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Hesburgh made Irish citizen

Sam Stryker | Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Already a major date on Notre Dame calendars, this year’s St. Patrick’s Day had additional significance for the University. Enda Kenny, Taoiseach (prime minister) of Ireland, visited campus Saturday evening to present an Irish passport to University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh.

At a dinner celebration on the 14th floor of the Hesburgh Library, Kenny said he was proud to present the honor to Hesburgh. The award recognizes the president emeritus as an Irish citizen. 

“It’s a particular privilege, and a very special privilege, to meet Fr. Hesburgh here,” Kenny said. “He’s an extraordinary man. I am very privileged indeed, on behalf of all the people of Ireland, to shake [his] hand.”

Chairman emeritus of the Board of Trustees Donald Keough introduced Hesburgh and said doing so for such an important figure in the Notre Dame community is almost “unnecessary.” 

“It’s like introducing the Golden Dome. It’s impossible,” he said. “He’s the soul of this place.”

Hesburgh set out with an “impossible” vision to create the “greatest Catholic university in the world” when he became president, Keough said, a mission that continues to this day.

“He meant it,” Keough said. “He started this place on a journey, and it never ended.”

Hesburgh said much of the progress of the University could be attributed to the many lay people, young and old, who have shared this vision.

“The Church would be nothing today without the leadership of so many laymen,” he said. “It’s the laymen and the dedication they have for [Notre Dame] that make this place possible.”

Hesburgh, whose grandfather was born in Ireland and immigrated to the United States as an infant, said he recognized the relationship between Ireland and Notre Dame has been an especially significant one throughout the University’s history.

“It’s a link at the heart of all that we are, and I think it’s at the heart of all that we aspire to be,” he said.

Hesburgh said the University was honored to host such a major Irish political figure on the holiday.

“To be here with us on this Feast of Saint Patrick, it’s the kind of miracle we get used to at Notre Dame,” he said.

In welcoming the Taoiseach to campus, University President Fr. John Jenkins said Notre Dame has always possessed a strong Irish presence, stretching back to the founders and ranging from University presidents to the student body. He said this is embodied in the name “Fighting Irish,” which originally possessed derogatory meaning.

“The name ‘Fighting Irish’ was originally intended as a slur in the 1930s to indicate a University of rowdy, unruly drunken Irishmen,” he said. “But the University embraced that name, and transformed it to represent a real resilience.”

Now, regardless of ethnicity, all members of the University community are part of this heritage, Jenkins said.

“Today, at Notre Dame, we’re of Asian, African, European and Latino ancestry, but we’re all Fighting Irish and very proud of that,” he said.

Hesburgh said the evening offered an opportunity to celebrate this spirit.

“It’s an evening that we can all be Irish for a while, even though we may be half or a quarter something else,” he said.

This spirit applies to the people of Ireland as well, Kenny said.

“I am thrilled about this ‘Fighting Irish’ concept, for we have no fear for the future so long as we respect where it is that we came from,” he said.

Kenny said he knew before coming to Notre Dame the importance of the University in Irish-American heritage.

“Somebody said to me before I left, ‘When you go there, remember you are in the center of the soul of what it means to be Irish-American,'” he said.

After taking part in Chicago’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade earlier in the day, Kenny said he recognized how important the spirit of his nation is to many people in the United States. 

“Everyone wants to be Irish,” he said.

The Taoiseach is also set to visit New York City and the White House in his trip to America.

As the Notre Dame football team prepares to square off against Navy at Dublin on Sept. 1, Kenny said he is excited for Notre Dame to reciprocate his visit.

“We look with great excitement to the flights incoming from the west into Dublin in September when Notre Dame comes to destroy Navy,” he said.