the resiliency and deep thirst for learning of the Irish people.

That ideal was eloquently described by Ireland’s President Mary McAleese at Notre Dame’s Commencement in 2006:

"The language you use here, the ‘Fighting Irish’ … what we actually mean mostly when we talk about it is an indomitable spirit, a commitment, never tentative, always fully committed, to life itself … that's really the spirit of the Fighting Irish."