In the midst of the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indian’s Chief Wahoo debate, a standard response to the proponents is “What? Is Notre Dame next?”
Yes, what about Notre Dame? It’s worth some consideration. It does seem to represent a double standard.
So, how did “The Fighting Irish” and the leprechaun logo come to be, in an institution named for the cathedral and founded by a French Jesuit priest? Even the Notre Dame website acknowledges the how the name originated in less than flattering circumstances:
“The most generally accepted explanation is that the press coined the nickname as a characterization of Notre Dame athletic teams, their never-say-die fighting spirit and the Irish qualities of grit, determination and tenacity. The term likely began as an abusive expression tauntingly directed toward the athletes from the small, private, Catholic institution. Notre Dame alumnus Francis Wallace popularized it in his New York Daily News columns in the 1920s. The Notre Dame Scholastic, in a 1929 edition, printed its own version of the story: “The term ‘Fighting Irish’ has been applied to Notre Dame teams for years. It first attached itself years ago when the school, comparatively unknown, sent its athletic teams away to play in another city …At that time the title ‘Fighting Irish’ held no glory or prestige … “The years passed swiftly and the school began to take a place in the sports world …’Fighting Irish’ took on a new meaning. The unknown of a few years past has boldly taken a place among the leaders. The unkind appellation became symbolic of the struggle for supremacy of the field. …The team, while given in irony, has become our heritage. … So truly does it represent us that we unwilling to part with it …”
A Brief Historical Background
Irish people had been coming to the New World for centuries along with citizens from the rest of the colonial powers. But from the very beginning, they were usually second-class, not much short of slave standing, bought and sold as much as African-American slaves would be in the future. Irish Protestants, descended from English families that occupied Ireland, were not considered to be of the same station as poor, Catholic “indentured servants.” Some were convicts, some orphans, some homeless beggars, forced into servitude to pay off the cost of their involuntary trip to America. Most died either en route, or in just a few short years under extremely harsh colonial masters (see White Cargo for instance). A very few made good. Those are the stories that make it into our history books; the immigrant success story is the only narrative.
Irish immigration leveled off as the introduction of the potato made life possible again in marginal Irish lands (where indigenous Irish were being herded into the west ‘to hell or Connaught’). Indeed, poor as they were, the population sky-rocketed after Cromwell’s time. By the mid-1800s, the population had roughly doubled. And then, according to the Protestant English administrators (under Trevelyan), God brought a pestilence to punish the still clannish, traditional Irish for their sins and their Catholicism. People fled to North America en masse. They were not welcome when they arrived.
America had been colonized largely by Protestants; Protestantism was the religion of the power structure. They saw the new, immigrant “Famine” Irish the way the English did: brutish, lazy, dirty, superstitious, uneducated and worst of all, Catholic. If they survived the ‘coffin ships’, they were perceived as a plague. Men were signed into the ranks of canal, coal and rail companies at first but in few years, that became signing -straight off the boat- into an army, usually the Union army as the Civil War dragged on. Slums in the cities were death traps of fire, filth and disease. Eventually orphan trains were organized to ship children out of the cities. Irish immigrants were considered the dredges of society- less useful and more socially dangerous than African-American slaves. In fact, Irish immigrants were seen as equivalent to, and were politically and economically set against, African-Americans both during and after the Civil War.
But the poverty of Irish Catholics didn’t last forever. Survivors of the war made a name for themselves. The ‘Fighting 69th’ became legendary. The Irish retained their clannishness,- banned together, gained wealth and political power and down-played their heritage except when it benefitted them. To greater and lesser degrees depending on their isolation from or inclusion in Irish population enclaves, they reluctantly acculturated. The cost was high. The great trauma and loss endured by immigrants, combined with shame in their heritage, lead to social ills that are still reverberating through Irish-American families to this day. “White Anglo Saxon Protestant” America placed a premium on acculturation- the ‘melting pot’; the good and acceptable immigrants and indigenous people, were the ones who accepted the status quo and blended seamlessly into the whole. Thus the context for Theodore Roosevelt’s “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism,” quote. Those ethnicities that resisted acculturation faced severe discrimination, and still do.
