When the Notre Dame Band takes its first steps onto the artificial field of the future, it will do so without any returning members of the Irish Guard. Part of a series of changes designed by Band Director Dr. Ken Dye to return the group to its “historical traditions,” membership in the Irish Guard will now be a one- or two-year post, limited only to current band members or managers. Gone, too, will be a rigid height requirement and, if you take the word of now former-members, some of the Saturday traditions that made Notre Dame special. In my opinion, the drastic membership changes will destroy what the Irish Guard is and turn it into a ceremonial bauble, as critical, yet ultimately as useless, as the hat on a tuba-player’s head.
I reject the idea that there was any sincere concern that the Irish Guard lost its musical roots. While the official history tells us that the original Guard, formed in 1949, consisted of bag-pipers, by 1954, they abandoned musical performance altogether. Instead, they focused on people-moving, initially on moving Notre Dame students who blocked the way to the Field House and threatened to crush band-members in their exuberance to get a good seat. As recently as 2010, Assistant Band Director Larry Dwyer noted that the Irish Guard are instructed to move people out of the way of the band, “with care, but they’re also instructed to get it done.”
I also note that discipline problems have been dealt with in the past. Well-publicized episodes of bad behavior in 1987, 1992, and 2007 made the pages of Scholastic and national television on NBC and Sports Center. Still, the Guard carried on. In fact, in a Scholastic article appearing in 1998, then-director Dr. Luther Snavely admitted to knowing of the existence of initiation practices among the Guard, but that they were “a secret to the guys and the organization.”
While every member of the Irish Guard save its Captain was required to tryout for his (or her) job each season, the presence of veterans among the ranks gave the Irish Guard a uniformity, consistency, and institutional-knowledge that gave meaning to their traditions, and purpose to their steps. All elite units rely on these basics of esprit de corps and discipline, on the fact that they are, in fact, different from, or better than, the rest. Everyone knows what “green beret” implies. So, too, the Legionnaire’s kepi has an immediate impact to the viewer. To remove institutional memory from the Irish Guard will be to diminish the importance of its traditions and lore. It will be the first step in removing the traditions and the group altogether.
This may be Dr. Dye’s purpose. At $2,000 per kit, it’s expensive to suit up the ten Guardsmen and if they lose the height and appearance requirements, I don’t doubt that cost will soon be used to justify further watering-down, either by reducing the number of Guardsmen or by taking away uniform items. A designed life-span of one or two seasons is a terrible idea when applied to a unit whose official use has been to move people. Marching into a crush of people is scary the first time you do it, and removing those who’ve done it before is a bad idea, especially for the upcoming season, which will have no returning Guardsmen.
The Irish Guard means something to Notre Dame and it’s unfair to create a squad of square-jawed men (and women) whose job it is to be different and aggressive and then take away the characteristics that allowed them to do its job. Closing the Guard to non-members will ensure that Dr. Dye’s control over the group is unquestioned and unchallenged. Closing the Guard down, though, may be his ultimate goal.