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The Irish through English eyes

Theo Brun | Monday, November 12, 2012

As an Englishman, it pains me to say much of what you are about to read.

I’ve visited the States a few times now, and I didn’t think there could be that much left in American culture that held any real surprises. That was, until my friend in town said he’d got tickets to the game last Saturday. He explained the “Fighting Irish” were something called “Eight-and-Zero” – which apparently was extremely unusual and important.  

So much so that within a day or two of arriving in South Bend, I’d been taught that instead of using commonplace phrases like “Hi” and “See ya later,” I was to mutter “Irish, Irish, Irish.”

This novel practice, he told me, came from an incident when one of the Holy Fathers of Notre Dame was attending a game some years back. He found he was standing next to a grizzle-chinned fan, who was stood alone and evidently talking to himself. The good father wondered whether he’d had the misfortune to run into a schizophrenic, or worse still, a man possessed. But as he moved closer, he realised that if the guy was possessed, it had to be by some demonic leprechaun, since he was repeating over and over, “Irish, Irish, Irish, Irish …” Instead, our hearty priest concluded that the man was probably the sanest person in the park, and he took to doing the same if ever he had a moment to spare.

By the time we were climbing the stairs to the press box – somewhere several thousand feet above the field – to watch the Irish take on the Pitt Panthers, I’d been well-briefed on what I was about to witness. I had also been beguiled into stepping into the bookstore shop, where I had been separated from no less than 170 of my hard-earned dollars (and I’d just gone in for a t-shirt). So I felt that if I didn’t yet have any emotional investment in the Irish, I had at least made something like a financial one.

Irish, Irish, Irish, Irish …

We reckon ourselves great sports fans back over the Pond, but frankly, after Saturday, I don’t think we have any clue. Where are our bands? Where are our flags? Where is our fighter-jet fly-by? Where is our national anthem? (Okay, we have one of those.) But where is our second national anthem? And most importantly, where are our cheerleaders? The most fun English fans have at a game is getting drunk, insulting the rival fans’ mothers and crushing each other to death. So it was a bewildering experience to see what can be done to make a football game such a grand spectacle. (I mean, sideways-marching xylophone players – dozens of them!)  

Was it actual pride I was feeling when attempting to sing along to the Star-Spangled Banner, trying to remember exactly which great-grandparent it was my mom had told me was American? I think so. (Although I forgot to cover my heart with my hat – sorry about that.)

Irish, Irish, Irish, Irish …

And then the game. The clock ticked its way through the third quarter and the score was still at 20-6. I felt faint embarrassment that I’d managed to jinx Notre Dame’s winning streak. Meanwhile my friend was dying inside. “There’s still time,” he said, while his doubting English friend smiled and pitied such blind faith. But a late third quarter prayer to Touchdown Jesus seemed to do the trick, and the Irish proved why they come with their combative descriptor. By the time the lads had levelled it back to 20-20, I was a changed man – I believed. I had seen the light, and the light was green.

Irish, Irish, Irish, Irish …

Then came overtime – a fumbled touchdown, a missed Panthers field-goal (how the Holy Mother loves her children!), and then – sweet glory – a rushin’ touchdown and the Irish had done it again.  

When Jesus comes back, South Benders are going to have a problem – could the crowd here really be more excited by the Second Coming than they were by the score that would take them to “Nine-and-Zero”? I fear there may be stern words if you can’t find something a little extra.

Still, even to an ignorant Englishman, it was clear that there is something special about this place. About this team. Could they be? Surely they must be.  

A “Team of Destiny”? Really?

I just don’t know. It’s too hard to think straight with all the voices in my head.

Irish, Irish, Irish, Irish, Irish …

Theo Brun recently completed a solo bicycle journey from Hong Kong to Norfolk, England. He visited campus to talk about it and stayed for the Pitt game. He can be reached at theobrun@gmail.com

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.