Saturday’s game in Dublin between Navy and Notre Dame has brought an estimated 35,000 Americans to the Irish capital for a road game like no other, and the novelty of the event has captured the Irish imagination.
The U.S. Navy docked an amphibious-assault warship in Dublin and their fans have rallied in the city’s central park, St. Stephen’s Green. Not to be outdone, the night-before Notre Dame pep rally is being broadcast live on Irish state TV, followed by an open-air Catholic Mass from inside the grounds of Dublin Castle. And many city-center pubs have decorated their fronts with balloons, banners and window paintings honoring the two teams.
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Oh yeah. There’s also a game to be played at Ireland’s gleaming new Aviva Stadium, a 50,000-seat venue normally home to Ireland’s national soccer and rugby teams, which has just experienced the first ticket sellout in its 2-year existence.
Both sides’ coaches admit it’s been a challenge to keep their hyped-up players focused on the importance of the game – and sufficiently well rested following what, for most athletes, was their first trans-Atlantic flight – since arriving here Thursday at the crack of dawn.
”We feel very privileged and very blessed to be here along with Notre Dame. There’s not too many teams that get this kind of opportunity,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. ”But other than that, we’ve got to remember we’re playing a very good football team, so we’d better get ready.”
The Irish and American organizers of the event, officially called the Emerald Isle Classic, have spent two years getting Ireland ready for its first hosting of a U.S. college football game since 1996, when the same two colleges were involved. On that occasion, the two sides played in a half-full stadium and U.S.-based fans saw only a tape-delayed broadcast.
This time, everything feels different. This game is officially tied to an ambitious Irish tourism project called The Gathering that seeks to woo anyone with an Irish surname back home to visit members of their clan next year. It’s being televised live in parts of Europe as well as the United States.
Ireland’s allotment of 15,000 tickets sold out in two hours, anyone donning Navy or ND sportswear in public is liable to be asked if they have a spare ticket to sell, and trying to find a hotel room within 100 miles of Dublin this weekend has proved next to impossible.
Navy is officially the home team, but that’s tough to discern given the heavy Irish Catholic bias in favor of Notre Dame, which also has a fulltime overseas study program in Dublin. Sightings of tourists and locals in Fighting Irish regalia easily outnumber Midshipmen supporters 20 to 1. Support is similarly skewed among the dozen U.S. and Canadian high-school football teams in town for their own weekend tournament.
”Obviously the Notre Dame brand is pretty strong out here, so although we’re away from the United States we feel pretty comfortable here,” said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, who traces his Irish roots to great-grandfather Eugene.
Both teams are enforcing discipline on their players and other traveling students in hopes of avoiding any boozy trouble. That’s not easy in a country with one pub for every few hundred residents and a poorly enforced drinking age of 18.
Notre Dame has taken the high road, literally and figuratively, by cloistering their squad at a luxury hotel in the hills of neighboring County Wicklow. The team did take in a country pub, with soft drinks only, where locals put on a show of traditional music and jigs. The girls did coax a few of the lads on stage, but Riverdance it wasn’t.
Kelly says his greatest experience so far has also been the most hair-raising – the casually high-speed commute from their rural idyll to the stadium in Ballsbridge, Dublin’s red-brick equivalent of Beverly Hills.
Kelly called the combination of a full-scale bus traveling down a steep, narrow hedge-lined country road ”a scary proposition.” Referring to the Irish police motorcycle crew escorting them everywhere, he quipped, ”I hope all their insurance is paid up.”
While people in Fighting Irish jerseys have been spotted this week on the far side of Ireland climbing mountains and canvassing the pubs of Cork and Galway, the approximately 1,000 naval cadets who have paid their own way over have been ordered to stay within Dublin’s city limits. The Navy players likewise won’t be allowed to roam the streets in their dress uniforms until after the game. For both teams, punitively early 7 a.m. flights Sunday back home beckon.
The civilian fans of both teams spoke glowingly of the banter on the flight over.
Delaware friends Amy Schantz and Julianne Dods, who traveled over in matching Navy grey sweatshirts, said they found themselves surrounded by Notre Dame supporters on their flight.
”It was really fun, because the pilot was a Navy guy,” said Dods as the pair arrived at Dublin Airport. ”The energy on the plane was amazing, so I can only imagine what the energy in the stadium is going to be like,” added Schantz.
Joaquin Cigarroa, a Notre Dame graduate who traveled over with seven other classmates from 2009, found himself sitting beside a Navy supporter on the plane. ”It first it was a little iffy,” he said, ”but by the end we became friends.”