From the Archives: The name, the myth, the legend — the Fighting Irish
Editor’s Note: The Observer previously incorrectly listed the creator of the Fighting Irish logo as Jim T. Butz. The logo’s creator was Ted Drake. The Observer regrets this error.
One of the first questions I had when I first toured Notre Dame was: “Why does a university with a French name possess an Irish mascot and a prideful Irish identity overall?” Many have also wondered the same thing, as there is not one clear origin story for Notre Dame’s iconic team name: The Fighting Irish.
In this week’s edition of From the Archives, we explore how Notre Dame came to embrace an Irish identity, from reclaiming sports opponents’ slurs to fending off the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan. Though we do not know where Notre Dame’s Irish story began, we know where it ends: in honoring the Irish Catholics who overcame adversity and put Notre Dame on the map.
Notre Dame, from French founders to Irish icons
In 1842, a small group of Holy Cross priests from Le Mans, France established the University of Notre Dame. Today, this University founded by peaceful French priests is represented by the “Fighting Irish.”
As Murray Sperber wrote in “Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football,” “the origins of the Notre Dame nickname are both obvious and obscure.”
Sperber suggested that the popularity of nineteenth-century Irish boxers combined with the prevalence of Irish Catholics at Notre Dame created conditions for the “Fighting Irish” name to emerge.
However, most popular stories of the name’s origin are nothing more than myths. One story dates back to a 1889 football game, when Northwestern fans allegedly shouted “kill those fighting Irish,” referencing the Notre Dame players.
Another tale concerned a 1909 game against Michigan. Down at halftime, one Notre Dame player asked his mostly Irish-American teammates “What’s the matter with you guys? You’re all Irish and you’re not fighting!”
One of the first publications of the Irish nickname was in a 1904 edition of Notre Dame Scholastic. In their recap of a game against Wisconsin, the article describes how “the plucky fight of our boys won the applause of the crowd, who rooted for the ‘game Irishmen’ all during the game.”
These origin stories imply a serendipitous start to the Irish moniker. But a 1948 Scholastic article, written by editor Joseph A. Doyle, claimed a more profound genesis.
The article described how, in the early days of Notre Dame athletics, newspapers would refer to schools by their sponsoring church: the “Baptists,” the “Methodists,” etc.
Newspapers instead referred to Notre Dame as the “Irish.” A large proportion of Catholics were immigrants from Ireland, so it seemed that “‘Catholic’ and ‘Irish’ were identical in the public mind.”
This association was not just a cultural shorthand; it was tied to prejudice directed at Irish Catholics. The article noted that “Advertisements for ‘help wanted’ commonly carried the restriction: ‘No Catholics,’ ‘No Irish.’”
But over time, likely because of the great success of Notre Dame football, the “Irish” nickname transformed from an insult into a point of pride. As Doyle put it: “A slur became a symbol.”
Whether the origins of the Irish name were insulting or incidental, the University embraced it as part of their identity.
This is perhaps best exemplified by the Notre Dame mascot. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the mascot was an Irish Terrier named “Clashmore Mike,” an early symbol of Irish pride.
In the mid 1960s, the University commissioned illustrator Ted Drake to create a logo that would further “exemplify” their “Irish heritage.” Drake agreed, and the Fighting Irish logo was born.
Drake’s now-iconic fighting leprechaun has only strengthened the connection between Notre Dame and the “Irish.”
But, as Doyle observed, “the tradition of ‘Irish’ at Notre Dame does not mean race as such, nor is it just another nickname,” but memorializes the hardships and perseverance of Irish-Catholic students.
This has only become more true over time. The Irish nickname doesn’t represent an ethnic heritage as much as it simply represents the “Notre Dame brand” itself.
While it may not have been a nickname chosen by the French fathers who founded Notre Dame, the “Fighting Irish” name symbolizes an internationally recognized and academically prestigious institution, of which our founders would be undoubtedly proud.
The “Fighting Irish” vs. the KKK
April 30, 1974 | Mary Ellen McAndrews | Researched by Erin Drumm
On May 16, 1924, Ku Klux Klan members began arriving in South Bend for a parade that was to be held in the largely Catholic area. Notre Dame students greeted them with a warm Irish welcome, preparing to throw bottles, stones and fists.
University officials had concerns surrounding the Klan’s visit to South Bend because Notre Dame was a target of anti-Catholic sentiment. The South Bend chief of police assured administration that there would be no Klan parade.
