Skip to main content
Original Issue


Somewhere along the line it was decided that a wrought-iron cage was simply not enough security, so rows of sharp spikes, as long and deadly as steak knives, were added to the top of the fence that surrounds Hill 16, a storied section of the stadium called Croke Park in North Dublin. There are no seats on Hill 16; the tickets are cheap, and the patrons are tougher than pub pork chops. To these fans, a luxury box is one that holds Dunhills or a new pair of work boots. If the denizens of Hill 16 had been born and raised in the U.S., they would have loved Art Donovan and hated Art Modell.

When it was announced two years ago that Notre Dame and Navy would be playing American football on the Croke (pronounced Crow) field on Nov. 2, 1996, there was some concern about how the patrons of Hill 16 would handle it. This is, after all, not your average working-class section in your average 55,000-seat stadium. Hill 16 was once the site of a massacre, and we’re not referring to the kind that occurs when the Buffalo Bills reach the Super Bowl.

On Nov. 21, 1920, a police force under British rule, retaliating for an Irish Republican Army attack earlier in the day, opened fire on the Croke crowd at a Gaelic football match between Dublin and Tipperary, killing 12 people, including a Tipperary player. The park remains sacred ground for many Dubliners, and until last Saturday afternoon no “foreign” sport had been played on its pitch. Only Gaelic football and hurling had been allowed. Soccer and rugby, considered British games, are still forbidden, but the people of Dublin opened their hallowed stadium to American college football, and the reviews were overwhelmingly positive.

In their minds all the Dubliners did was give Ireland over to the Irish, and the lads from Notre Dame capped off their first trip to the Emerald Isle by running over a tough Navy club 54-27. It was the 33rd straight time Notre Dame had beaten Navy, stretching the longest head-to-head winning streak in Division I. In the end Dublin was nearly as delighted as the kelly-green-clad visitors who flooded the city for four days. “Absolutely brilliant,” said Pete McMahon, a dirty-faced 13-year-old, as he stood in the front row of Hill 16. “I don’t know exactly what’s happening out there, but it’s exciting.”

Of the announced crowd of 38,651, approximately 8,000 were jammed inside the bars on Hill 16. The spiked fence apparently serves a purpose at the most spirited Gaelic football matches, but it wasn’t necessary at the first NCAA tilt in Croke. For much of the game the fans on Hill 16 seemed to be in a subdued state of curiosity, at a loss to tell the difference between an incomplete pass and a fumble. But they came alive when Ryan Gee of Notre Dame high-stepped down the sideline and toward the end zone in front of them. Now this, they could tell, was exciting.

They roared their approval, which was a relief for Gee, who wasn’t sure how the Irish people would react to a goofy little guy with a red beard, a bright-green leprechaun suit and a silly hat. “I was a little curious,” Gee said in a way that made curious sound like scared out of my knickers.

As it turned out, the Notre Dame mascot was happier than Lou Holtz was with Saturday’s result. The fans loved Gee—USC crowds should be so nice—who even stepped through the iron bars and stood awhile on Hill 16. “I couldn’t believe it: Nobody gave me a hard time at all,” said Gee, a junior government major from Spokane. “I didn’t know what to expect, but these people were great."

They still might not like foreigners on their field, but to the folks on Hill 16, this was different. These were the Irish, and this was Ireland.

It was technically a home game for the Midshipmen, but they wouldn’t have felt more outnumbered if they had played the game in downtown Baghdad. It was their choice; Navy split a $1.7 million appearance fee with Notre Dame and exported its best team in years to enemy territory. It was business. “Sure, we would have rather played at home, in front of our own fans,” said Navy tackle Scott Zimmerman. “But we knew what we were getting into. We knew there’d be a lot of distractions and a lot of people rooting against us. But we pride ourselves on being able to overcome things like that. We just didn't do it."

