Athletics and Recreation

Why the French-Founded Notre Dame School’s Athletic Teams are the Fighting Irish

Why the French-Founded Notre Dame School’s Athletic Teams are the Fighting Irish


When the green and blue uniformed athletes
of the University of Notre Dame run on to the field or court, their fans are rooting
for the “Fighting Irish.” Represented by a small green leprechaun- hat
tilted with his fists up, ready to fight- the athletic teams of this South Bend, Indiana
Catholic school have been playing under this moniker for, officially, 87 years. But here’s the thing: the school was actually
founded by French Catholic priests, not Irish Catholics. So, how did Notre Dame become the “Fighting
Irish?” Shouldn’t they be called the “Fighting
French?” In November 1842, eight members of the newly-established
Congregation of Holy Cross, based in a small village outside of Le Mans, France, were given
524 acres of land by the Bishop of Vincennes in the, at the time, 35-year-old state of
Indiana. Within two years, they had established a school
on the land. A 29-year-old French priest, Edward Sorin,
named the school “L’Université de Notre Dame du Lac,” or the “University of Our
Lady of the Lake.” The school was Catholic and all-male (and
would stay that way for 128 years, until 1972 when it became coed). In 1879, a fire destroyed the Main Building. Always a religious man, Sorin said, I came here as a young man and dreamed of
building a great university in honor of Our Lady. But I built it too small, and she had to burn
it to the ground to make the point. So, tomorrow, as soon as the bricks cool,
we will rebuild it, bigger and better than ever. And they did rebuild, indeed making the school
bigger and better than before as was vowed. Less than a decade later, in 1887, the athletic
department even established a football team. The game of (American) football has its origins
in rugby, first played in English public schools during the mid-19th century. The rules and how the game was played varied
from place to place, but when the game made its way over to America, it developed into
something a little different. Many historians believe that American football
can be traced back to a game played between Rutgers University and Princeton in 1869. Using modified London Football Association
rules, the game quickly took off among eastern colleges. In 1876, Walter Camp, a Yale grad and coach
who would become known as the “Father of American Football,” proposed a line of scrimmage,
as well as down and distance rules, forever separating it from rugby. The game expanded very quickly, gaining favor
on the east coast all the way to the Midwest. In 1880, there were only eight universities
that fielded collegiate football teams. By the turn of the century, there were 43. One of those was Notre Dame. On November 23, 1887, Notre Dame and Michigan
matched up. 127 years later, their rivalry is still going. On that November day, Michigan won eight to
zero, though as the Scholastic, the University’s student magazine, pointed out, it was never
meant to be a particularly competitive game: It was not considered a match contest, as
the home team had been organized only a few weeks, and the Michigan boys, the champions
of the West, came more to instruct them in the points of the Rugby game than to win fresh
laurels. Over the next twelve seasons, the Notre Dame
football team compiled a 25-11-3 record against the other intercollegiate teams under the
nickname the “Catholics.” Many of these other college teams they beat
were also Catholic schools- Boston College, Fordham, and Holy Cross just to name a few. As opposed to Notre Dame’s French background,
they were founded by, and intended for, recently immigrated Irish Catholics. The Irish Potato Famine of 1845 convinced
many to make their way across the Atlantic to America. As they settled in eastern cities, they desired
a place for, or at least to aspire to, a higher education. These colleges represented upward mobility
and the ability for anyone to make it in America. As recent immigrants to this country, the
view of the Irish were colored by pretty jingoistic views. They were known as drunks and “brutes,”
while possessing a violent temper. Even future President Theodore Roosevelt,
while a New York State Assembly Member, had some choice words to say about the Irish,
“The average Catholic Irishman of the first generation, as represented in the Assembly
[is a] low, venal, corrupt, and unintelligent brute.” To call someone Irish was to imply that they
were uncivilized, violent, and un-American. In other words, it was an insult. So this brings us to the nickname. It seems that not even the University itself
