Paul McNulty takes a trip to Chicago ahead of Navy vs Notre Dame – that’s college American football for those not in the know – at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin, next September.
Irish sports fans can get misty-eyed when talk turns to ‘the first week of September’. Indeed, the phrase itself is best imagined in the dulcet tones of Micheal Ó Muircheartaigh - the commentator who once uttered possibly the finest passage ever conceived… “Teddy Mc Carthy passed to John McCarthy, no relation. Now John McCarthy passes back to Teddy McCarthy… still no relation.”
It’s a tribal and sometimes primal weekend, when the nation’s finest hurlers come to Dublin’s Croke Park to determine where Liam MacCarthy will reside for the next 12 months. Or at least that’s the way it usually is. The first weekend in September has always been when the hurling championship comes to its finale. Hurling has a strange grip over Ireland’s psyche; it’s played by less than 25 per cent of the counties in the country, but it somehow feels more Irish than any other sport.
It is, in many ways the polar opposite of the sport that will replace it in Dublin on the first weekend of September this year. While American football players are seen as multi-millionaires (at pro level at least), swaddled in helmets, padding, and under armour, hurling is a game where amateurs are given sticks and a rock-hard ball and proceed knock lumps out of each other for 70 minutes… on their day off from their normal jobs. Then they go back to their jobs as teachers or builders or accountants on Monday morning after entertaining the nation of a Sunday afternoon.
Indeed the difference is such that Notre Dame – one of the teams that will be appearing in Dublin – make a big deal about how their team have specially hand-painted gold helmets. In hurling, a recent rule that enforced the wearing of basic helmets promped a spate of retirements from players who felt the integrity of the game was being undermined.
This September, the football teams of Navy and Notre Dame will bring their show to Dublin. The lads of the Artane Boys Band must be a nervous wreck. With all due respect to them (though, really, do they deserve our respect? In the above clip – even the Queen and former President of Ireland Mary McAleese – people who deal almost exclusively in meaningless platitudes – look somewhat less than interested), once you have seen something like the Notre Dame band, it can’t be unseen. It’s an awesome sight, and all the more so when you realise that the musicians aren’t on scholarships; they just give anything upto 30 hours a week of practice just to be a part of the event.
Navy’s band is fantastic too, but Notre Dame’s is a 400-strong effort who simultaneously play while sashaying into geometric shapes; including spectacularly, taking the form of a fighter jet to pay homage to Navy on the day, replete with fire extinguishers to imitate the jet’s trail. Indeed after the game in Indiana last October, a wealthy alumnus donated $400,000 to the band to make sure they can make the trip to Dublin.
The two sides are coming to the Aviva Stadium on the 1st September, ostensibly to spread the gospel of American collegiate football to a wider audience, but while hardened, cynical Irish fans might dismiss their efforts as typical Yankee bombast, it somehow seems more than that. A rag-tag collection of Irish hacks (myself included) were taken to South Bend in late October to witness the full spectacle of a Notre Dame – Navy game in action. The game was meant to be the focal point, but it’s the spectacle that will stick in the mind.
The scale of the hoopla surrounding the game is mind-blowing. As well as the band, there are the throngs of cheerleaders, ushers and of course, the pre-game tailgate, which is a cross between a barbeque and a block party. To give an idea as to the scale of these things, Navy have hired the RDS for their pre-game tailgate, where the 5000 expected to make the trip from Annapolis will mingle with their Irish counterparts, while Notre Dame are currently talks to close the entire Temple Bar for their private party. Overall, over 20000 people are expected to make the trip to Dublin from the States for the game.
The relationship between the two schools was cemented in the 1940’s, when, as a private college, Notre Dame was struggling to meet its costs. Navy stepped in and made Notre Dame’s campus a training facility to help supplement the school’s finances. Since then, Notre Dame has pledged to play the Midshipmen annually as a repayment of that debt. There are constantly up to 500 Navy students based at Notre Dame, but they don’t live the life that any Irish student would recognise.
“ Whether that sort of bombast makes you cringe or makes your heart swell, there’s no denying it, it’s a long way from hurling.”
When wearing the uniform, Navy ‘students’ are not allowed walk on grass, be seen walking and talking on a mobile phone or be seen smoking; all so as not to disrespect the uniform. On top of this all midshipmen must hold their plain leather schoolbag in their left hand, so as to leave their right hand free to salute superior officers.
The ultimate superior officer at Notre Dame, however, is the man above. The college is an overtly Catholic institution, and one of the main gripes when current head coach Brian Kelly was appointed was that he had previously adopted a pro-choice stance. (This furore was replicated in 2009 when Catholic bishops protested against the conferral of an honorary degree on Barack Obama because of his pro-abortion and pro stem cell stance.)
Even the spectacular halftime show was prefaced with a speech entitled ‘God, America and the Navy.’ It’s sometimes hard to deal with, but even though over 85 per cent of the student body in Notre Dame are Catholic, it’s not a tub-thumping sort of evangelism. A 134ft mural of Jesus on the side of the Hesburgh Library in Notre Dame, with arms outstretched is visible from most parts of the stadium. Typical of the way that football is inextricably intermingled with religion in Notre Dame, the mural is nicknamed ‘Touchdown Jesus’. There is a also statue of Jesus, arms outstretched, facing the Main Building, which is topped by the Golden Dome and a statue of Mary. The statue of Jesus has an inscription ‘Venite Ad Me Omnes’, (Which means come to me all) which Notre Dame students refer to it as ‘Jump Mom, I’ll Catch You’. (Editor’s note. Massive thanks to Grannykiller.com reader DJ for setting us straight on this!)
At the beginning of the game, two F-18 fighter planes whoosh overhead. The typical Irish response would be to wonder how much this would cost the government, but such thoughts don’t seem to exist in American college football. The attitude seems to be; Navy are playing, why wouldn’t there be fighter jets whizzing around? Indeed there is an officer based at the Naval Academy whose sole function is the organisation of flyovers.
Before the game, all the Navy cadets, in full militaristic get-up, march through the grounds at South Bend to take their seats in the stadium. This march, of over 2000 men and women is solemly watched and applauded by both Navy and Notre Dame fans alike. Indeed one boy, dressed from head-to-toe in Notre Dame regalia, turned to his father and asked him why they were applauding Navy, their so-called rivals for the day. Without irony nor agenda, the father turned to the kid, and said solemnly: ‘Because they protect our country, son.’
Whether that sort of bombast makes you cringe or makes your heart swell, there’s no denying it, it’s a long way from hurling.
* Check back next week when we will publish the ultimate guide to Dublin for all Notre Dame (and Navy) fans coming here in September. Any questions or issues? Just leave a comment below and we will address it for you!