Navy, 5–1 going into the game, took a decidedly different approach to the trip from the one adopted by Notre Dame, which was 4–2. Except for holding a couple of brief practices, the Irish could have been following the itinerary of an alumni travel group. The Midshipmen, on the other hand, showed up on Thursday morning, a day later than the Irish, and spent very little time touring. Navy coach Charlie Weatherbie gave his players two hours to walk around downtown Dublin on Thursday, while they were still wiped out from their overnight flight. The Midshipmen spent the next day and a half in preparation for the game. Navy had much to lose; it was the first time since 1981 that the Midshipmen had gone into the Notre Dame game with a better record than the Irish, and they were dreaming of a bowl bid. “We look at [this game] as a privilege,” said Weatherbie. "I can't think of a better place to play Notre Dame than Dublin."

Still, it was hard for the Midshipmen not to be intimidated by their surroundings. Except for a sprinkling of sailors on liberty, Dublin was blanketed by citizens of Notre Dame Nation. Roving bands of Notre Dame boosters poured out of tour buses and picked the stores clean of wool sweaters and Waterford crystal. Dubliners could only shake their heads as crowds of giddy Tip O’Neill look-alikes packed the pubs and guzzled Guinness as if they were playing parts in a Brendan Behan play. The crowd at Croke was the smallest for a Notre Dame game since Holtz took over in 1986, but it was the friendliest road crowd in college football history.

Notre Dame touted the game as “the largest single tourist event ever in Ireland.” An estimated 8,000 tour packages were sold in the U.S., and some 15,000 Americans made the transatlantic trek. Another 10,000 or so Yanks arrived from elsewhere in Europe. It was the third time an American college football game had been held in Dublin—Boston College beat Army there in 1988, and Pitt beat Rutgers in ’89—but it was the first such match at Croke and the first involving Notre Dame. Dublin was overrun, and it seemed that everyone was either Irish or pretending to be.

“I’m rooting for Navy because I just met four people from Navy, and they seemed like good people,” said Noel Collins, a 23-year-old cook from Cork, as he sipped his Guinness at a pub called Bellamy’s. How many Notre Dame people had he met? “What do you mean 'how many'?" Collins, shouted. "Everyone else!"

Navy actually had more players with Irish backgrounds than Notre Dame did, including three Midshipmen with relatives living in Ireland. The Irish had just a handful of Irish-Americans in uniform, but they had history on their side. One account has it that the school acquired its nickname and its national following in the 1920s when Irish immigrants in New York claimed Knute Rockne’s teams as their own. Today in Ireland the popularity of the Fighting Irish is easier to explain. “They’re the only college team we get on TV every week,” said Emmet Riordan, a writer for The Title, a national weekly sports publication.

Unlike the Midshipmen, the Notre Dame players got out of their hotel, saw the sights and met the people. Shortly after touching down in Dublin, the team drove an hour south to Glendalough, in County Wicklow, where the players viewed ancient monastic ruins. A few players, punch-drunk from their crowded 7 1/2-hour flight from Chicago, chased some sheep around a field. The sheep had better luck than the Midshipmen. “Some of those sheep had pretty good moves," said Notre Dame tight end Pete Chryplewicz.

Before the players were allowed to crawl into bed, they sat down to dinner together at their Dublin hotel. The food was served, but in keeping with team tradition, the players didn’t touch it until Holtz arrived in the room. The food service manager, stunned by the starving players’ respect for their coach, said, “So he’s sort of like God, huh?” He was assured that, in this crowd, Holtz was close.

When Holtz and his players walked down O’Connell Street, Dublin’s main drag, they were constantly stopped and asked to sign autographs and pose for pictures. Of course, the people asking were insurance salesmen from Illinois. “It’s a long road game, but it’s a great time,” said Irish quarterback Ron Powlus. "I don't want to leave. I'd like to stay a few more days."

The true Irish, to their everlasting credit, had trouble grasping the magnitude of college football. When a local TV crew showed up late for a Notre Dame practice, its members couldn’t understand why they weren’t allowed to shoot video of the drills. Only the first few minutes of practice could be filmed, they were told. Why? Why couldn’t they film the end of practice? “I had to admit,” said one Notre Dame official, “it was a good question.” As part of her story, one TV reporter suggested the game would be a great place to see “single American men.” She didn't mention that most of them would look like Tip O'Neill.

