One-sided crowd sees one-sided Irish win

DUBLIN -- After a long and wet summer when the sky was often as dark as the country’s most famous beverage, the sun finally shone Saturday as the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame got their NCAA football season under way against Navy in Ireland.

Just like 1996, when these two teams took to the field on the other side of the River Liffey in Croke Park, it appeared as if the result hardly mattered to the estimated 35,000 fans who made the trip across the Atlantic.

That is, until Theo Riddick opened the scoring for the Fighting Irish on their first drive with an 11-yard run that reminded both teams why they had traveled to Ireland: to play football.

Since coming to Ireland this week, visiting fans have been learning why the country is known as the island of 100,000 welcomes. Pep rallies and tailgate parties have taken place alongside events celebrating Irish arts and culture.

For many, including Notre Dame fan John O’Hanlon, it was their first visit to Ireland.

“My great-grandfather left Kerry in the 1890s. As far as we can tell, I’m the first of his descendants to return home,” said the Indianapolis native. “We were supposed to come to Ireland for the 1996 game, but, unfortunately, my daughter Amy was ill and we had to cancel our trip.

“Thankfully, she made a full recovery and has her own daughter here this week, so, for three generations of my family, this really is the trip of a lifetime.”

As for many of his compatriots, football is just part of the reason O’Hanlon has traveled to Ireland. He arrived more than a week ago and, after a trip to his ancestral home, hopes to visit the rest of the country.

“Seeing the [Fighting] Irish playing in Ireland is great,” he said, “but it’s as much about seeing the country of my forefathers as it is a football game.”

Much harder to find among the visitors to Ireland’s capital were people willing to admit they were cheering for Navy. Karen Driscoll from Baltimore, however, was dressed head-to-toe in Navy apparel but confessed to having some split loyalties.

“With a name like Driscoll, I can’t deny my Irish heritage. However, my family has a long history of naval service, so I’ll be cheering for the Mids,” she said.

However, Driscoll had no doubt who would have more support in the Aviva stadium.

“I know we’ll be outnumbered, which is strange, as this is a home game, but that won’t stop my family and I cheering ‘Go Navy’ at the top of our lungs,” she said.

Unfortunately, Notre Dame’s fast start to the game rendered the home team’s support, including several hundred naval cadets, very quiet very quickly. Distractions had been a concern for Navy players and coaching staff before the game, and it looked as if the atmosphere might have gotten to them.

“This has to be about business and getting the ‘W,’” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said before the game.

It was a view echoed by senior slot back Bo Snelson who said the Midshipmen would have to “ignore the bowllike atmosphere” and treat this like any other game.

Trailing 27-3 at halftime could not have been part of the plan.

For the locals, all firmly behind the Golden Domers, the game could not have started better, with four touchdowns in the opening half for Notre Dame.

Before kickoff, the Emerald Isle Classic had been a chance to showcase the best of Irish hospitality. With every hotel room in Dublin booked for the weekend, as well as queues outside cafes, bars and restaurants, it was easy to see why the event was estimated to be worth $125 million to the local economy.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Kyle Mahon, who traveled to Dublin from Cork two days before the game to sample the atmosphere. “There are just so many Americans around, and they’re all here to enjoy themselves.

“If this keeps up, by the time the game is over, they’ll be more Irish than the Irish themselves,” he laughed.

When George Atkinson III rushed in for his second touchdown early in the third quarter, the game was as good as over. However, many of those in attendance hoped it wouldn’t be the last they’d see of football in Ireland.

“I was here in 1996,” Greg Harrison said, “and, despite the similarly one-sided result, I hope they don’t take as long to come back the next time.”

“Football, both NFL and college, enjoys a big following here, and this game will only add to its popularity. Even if Notre Dame can’t come back every year, I think an Irish audience would enjoy any of the Division 1 teams.”

Whether the NCAA will return to Ireland remains to be seen. However, unless you’re a Navy player, coach or fan, the Emerald Isle Classic has to be considered a success.

The Irish, the local and the Notre Dame variety, got the result they were hoping for, a 50-10 win; the local economy had a much-needed boost; and thousands of visitors got to sample a little piece of the hospitality Ireland is famous for.