Conal Fagan: Home Away From Home

By Conal Fagan '21

Conal Fagan is a Leprechaun on the Notre Dame Cheerleading team. He hails from Derry, Northern Ireland. 


“For those who know Notre Dame, no explanation is necessary. For those who don’t, no explanation will suffice.”– Lou Holtz

The Notre Dame experience is one that cannot be summed up succinctly into words alone but rather through the moments in time that shape it. And it is in these moments that we discover our own Notre Dame experience, an experience which changes our lives forever. 

So, how did I get here?

As one of four children from a working-class family in Derry, Northern Ireland, the United States often seemed a far cry from a city which has been crippled by high unemployment and suicide rates. The possibility of developing ‘‘small-town syndrome’– a feeling in which one’s potential is limited only to what surrounds them– is something which I wanted to steer clear from at all costs. 

I knew that I had the potential to do something with my life – I just had to figure out how I would put my skills into action. At age four, I began to realize my love for soccer. After joining Oxford United Stars F.C, I found myself driving towards the goal of becoming a professional soccer player. From playing street soccer against the biggest kids in the neighborhood to captaining my country on my international debut against Estonia, everything seemed to be moving in the right direction. 

I had always been told that I need a back-up, a ‘Plan B.’ For me, that was education. Even though my mother and father did not have the opportunity to attend college, they did have an unrivaled work ethic and attention to detail that I am so blessed to have had instilled in me. I never seemed to have any trouble completing assignments or even getting along with teachers.

Soccer was my escape from the hecticness of daily life, yet when your life becomes so consumed by a single activity, it can become dangerous. After being selected for the Northern Ireland U14 squad, Mondays and Wednesdays (as well as Sundays) saw me arriving in from school at 4 p.m., hitting the road at 4:30 p.m., driving for two hours, training for two hours and then arriving at home at 11 p.m. to do three hours of homework and finally get to bed at 2:30 a.m.  

Something needed to change. I found myself disillusioned and removed from the passion which I loved so much as a young kid. To have worked so hard for 12 years of my life only for it to be taken away by ‘burnout’ seemed like it would never happen. And it did. But I wouldn’t change it because it has made me who I am today. 

So, I decided that pursuing an illustrious move to an English club at age 16 would not be the path for me, nor moving to the U.S. on a soccer scholarship. Rather, I began to harness my energies towards academics and realized that I had a resilience and a fervor that could grow and strengthen exponentially. I was lucky that I had teachers pushing me in the right direction, and I applied to the Sutton Trust U.S. Program, a U.K. program for high-achieving academic students from low- and middle-income families. They helped with the application process, provided me with the chance to visit the US for the first time and ultimately, helped me find Notre Dame.

Notre Dame was the place that would challenge me to grow not only intellectually, but also spiritually. It was the place that would force me outside of my comfort zone while always guiding me where I needed to be going. It was the place whose identity in Christ enables you to inspire others and gives you the platform to create life-changing opportunities. It was the place where I could finally fulfill ambitions that always seemed so distant. 

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Simply put, it was the place I needed to be. 

The Golden Dome, the Grotto, Touchdown Jesus, Notre Dame Stadium. All of these places are special. But Notre Dame is nothing without the people. And this could not have been more apparent during my freshman year. November 18th, 2017 marked one of the most significant dates in my life: the day of my father’s death. 

Although we were in some ways ready for an end to his cruel seven-year battle against Alzheimer’s Disease, nothing ever really prepares you for what unfolds during the struggle. Moving to the U.S. was not easy, given his circumstances, but I knew that he wanted me to succeed, and I knew that Notre Dame would most certainly get his approval. To have the support of the Notre Dame community behind me during this time is something, to this day, that I still cannot put into words because never I have ever encountered a group of people so genuine in their support.

Leprechaun Life

LepreConal. It’s sort of become my adopted alias. This year marked my second year since I began my crazy journey as one of the Notre Dame Leprechauns. I’ll always argue that it’s the best, and most prestigious, mascot in college sports, but honestly, I could never have pictured myself ever wearing the green jacket or having the Shillelagh at the start of freshman year.

After a few months training with the Varsity Soccer Squad, I decided that it was time to hang up the cleats, and it was something which I was totally comfortable with. I now had a chance to actually reflect and take stock of exactly who I was and what I wanted to achieve during my time at Notre Dame. I couldn’t stay out of the athletic field for too long, though. I was missing structure and I was missing a familial sporting environment. 

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“You should go for Leprechaun,” became the soundtrack of my freshman year. After realizing how much I loved this place, my friends decided to get me an ND onesie for Christmas, which I then decided would be the perfect outfit to wear to basketball games. Being front row was a pretty surreal experience, and the cheerleaders probably were pretty fed up with me because this Irish kid behind them would always start the cheers. But after some gentle nudges in the right direction, I spoke with Joe Fennessy (‘18), who had been Leprechaun for two years, and I was sold.

