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
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."
November 11, 1996
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
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
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
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.