Exactly where and how Notre Dame’s athletic nickname, “Fighting Irish,” came to origination never has been perfectly explained.
One story suggests the moniker was born in 1899 with Notre Dame leading Northwestern 5-0 at halftime of a game in Evanston, Ill. The Wildcat fans supposedly began to chant, “Kill the Fighting Irish, kill the Fighting Irish,” as the second half opened.
Another tale has the nickname originating at halftime of the Notre Dame-Michigan game in 1909. With his team trailing, one Notre Dame player yelled to his teammates – who happened to have names like Dolan, Kelly, Glynn, Duffy and Ryan – “What’s the matter with you guys? You’re all Irish and you’re not fighting worth a lick.”
Notre Dame came back to win the game and press, after overhearing the remark, reported the game as a victory for the “Fighting Irish.”
The most generally accepted explanation is that the press coined the nickname as a characterization of Notre Dame athletic teams, their never-say-die fighting spirit and the Irish qualities of grit, determination and tenacity. The term likely began as an abusive expression tauntingly directed toward the athletes from the small, private, Catholic institution. Notre Dame alumnus Francis Wallace popularized it in his New York Daily News columns in the 1920s.
The Notre Dame Scholastic, in a 1929 edition, printed its own version of the story:
“The term ‘Fighting Irish’ has been applied to Notre Dame teams for years. It first attached itself years ago when the school, comparatively unknown, sent its athletic teams away to play in another city …At that time the title ‘Fighting Irish’ held no glory or prestige …
“The years passed swiftly and the school began to take a place in the sports world …’Fighting Irish’ took on a new meaning. The unknown of a few years past has boldly taken a place among the leaders. The unkind appellation became symbolic of the struggle for supremacy of the field. …The team, while given in irony, has become our heritage. …So truly does it represent us that we unwilling to part with it …”
Notre Dame competed under the nickname “Catholics” during the 1800s and became more widely known as the “Ramblers” during the early 1920s in the days of the Four Horsemen.
University president Rev. Matthew Walsh, C.S.C., officially adopted “Fighting Irish” as the Notre Dame nickname in 1927.