is exactly sure how this rather odd nickname came to be, though there are some popular
theories and with the documented evidence at hand we can mostly piece together in general
how it came to be. To start, one legend states it was 1899 when,
during the second half of a game between Notre Dame and Northwestern with Notre Dame leading
five to nothing in Evanston, Illinois, the fans started chanting “Kill the Fighting
Irish, Kill the Fighting Irish.” Whether they failed to realize that Notre
Dame was French Catholic or simply just didn’t care and were looking for a choice insult,
it didn’t matter. The nickname supposedly stuck from there. Another story, albeit a much kinder representation
of the nickname, goes that the name came from the Union Army’s Fighting Irish 69th Regiment. Part of the larger Irish Brigade, they fought
with valor, bravery, and were brutally effective. They went into every battle with their colorfully
designed green battle flag. Legend has it that when President Lincoln
paid them a visit, he picked up a corner of the green Irish flag, kissed it, and said,
“God bless the Irish flag.” So, when the press saw these Notre Dame football
players play with toughness, courage, and assuming they were also Irish, the nickname
that once belonged to the beloved 69th Regiment was given. Yet another theory of how the nickname came
to be, this one with at least a tiny bit of documented evidence, was from a game featuring
Notre Dame and Michigan in 1909. With Notre Dame trailing at the half to their
rivals, a player turned to some of his “Irish” teammates (or at least had Irish names like
Dolan, Kelly, Glynn, and Duffy) and yelled “”What’s the matter with you guys? You’re all Irish and you’re not fighting
worth a lick.” The team went on to win the game eleven to
three and the press attributed the victory to the “Fighting Irish.” After this 1909 match, Sportswriter E.A. Batchelor, supposedly having overheard the
aforementioned exchange, published an article in the Detroit Free Press titled, “‘Shorty’
Longman’s Fighting Irishmen Humble the Wolverines to Tune of 11 to 3,” giving us the first
known documented evidence of the team being called by this nickname. He went on to write, Eleven Fighting Irishman wrecked the Yost
machine this afternoon. Three sons of Erin, individually and collectively
representing the University of Notre Dame, not only beat the Michigan team, but dashed
some of Michigan’s greatest hopes and shattered Michigan’s fairest dreams. In the end, whether Batchelor really overheard
such an exchange; came up with the nickname himself; or, perhaps more likely given he
uses the nickname casually as if the reader should know exactly who he’s talking about,
had heard it elsewhere, the generally accepted genesis of the name lies in the previously
mentioned popular association between Catholics and the Irish. Given Notre Dame had around this time gone
by the “Catholics,” among other monikers like the “Terriers,” (with an Irish Terrier
during this time supposedly a staple on the sidelines), it’s perhaps not much of a leap
to see how someone, perhaps Batchelor, perhaps not, could have made the jump to “Irish,”
despite the school’s French origins and mixed heritage athletes. This is particularly the case if it was indeed
initially meant as an insult, as it would seem. Whatever the case, as you’d expect given
the prejudices of the day, the nickname was not looked upon favorably by the University
brass. Besides the fact that it seemingly was originally
meant as an insult, this was a French Catholic University, not Irish Catholic. However, a little over a decade after Batchelor’s
article, the President of the University, Father Bums, stated that even though the moniker
had been “discountenanced by the authorities of the University,” at this point in time,
its “usage [was] in a playful spirit, no offense being intended…” With the nickname firmly embraced, despite
the negative connotations, soon, students, players, media, and even legendary coach Knute
Rockne were calling their beloved team the “Fighting Irish.” Noted Notre Dame alumnus Francis Wallace also
did his part in widely popularizing the moniker, commonly using it in his 1920s New York Daily
News articles. With little choice and a nod to the complementary
aspects of the nickname- referring to the athletes’ never say die spirit and scrappy
determination- University President Rev. Matthew Walsh adopted “Fighting Irish” as Notre
Dame’s official nickname in 1927.


Reader Comments

  1. That's not a French pronunciation of this, nor British nor European, noone should ever say this wrong. But oh yeah here American everything rules…. really? If it's French founded at least say it right, geesh even American wannabes are dumb it seems!