Fr. Matthew J. Walsh, Notre Dame’s president from 1922 to 1928, warned students to stay on campus and avoid the threat of violence by letting “South Bend authorities take care of the situation.”
Despite these warnings, the Saturday morning trolley was filled with Notre Dame students prepared to confront the unwanted visitors. Upon arriving downtown, “groups of Notre Dame students jumped on Klan sentries, ripped off their regalia and gave them a roughing up,” according to a South Bend Tribune writer.
As members of the Klan retreated to their headquarters for lunch, 200 Notre Dame students, accompanied by anti-Klan sympathizers, threw potatoes at the building, breaking windows and shattering bulbs in the electric red cross that hung on the side of the building. There were rumors that Harry Stuhldreher (‘25), quarterback of the 1923 and 1924 football teams, had the most accurate potato-throwing aim, according to Thomas E. Blantz (‘57) in his book, “The University of Notre Dame: A History.”
Students who entered the headquarters were met with a revolver in the hands of Klan spokesman, Rev. J. H. Horton of the Calvary Baptist Church in South Bend. The students and Horton agreed that the Klan would not wear hoods in public in South Bend and the students would not attack the parade.
Anti-Kluxers and students, however, said they would respond “two thousand strong” if the police needed backup.
There was further confrontation and violence between students and the Klan on the night of May 19, 1924, with “bottles, stones and other objects” flying between the two groups. Notre Dame students once again rushed into town when a call to campus said a student was “being beaten to death by the courthouse.” It is unclear how serious the injuries were.
When arrests were being made, Fr. Walsh urged students to return to campus. Guards patrolled the Notre Dame campus for weeks following the incident in anticipation of a Klan attack.
The Fighting Irish was certainly an accurate name on the day the Ku Klux Klan came to South Bend. Since then, something that has remained constant for Notre Dame throughout the years is how quickly news spreads and how quickly students are able to mobilize to defend their beliefs and identities in the face of adversity.
The Fighting Irish: An offensive mascot?
In recent years, many sports teams, such as the Washington Commanders, have chosen to change their names because of their harmful history and meaning. During this controversy, many also accused Notre Dame’s “Fighting Irish” and leprechaun mascot of being offensive to Irish people.
This debate also took place in 2006, when Sinéad Howley (‘07), a graduate student from Ireland, wrote a Letter to the Editor claiming the “Fighting Irish” name was offensive to the Irish people because it “is not only insulting and racist but portrays a completely inaccurate representation of modern Ireland.”
Howley asserted that Ireland has given into economic dependency on U.S. tourists, sculpting images and stories that appeal to Americans rather than representing Ireland’s true history.
“I did not hear the term ‘leprechaun’ after the age of nine,” Howley wrote. “The ‘leprechaun’ has little, if any, part in the realities of modern Ireland.”
Calling for more authentic representation of Irish history and culture at Notre Dame, Howley also sought for a more general pride in her home country, Ireland.
“Let us spread the representation of the ‘real’ Ireland, a country with courageous history, a rich culture, pride in our national language,” she exclaimed. “Let us determine our political policies based on our people’s wishes and beliefs, and not on the desire for American financial support.”
Patrick Rigney (‘07) responded to Howley’s condemnations in another Letter to the Editor on April 5, 2006, contending that Howley had failed to contextualize the history of Irish students at Notre Dame.
Rigney cited that Irish-Catholic students in the 1920s had thrived on the Notre Dame football team, earning the name “Fighting Irish,” though he recognized the various other origin stories of the name.
Adopting this new mascot “had nothing to do with the University seeking out to bad-mouth or harm Ireland or Irish people,” Rigney argued. “The nickname came from how hard our football teams played.”
Though he acknowledged that Howley brought a stimulating perspective to this debate, Rigney dismissed her argument because of her lack of background knowledge of Notre Dame’s history.
“Nobody before the 1900s ever heard of Notre Dame but our football opponents put us on the map by referring to us as a bunch of ‘Fighting Irish,’” Rigney wrote. “It has nothing to do with Ireland’s nation as a whole nor does it have to do with Irish history.”
Rigney made a clear distinction that resonates to this day: Notre Dame possesses a notably Irish identity that honors Irish Catholics as a whole, but also their unique impact on this University — and no one can take that away from us.