When representatives of a popular late-night TV talk show called to request appearances by Holtz and Powlus on Friday, they were told it was impossible. The players had curfew, and the coaches were busy. Instead, Notre Dame offered its band and cheerleaders, including Gee, the leprechaun. The response from the show? “Even better.” The 125-member band lugged its equipment to the studio and played the Notre Dame fight song on national TV. The leprechaun sat and swapped stories with Gay Byrne, Ireland’s answer to Leno and Letterman. “He’s bigger than those guys,” Gee said of Byrne. “He’s a living legend.” Sort of like Holtz.

On Friday the Notre Dame players and coaches toured Trinity College, a 400-year-old institution in the heart of Dublin. Who says football players never get near the books? The Irish players strolled through the famous Long Room, a library that holds 200,000 volumes, and then viewed the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the gospels that was copied by monks in the eighth and ninth centuries. It wasn’t 18 holes at Druids Glen, but it wasn't bad.

“Sometimes you have to remind yourself you’re here for a game,” said defensive end Melvin Dansby as he toured the library. “It’s like being a kid on a field trip, just oohing and aahing at everything. It reminds you of one of those National Geographic specials. It’s an incredible experience.”

What, if anything, was wrong with the Irish experience? “I guess, being here on Halloween, you wouldn’t mind getting out and partying like the Irish,” said Dansby. “And you wouldn’t mind seeing a little pizza."

Notre Dame had suffered a humiliating loss to Air Force in South Bend two weeks earlier, but having had a week off to prepare for Navy, Holtz was not going to let his team get embarrassed again. He wasn’t going to lose to another military academy or another wishbone attack, and he sure wasn’t going to let the Irish lose in Ireland. On Saturday, Notre Dame took advantage of its size and pounded away at the Navy defensive front. Powlus had to throw only 11 times (completing six passes) as tailback Autry Denson busted loose for 123 yards and fullback Marc Edwards blasted in for three touchdowns, including a one-yarder with 6:41 left in the game to make the score 47–21. Holtz decided to go for a two-point conversion, and though the attempt failed, Weatherbie confronted him on the field after the game.

“That’s just Lou Holtz,” Weatherbie said at the postgame press conference. “I was a little surprised to see them go for two.”

A day earlier, when Weatherbie had taken Navy to Croke for a practice, the scoreboard read: Navy 43, Notre Dame 38. Someone asked Weatherbie if that was the score he was predicting. “We’re going to win," he said. "But they're not going to score 38." He
was right about that.

One look at Holtz, meanwhile, and you weren’t sure whose nose had been rubbed in it. During the game, in a fit of fury as he showed a player the proper way to run a play, Holtz yanked his glasses across the bridge of his nose and tore away some skin. That evening, as his players dashed downtown for their one chance to experience Dublin’s nightlife, Holtz sat at the postgame press conference, bloodied but not beaten, and bade farewell to Ireland. “We felt comfortable here all week,” he said. "We felt like we were at Notre Dame."

As they left Croke Park, Dubliners seemed just as comfortable with Notre Dame. They didn’t understand everything they had seen on their sacred playing field, but they understood enough. They knew Notre Dame had won and won big, and as far as they were concerned, the Hill still belonged to the Irish.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN Dubliners didn't understand much of the action on the field, but Gee brought a roar of recognition. [Ryan Gee leaping in front of crowd]

COLOR PHOTO: ED BALLOTTS/SOUTH BEND TRIBUNE Chryplewicz (left), Kevin Carretta (center) and Scott Palumbo paused at ancient ruins in Glendalough. [Pete Chryplewicz, Kevin Carretta and Scott Palumbo in front of stone building]

COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN Irish alums turned out in healthy numbers among the 25,000 American tourists in for the game. [University of Notre Dame alumni walking in Dublin street]

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Denson almost single-handedly wiped out Navy's upset hopes, rushing for 123 yards and two TDs. [Autry Denson in game]