Old Sod connection isn't solid, Irish find Notre Dame vs. Navy is no sellout in Dublin

November 01, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DUBLIN, Ireland -- Notre Dame quarterback Ron Powlus has a case of Irish culture shock.

It's incredibly wet, the team bus barrels down the left side of the street and not too many people in Ireland seem to know much about the Fighting Irish, who meet Navy in tomorrow's Shamrock Classic (7 a.m., EST).

"I'm wondering, when they watch the game, do they know American football?" Powlus said after enduring a rain-soaked, mud-splattered, two-hour practice yesterday. "I don't even know they know Notre Dame."

For all the myth-making about Notre Dame's Irish connections, the truth is these guys can't even outdraw Tina Turner, who lured 50,000 to a Dublin concert last summer.

A crowd of 40,000 is expected to attend the game at cavernous Croke Park, the seat of Gaelic sports and the scene of one of Ireland's darkest episodes, the 1920 Bloody Sunday massacre.

At least half the crowd will be from the United States, as Notre Dame's "subway alumni," plus a sprinkling of Navy fans, have combined forces for what is billed as the biggest invasion of American tourists in Dublin's history.

Among those who arrived early from America was Bob Schmermund of Gambrills, who said he once traveled 10,000 miles from Australia to see an Army-Navy game. Schmermund, a 1978 Navy graduate, wandered around a hotel bar wearing a Navy hat and jacket and declared: "If Navy beats Notre Dame, I could die a happy man."

Today, Dublin will be teeming with pep rallies, parades, marching bands and even a flag football game, as the American fans show off their sporting style. But don't be surprised if the Irish are less than impressed.

"For most Irish people, an American university means the Ivy League," said Paul McGinn, head of Notre Dame's alumni chapter in Ireland. "Notre Dame doesn't fit into the equation. Names like Rockne don't have that much cache around here.

"The Notre Dame fans have to understand that Ireland is another country," said McGinn, who was born and raised in New Orleans. "Coming here doesn't mean importing American culture into a vacuum; it means importing it into a culture that is hundreds of years old."

American football surely has a long way to go before it catches on in Ireland. Boston College met Army here in 1988, and Tufts played Bowdoin in Galway in 1993. Old-timers also say they recall a U.S. military championship game played in Dublin sometime in the early 1950s.

Two years ago, a local promoter gathered up enough sponsors and a $1 million-a-team guarantee to lure Navy and Notre Dame to Dublin. This may be Navy's home game, but Notre Dame fans see the contest as their homecoming.

Few of the visitors are aware of Croke Park's place in Irish sports and history. The stadium is the home of Gaelic football (a combination of soccer, rugby and basketball) and hurling, the country's national pastimes and long a source of Irish identity.

One of the stands at the stadium is named after Michael Hogan, captain of the Tipperary football team, who was among at least 12 people gunned down by British forces on Bloody Sunday, Nov. 21, 1920. The British were retaliating for the Irish Republican Army assassination of 19 British soldiers earlier that day.

"On that particular day, the British forces, known as the Black and Tans, invaded Croke Park looking for members of the IRA," said Frank Hughes, who has worked at the stadium for 49 years. "Unfortunately, none of the IRA was there. The British came up the back of a railway wall that was very low, where trains used to slow down to watch the game. When they came over the railway wall, they opened fire."

These days, the violence at Croke Park is kept on the field, where amateur teams play for Ireland's biggest prizes.

Now, the place is being made over for an American college football game. Portable lights have been shipped in from America, and goal posts have been brought over from Scotland. A temporary scoreboard and giant television screen will also be in place for the game. Chalk marks for an American football field have also been outlined on the soggy grass.

"Most people at the game won't have a clue as to what is going on," said Cillian Smith, general manager and wide receiver for the Dublin Lightning, one of seven amateur teams that play American football in Ireland.

"There was a report in one of the local papers that said Notre Dame was a pro team," he said. "Football just isn't very big around here. When we play, we get very few fans. We're talking family and friends."

Despite the uncertainty surrounding what kind of crowd will show up tomorrow, the players and coaches are trying their best to enjoy what little time they have in Ireland.

Notre Dame's players, who arrived Wednesday, have sampled the Irish countryside from the inside of a bus. They are due to attend a lecture at Trinity College today and will continue sightseeing after the game.

Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz said the team was getting "a good educational experience." Asked to be more specific, he noted the players were learning about readjusting to different time zones, adapting to different social customs and listening to English being spoken with a different accent.

"They're going to leave here understanding an awful lot about Ireland," he said.

Navy's players arrived here yesterday morning and wandered around the city for two hours before practice. They'll fit in sightseeing before and after the game.

"I got a few souvenirs and ate at a McDonald's," Navy quarterback Chris McCoy said.

"I went to a bunch of shops," linebacker Clint Bruce said. "It was kind of like Dallas."

Pub Date: 11/01/96

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