In the decades surrounding the turn of the century, Catholics settled the mid-west and tended to form Catholic communities and institutions, and were of course attracted to existing ones, like Notre Dame. There were wealthy Irish Catholics now, but they were still trying to live down the Irish reputation. They began to co-opt, to positively spin, some of the stereotypical characteristics attributed to them, as evidenced in the historic Notre Dame quote above. Pugnacity, tenacity, hardiness, bravery, intensity, and love of language, and story-telling. Now, you can see that it wouldn’t be possible for Notre Dame to accept such a moniker until that had really begun to take hold and everyone- even the Irish- had begun to romanticize their history. Notre Dame took on the name ‘Fighting Irish’ in 1927. Consider the evolution of the Kennedy family over the decades, through the Depression, WWII, the beginning of the Cold War, Korea… in 1960 Notre Dame cheerleaders moved from the tradition of using a series of Irish terriers as mascots by adding a student dressed as a leprechaun to their activities. A sports artist named Theodore Drake developed the leprechaun logo in 1964 (for $50!). In 1965, the leprechaun became the official mascot.
“For many years, we were afflicted with the miserable trivialities of our tourist advertising. Sometimes it descended to the lowest depths, to the caubeen and the shillelagh, not to speak of the leprechaun. ~ John A. Costello addressing the Oireachtas, 1963
Now, as Tolkien says, we know enough to go on with. Let’s deconstruct the leprechaun logo. Everyone knows what a leprechaun is- right? Today’s notion is very Disney-like. Tiny, cute little shoemakers who secretly *want* you to find their pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Or Lucky, the cereal mascot? Yeah, no. Leprechauns, while not as horrific as movie version, were not really something to be sought out intentionally. They were tricksters- greedy, deceitful and devious. If the popularized notion of a leprechaun isn’t accurate, what did they actually look like in Irish myth? The best known and widely accepted notions were published by W.B. Yeats, though he combined other scholar’s work with his own collections of oral folk legends. Leprechauns are cobblers, usually encountered while making a shoe. Yeats relates that the name comes from the Irish for ‘one shoe,’ leith bhrogan. He describes leprechauns as “withered, old, and solitary,… they dress with all unfairy homeliness, and are, indeed, the most sluttish, slouching, jeering, mischievous phantoms… the trouping fairies wear green jackets, and the solitary ones red. On the red jacket of the lepracaun, … , are seven rows of buttons- seven buttons in each row. On the western coast, … the red jacket is covered by a frieze one, and in Ulster the creature wears a cocked hat and when he is up to anything unusually mischievous, leaps onto a wall and spins, balancing himself on the point of the hat with his heels in the air.”
It doesn’t take long to find Irish people who are annoyed by what they call ‘begosh and begorrah” Irish, often American, that clothe themselves in stereotypical Irish American commercialism, and sayings. Leprechauns have for decades been part of that commercialism. These days, it’s bumper stickers, clothing and drinking paraphernalia that abounds in America with all sorts of culturally degrading ethnic images and language, that prominently feature leprechauns- even the Notre Dame version.
Films, television cartoons and advertising have popularised a specific image of leprechauns which bears scant resemblance to anything found in the cycles of Irish folklore. Irish people can find the popularised image of a leprechaun to be little more than a series of stereotypes of the Irish. Source
Now, let’s take a look at images the logo leprechaun is based on. Many images to be found on the internet are by cartoonist Thomas Nast. Some apologists argue Nast’s racism may be mitigated in that it was normalized satirical methodology for the era, and that he was aiming his vitriol at certain segments of the Irish community for admittedly shady shenanigans surrounding the Tammany Hall political machine. Regardless, his opinion of Irish Catholics and those unwilling to assimilate is clear in his and many other cartoonist’s portrayals of them as apes: slovenly, drunken, lazy, brawling, brutish.
It’s hard to miss the Notre Dame logo’s resemblance to these early illustrations. While I realize Mr. Drake the logo artist wasn’t intentionally being racist, I think it can be concluded he was drawing on a century of media depictions of Irishmen. The point is, this image and it’s updates since 1964, are both a product of, and perpetuation of stereotypes, many negative, and at best misleading.
The Notre Dame logo doesn’t so much resemble a leprechaun, as it resembles 19th century stereotypes.
I realize that people become emotionally attached to symbols. I understand that we didn’t grow up thinking the leprechaun represented a racist stereotype. But placed in both historical and modern context, there is really no denying the similarities to other negative stereotypes of various ethnicities. As I was researching this, it occurred to me that maybe Irish people, long gaslighted by the dominant culture’s power structures, are seeking permission to say, “You know what? We aren’t all angry brawlers. We aren’t drunks, and we don’t even like leprechauns.”
I would propose Notre Dame keep the “Fighting Irish” cognomen to honor the Irish “never-say-die” spirit and Irish veterans, but retire the leprechaun logo. An idea might be to replace in with the block letters, or perhaps with the permission of the Irish government, the harp symbol. The leprechaun belongs, with Chief Wahoo and the Brave’s Chief Noc-a-homa, among others, in the dustbin of history.