Why is Notre Dame called the Fighting Irish?

What does an American College Football team have to do with Ireland?

Notre Dame University is one of America’s most popular and famous college football institutions. But why is this midwestern college called “The Fighting Irish”?

We’re diving into one of the most prominent Irish sporting institutions outside of the Emerald Isle. 

Why is Notre Dame called the Fighting Irish?

Notre Dame

The Notre Dame college was founded by a number of French-speaking priests in 1842. Traditionally it was a Catholic school, and in 1869 they opened the first Catholic Law School. In 1887, Notre Dame football began. Because of the school’s Catholic background, Irish immigrants wanted to send their children there to progress economically and socially, at the turn and beginning of the 20th century.

While American football is known globally primarily due to the professional NFL, it is less popular than other sports in Ireland (e.g. football, rugby, hurling, and Gaelic). However, its popularity grows yearly because of London’s NFL staging of league games in the UK. Despite this, many Irish from the Emerald Isle or some of the world may not even know what Notre Dame is.

The History of The Fighting Irish?

One of the most popular and recognised names in American sport is the Fighting Irish. Much debate still exists around the origins and beginnings of this moniker. Several stories have come to light over the past few decades, and the real story is likely to be a combination of everything and a few unknowns.

Some of the theories behind the Fighting Irish include:

  • During the Civil War, the Irish immigrant soldiers’ brigade fought on the Union side. This band of brothers was known as “The Fighting Irish.” The brigade’s chaplain, Father William Corby, later became the 3rd President of the college, as the connection to Notre Dame was strong and thus the name stuck.
  • The “Fighting Irish” name resulted from a 1909 game where the university turned around a half-time loss against Michigan. 
  • Many believe that the visit from future Irish President Éamon de Valera inspired the name. After the Easter Rising in 1916, de Valera escaped British authorities via a visit to the United States and visited Notre Dame on October 15th, 1919. 

During the transition period (between late 19th and early 20th centuries), Notre Dame was known by many names. They were known as the monikers “Rovers” and “Ramblers” because of their eagerness to travel around the country to play the best teams in America. They were also known as the “Terriers” in homage to the Irish Terrier breed of dog.

Even though The Fighting Irish name grew popular, the university only officially accepted it in 1927, almost a century after the college was founded. Reverend Matthew Walsh, the 11th President of Notre Dame, accepted the name on behalf of the team.

Notre Dame’s 2012 trip to Ireland

The last time Notre Dame made a trip to Ireland was in 2012. 2012 ended up being a coming-out party under Brian Kelly, and the Irish earned a spot in the National Championship Game (BCS) against Alabama.

How did Notre Dame’s athletic teams get their proud nickname? The history of Notre Dame reveals a respectful and rich connection to Ireland. Over time, the University chose to honor that history by naming the team the Fighting Irish.

Father Corby

Father William Corby, born in 1833 to Irish and Canadian immigrant parents in Detroit, Michigan, served twice as President of Notre Dame but it’s for a much bigger act, that his name still rings true through the pages of history today.

In 1862, during the American Civil War and at the Battle of Antietam, the future Notre Dame President William Corby performed an act of mercy and faith on the Union troops around him.

Before the men of the Fighting Irish Brigade, Father Corby rode between the lines of the Irish Brigade (predominantly Irish Catholic immigrants) and shouted the prayers of general absolution, reminded them of their duties, and encouraged them not to waver as they held up flags. Officers said the scene was inspiring. These men were sent to rescue the Union flank. The fighting was bloody and brutal, and of the 3000 soldiers present only 500 survived. However, this attack by the Fighting Irish bought some time for the Union.

Interestingly, some rumours suggest that the “Fighting Irish” name was given by the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It was said that he enormously respected and admired their fighting skills.

In truth, no one knows how Notre Dame became universally linked with the Irish. As with many moments of significance at that time, it has been lost and remembered in a mixture of truth, lie and misremembering. But, the more American football grows in popularity, so to does the team.

Many Irish have some awareness of Notre Dame because of its nickname. Today Notre Dame (The Fighting Irish) continues its fighting spirit and is one of most dominant college football teams in history.