Fighting Irish

Fighting Irish. Today, these words evoke fields of play — a perhaps too-easy association that the commercials are designed to moderate. But the origin of the phrase is decidedly more martial and springs from the field of battle. For “Fighting Irish” is the monicker under which scores of men, including the poet Joyce Kilmer who made the phrase famous, died. This year, this championship season, it is fitting to explore from whence The Fighting Irish came.

I am aware that the first use of The Fighting Irish to reference the football team was most likely in the early 1900’s, perhaps as late as 1929 in the Notre Dame Scholastic.

But mayber we can look back further. Thomas Francis Meagher was a rabid Irish republican who saw in the American Civil War the opportunity to develop and train a new army of Ireland. Seizing upon the sentiments of the roiling masses of Irish immigrants in the Northeast, Meagher recruited regiments in New York, Philadelphia and Boston. Together, they formed the Irish Brigade. In the Civil War, their tragic heroism at Antietam and Fredricksburg earned them the respect of their Confederate enemy. Given that this December marks the 150th anniversary of the battle of Fredricksburg, a brief digression is in order.

Gen. Meagher had his men wear sprigs of greenery in their caps as they trotted toward Marye’s Height, topped by a stone wall, behind which an Irish regiment from Georgia poured murderous fire. Of 1,200 soldiers, only 258 made it unscathed to the next day. The dead and wounded lay in heaps, having fallen “like leaves” in the words of a contemporary observer. Father William Corby, the brigade’s chaplain, observed them, “a body of Catholic men marching — most of them — to death.”

 Yes, THAT Fr. Corby. Perhaps, though, his most famous moment came the next year, on 2 July 1863, when, atop a boulder at the head of the Irish Brigade, offered absolution to the soldiers amid the roar and din of the field at Gettysburg. Addressing the troops, Fr. Corby offered general absolution to all and Catholic and non-Catholic alike fell to their knees, many just moments from death, “in their grave clothes” according to the commanding officer of the 116th Pennsylvania Regiment. Father Corby later noted that his absolution was offered for all, North and South, “who were about to appear before their Judge.” Then, rising, the Irish Brigade marched into the Wheatfield, where their already depleted ranks were thinned by a further 198 souls.

“The Fighting Irish” featured in a verse by Joyce Kilmer in his 1918 poem “When the Sixty-Ninth Comes Back,” itself part of a collection called “Poems from France.”  No doubt, you are more familiar with Kilmer’s poem “Trees.” That’s the one that starts with “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.” Yeah. That one. But what’s interesting is that Kilmer may well have been inspired to write it after visiting The Grotto at Notre Dame. “A tree that looks at God all day and lifts her leafy arms to pray.”

Kilmer fought with the 69th New York Regiment and fell in France in July of 1918 at the age of 31, the victim of a sniper’s bullet.

I find it too coincidental that Kilmer’s use of the phrase “Fighting Irish” came the very year that Knute Rockne began his rather successful coaching career. Still, that we have taken it and made it our own is indisputable. And in doing so, in the words of Fr. Carey, we use it today as a mantle that fits everyone under the shadow of the Dome.

“In narrow, little New England, it began as a slur — a term of opprobrium. But we took it up and made of it a badge of honor — a symbol of fidelity and courage to everyone who suffers from discrimination; to everyone who has an uphill fight for the elemental decencies, and the basic Christian principles woven into the texture of our nation. Preserving this tradition, and this meaning of Irish at Notre Dame does honor to everyone of us. It explains why Lewinski belongs here; why Alessandrini is the Irish leader; why Schmaltz belongs here; why Bertrand, and Moreau, Van Dyke, and Larson feel at home here as much as do Leahy and O’Brien.”

(Author’s note: credit to for much of the information about the Battle of Fredricksburg)

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