I had no real clue about what the actual process was to get the spot. After submitting the required paperwork, an application form and a creative video, individuals advance to the in-person tryout. Taking place the weekend of the Blue-Gold Game, the tryouts are held in the Pit (in Purcell Pavilion), and they remain open to the public. What makes the tryouts even better is that you can invite as many people as you want and it really makes it a rowdy atmosphere, yet you don’t know exactly what things are going to be like until you run out from backstage. 

The components of the tryout consist of situations that challenge your Notre Dame knowledge, ability to entertain and think on your feet and comfort in public speaking and performing. After all this, it’s up to the judges to decide if you’ve done enough. And thankfully, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience two years of it, with hopefully another to come. 

I feel that there can often be a narrative that the Leprechaun is a super secretive position, or you have to do something crazy to get it. In all honesty, you just need to make that first step and immerse yourself. The more you give to it, the more it gives back in return. Of course, being courtside at basketball games, traveling across the country for football games or even getting to do commercials is pretty cool. But, what makes this experience genuinely special is that you get to meet the most incredible people doing it. 

One football weekend, I came across a fan whose father had never been to Notre Dame before, and one of his lifelong dreams was to attend a game and meet the Leprechaun. What made this connection even more poignant was the fact that his father had a terminal illness, which meant that he had less than six months left to live. After introducing myself, to see the tears begin to slowly roll down his face made me realize exactly what this position is about: changing lives and showing people the true meaning of Notre Dame.

Secondly, my first-ever football game at which I cheered was Michigan in 2018. Earlier that day, I met with a family from Albuquerque, N.M., who had been coming to Notre Dame for the past 10 years. What made this visit so special was that it was their then-11-month-old son Joshua’s first trip to Notre Dame, as well as the grandmother’s first visit to Notre Dame. After chatting for a while and upon discovering the fact that I was a Leprechaun, they came to see my performances at soccer and volleyball games over the course of the weekend, and I made a real friendship for life. Since then, we have remained in close contact. I have been able to witness little Joshua literally take his first steps over FaceTime and continue to see him grow.  

These moments reaffirm to me every single day that I am exactly where I need to be.

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Staying Stateside

The outbreak of Covid-19 in recent months has caused an unprecedented change in how we function as humans. The ramifications of this pandemic, not only for the future of collegiate athletics, but for society as a whole are still not fully understood.

After traveling to the ACC Women’s Basketball Championship, I flew to Colorado Springs, CO, and attended the TeamUSA Symposium at the USOPC headquarters. This was when we began to receive news that returning to campus would no longer be a viable option after spring break. Following the conference, I traveled to join my roommate and his family. From Missouri City, Texas, they would become my new ‘Quarantine Family’ for the next 10 weeks. 

Deciding whether or not I wanted to stay in the United States was not an easy one. Being away from family at a time of a global pandemic is not ideal and the uncertainty of the future never presented any clear way out. Given that there was no guarantee that I could return back to the United States prior to the fall semester, and also that I could also have exposed my family to the virus if I had have picked it up while traveling, I decided to stay in the States. 

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At a time of great struggle like this, it is so easy to surround yourself with a negative narrative and forget everything else that is happening in the world. Something had to change, and it all started with my mentality. Instead of focusing on what I no longer could do during this time, I began to ask myself big questions, and I learned that a growth mindset is a powerful thing. 

A message which has been placed on my heart constantly throughout this pandemic has been: 

Are you going to walk towards fear, or are you going to walk towards faith?

It is up to us which pathway we choose, and as a follower of Christ, the Word of God is what sustains us all throughout times of struggle.

Christ never said that we would avoid suffering or that life would be easy, but He did say that he would be with us through it all. That where I find Hope every day.

It is not a time to remove ourselves completely from the reality of the situation at hand, but rather to see God’s beauty at work. Whether that is through the heroic work of frontline responders (shoutout to my brother Chris, a newly-qualified doctor in England) and essential workers, through the increase in love and compassion that people are showing towards each other or simply by being able to take a step back and appreciate the nature which surrounds us, God continues to work in our lives every day. 

For my roommate’s family to welcome this little Leprechaun into their homes for an extended period of time is something for which I will forever be thankful, and has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. However, what makes it abundantly clear that I’m not a true Texan is my inability to deal with the heat and humidity. Irish skin in the Southern heat usually ends up burning pretty easily. 

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What lies ahead over these next few months continues to remain up in the air. However, it is key that we continue to take things as they come and rise to the challenges when they come our way. As for me, I’ll be doing a remote internship with Special Olympics and conducting policy research as part of its Global Engagement Team, while I’ll also be studying for the GRE exam. I’ve made a to-do-list for the summer so that these next 12 weeks do not pass me by without me becoming a better version of the person who I am today, and I schedule weekly check-ins with friends and family to ensure that everybody is staying healthy during this time, physically and mentally.

The situation which we are facing is not an easy one to navigate and it is something which continues to frustrate us because we do not have all the answers. However, we must persevere and continue to fight, because we will prevail. It is in moments like these that we see the true heroes of our time. But we too must play our part and continue to follow guidelines that ensure the safety of everyone. 

Together, we are strong. Together, we will overcome this. Together, we are ND.

– LepreConal


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