  2. It's a popular misconception that NDU is in South Bend. It's actually in its own incorporated area: Notre Dame, IN. Yes, South Bend provides many services for NDU, but NDU is very proud of its independent status.

  3. Never thought about a french named school in Indiana having an Irish football team. On the other hand I've been to French Lick, Indiana. The home of Larry Bird, who played for the Boston Celtics.

  4. here's a question — how is it that the letter "x" is used in place of the letter "z", as in the word, "xylophone" or in the case of the name, "xavior"?  why not just use the letter "z" for any word with a "z" sound in it?

  5. Interestingly, the story based on the Irish Regiment and Lincoln's "God bless the fighting Irish" is nearly identical to one of the stories told about the University of North Carolina's "Tar Heels," with Robert E Lee instead saying "God bless those Tar Heel boys" after a battle. The latter is also lacking in documentation, but the similarities make me wonder if this is a trope for these oddly named college teams.

  6. After all these years the Irish found out the "Blarny stone" was a petrefied polock's butt-hole.And that's why there are so "fighting mad.lol.

  7. South Bend the town next to Notre Dame is one of the largest College towns.
    Wasn't always a college town. At one time it was more noted for Studebaker car company and Bendix breaks. Now its the biggest employer making it a college town.

  8. That was a great one. I've watched college football for decades and never knew that. Do more on sports nicknames. Also, San Jose State was one of the first colleges in California to field a team. Before Stanford, USC or even Cal. Just some food for thought.
    Great work, stay Gold!

  9. Notre Dame is one of the single greediest institutions around. Notre Dame has a cult following because of their football team. If anybody actually knew what Notre Dame stood for they would be horrified. I live in South Bend Indiana where Notre Dame is at and there is an actual cult following and is part of the local culture to be obsessed with Notre Dame

  10. Love to see this topic!

    Only thing: the order is The Congregation of Holy Cross, not THE Holy Cross. (I promise, I don’t mean to be pedantic, but I swear there’s a difference.) The order name originates from where it started, Sainte-Croix, outside of Le Mans.

    Great video. Go Irish!

  11. The best college football team name: the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns. The best high school team name: Frankfort (IN) Hot Dogs.

  12. The 69th New York is a decent theory, however, Indiana had it's own Irish Regiment, the 35th Indiana, also known as the 1st Irish. This would be a more well-known unit for Midwesterners, as they were a Western Theater unit and thus would've fought in many more and much hotter engagements than the 69th New York. In addition Notre Dame was tasked with providing for the 35th Indiana, including it's Chaplain, one Father P. Peter Clooney. As well as raising money and donating supplies to the unit as it was a predominantly catholic regiment. In addition the 69th New York were not the only "Fighting Irish" Regiment, most all Regiments that were of predominantly Irish makeup, either through recruiting location, 69th New York, or Gubernatorial Order, 35th Indiana, were known as the Fighting Irish. The 79th New York, a predominantly Scottish unit, were referred to as the Fighting Scots and the Highlander. The 32nd Indiana, a German Unit were also similarly nicknamed.

  13. An interesting side-note is that most of the traditions Notre Dame has because of the "Irish" nickname are actually Scottish. Most of the songs the band plays on game day are styled after Scottish music, and bagpipe players perform Scottish music wearing Scottish kilts. Even the band's leaders, the "Irish Guard", wear traditional Scottish kilts and every band member wears Notre Dame's unique Scottish tartan plaid hanging over their shoulder. The "Victory Clog" played after every score and at the end of every winning game is titled "Damsha Bua", which is gaelic for "Victory Clog." It would be interesting to hear how this came to be, whether it is just from a misconception that the Irish and Scottish are the same, or some other reason.

  14. Why is it pronounced 'note-err d-ay-m' when it's the uni, and 'not-ruh darm' the rest of the time? Is it just Americans struggling with French words or is there a deeper reason? For a UK version, who decided Magdalen should be pronounced Maudlin?

