For some reason, the term “Fighting Irish” has survived the many determined efforts to scrub away ethnic stereotypes associated with the mascots of this nation’s many athletic teams.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association has told the University of North Dakota that its “Fighting Sioux” mascot must go, but somehow the “Fighting Irish” live on in South Bend, much to the delight of Irishmen and Irishwomen everywhere.
Tomorrow night, the Fighting Irish will be in the spotlight once again as we’re all treated to college football’s version of the Super Bowl when two of the most storied programs ever to play the game meet in Miami for the national championship.
Yes, it will be undefeated and No. 1 Notre Dame against once-beaten and No. 2 Alabama, but despite their respective rankings, Alabama is a heavy favorite to win the game.
While only a handful of college football programs can lay claim to a national title, both Notre Dame and Alabama have each won more than their fair share, though Notre Dame has been absent from the winner’s circle far longer than has Alabama.
As the very excellent William McGurn wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, “Remember that the phrase ‘Fighting Irish’ originated as an ethnic and religious slur. It was partly for that reason that millions of new Americans — not just Irish, but Italians, Poles, Germans — saw in Notre Dame’s victories on the football field a reflection of their own struggles and aspirations in this new promised land.”
As an Irish Catholic kid growing up in a small town in Northern California, I faced no such discrimination. We didn’t have “ethnic” neighborhoods in Davis. I knew nothing of the discrimination against Catholics in this country’s early history.
I do remember my two older sisters were unable to participate in some sort of privately run, after-school dance class because it was to be held in a hall downtown that was owned by an organization that regarded Catholics as weird if not downright evil. My sisters didn’t understand the “why” of it and neither did I, but it didn’t scar us for life. Then again, I couldn’t for the life of me reason why anyone would want to take a dance class after school in the first place.
I do know that being Irish Catholic meant a good deal to my dad, the World War II veteran who proudly voted for General Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, but suddenly switched allegiances to help elect the first — and only — Irish Catholic president in 1960.
While some commentators were certain that John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism would cost him the presidency, it in fact assured his victory. While only 45 percent of Catholics voted for the Democratic candidate in 1956, nearly 80 percent of Catholics voted for JFK four years later.
For my dad, that allegiance to all things Catholic carried over to the gridiron, where rooting for Notre Dame on a Saturday was as regular as going to Mass on Sunday morning.
While he clearly loved his alma mater in Corvallis, there was always room in his heart for Notre Dame football. Fortunately for Dad, Oregon State and Notre Dame never met on the field of play during his lifetime.
As young Catholic kids, we were all expected to attend Catechism class on Saturday mornings at the old brick church at Fifth and C (now the Newman Center). We wouldn’t be back home until nearly noon, which, given the time difference between Davis and South Bend, meant the Notre Dame game would be well into the second half.
Although he knew he was risking the fate of both my soul and his, Dad regularly let me smuggle that new-fangled gadget known as a transistor radio into Catechism class, where I would sit as far to the back of the church as God would allow.
One Saturday morning, as I was feeling guilty about my transistor-induced inattention to the lesson at hand (Notre Dame was about to halt Oklahoma’s 47-game winning streak that remains a record to this day), Father Degnan — himself a Fighting Irishman — wandered back to the rear pew and, with a twinkle in his eye, asked “Do you happen to know the Notre Dame score?”
Fighting Irish 20, Crimson Tide 17.
— Reach Bob Dunning at firstname.lastname@example.org