  15. Can you imagine the Irish taking offense at the mascot because it portrays them in a negative way, as a people who get in fights? No, you can't imagine that because the Irish aren't pussies.

  16. He failed to mention that Father Corby, CSC, was a Chaplain during the Civil War in the Irish Brigade. He went on to serve as the President of the University. He gave absolution to the Irish Brigade before the Battle at Gettysburg

  17. Father William Corby was the 3rd and 6th president of Notre dame he served as a chaplain in the Union Army attached to the Irish brigade.

  18. Actually no, Notre Dame is no longer a rival with Michigan, they withdrew from the series a few years back, they left the rivalry because they usually lost in more recent years and to chase $$$ in a contract with the ACC. The ACC let them keep their independent status is why they decided to make the contract with the ACC, the BIG wasn't taking that deal. So to sum it up, they destroyed several years of college tradition in the pursuit of money.

  19. No one would buy they were french they were to good if they kept the french thing tho there mascot would be limited to Quasimodo.

  20. Who else always cringes at the "American" pronunciation of Notre Dame?
    I'm not French, or even French Canadian (just West Coast Canadian) but even I know it should be pranced "Note-re-Dam" and not "Note-er-Dame"

  21. You left out that it was the irish briadge of the civil war helped rebuild notre dame.! The poor irish also flocked to south bend because of the famine & genocide in ireland by the imperialistic british. The irish students also fought off the KKK klan. Many irish history is with this univerisity.

  22. The nickname stuck because, like the Irish people oppressed by the British and discriminated in the US, the football team was widely discriminated and excluded from the sport based on their ethnic and religious ties. On 2 separate occasions, Michigan, fuelled by their bigoted coach Fielding Yost, tried to burry the Irish football program by blackballing them from the league and banning other conference members from playing them. Like the Irish people, Notre Dame struggled against tyranny for years until they eventually earned their supremacy and went on to be the most storied and successful program of all-time. The fighting Irish is a symbol to the resilience and challenges the football team had to over-come. Also, the Notre Dame fans are predominately of Irish descent and we are proud of it!

  23. Simon, I am a huge fan of this channel and an even bigger fan of ND. I never do this so forgive me–but my loyalty to Notre Dame our mother requires it.

    As of the production of this video the ND/UM football rivalry was in year 4 of a hiatus. Irish blame Mich and vice versa, but the truth is ND kinda sorta not really pseudo-joined the ACC and didn't have space for UM anymore.

    The planets realigned or the Gods spoke, however, and we get the rivalry back starting this year 9/1 in South Bend. I damn near cried when they cancelled it and actually did when they announced the end of football prohibition for these 2 juggernauts.

    Sorry my brother, again, but I had to say something!!! Keep making the outstanding videos ALL OF YOU AT TIFO you are the last beacon of quality and therefore hope on YouTube. Love ya!

  24. For more fun athletic facts check out this video and find out The Origin of the Olympic Rings:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQgr99fMWgk

  25. Glasgow Celtic fc in Scotland have a strong Irish catholic tradition. I think Celtic should play friendlies at soccer against a soccer select if the fighting Irish if note dame.

  26. So basically people were like "Noooo! You can't use that name! We're using it as an insult!"?
    Reminds me of the words "gay" and "queer". Don't back down.

  27. As a graduate of Notre Dame this is actually pretty accurate. However, I'd like to add a couple of things.

    Father Corby, a chaplain at the battle of Gettysburg for the Irish Brigade (and later a University president) certainly lent a connection to both Notre Dame and the "Fighting Irish". In fact, there's still a statue of him at Gettysburg today.

    Secondly, a confrontation between about 500 University students and 2000 members of the KKK in the mid 1920s could have also played a part. The KKK was planning to march on the University, but when the Notre Dame men found out about it they ran the 2 miles into town, promptly got into a melee with the Klan, beat them until they had to retreat to their headquarters and ended up parading back to campus with some Klan hoods and robes as war trophies.

    Regardless of how we got the name, however, there is no finer university in the entire world.

    GO IRISH ☘

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