A proud, emotional homecoming


IF A massive structure of glass and steel could float on communal sighs of contentment, the Aviva stadium would be half-way to Mars by now. As game-time beckoned on Saturday, under an azure sky and a fiery orb dimly remembered as the “sun”, barbecues scented the air around Lansdowne Road and Irish-Americans beamed and bantered with the locals, a patch of Dublin 4 was morphing briefly into a field of dreams. This was no movie cliche.

For many of those tens of thousands streaming into the stadium, it was the culmination of a complex, emotional journey, where generations of storytelling were brought to life, vows to faith and heritage were renewed, quiet tears were swallowed and some poignant dreams fulfilled.

Flying in last week, Niall O’Dowd, the New York-based publisher, recalled “the deep silence . . . the profound moment” when passengers caught a first glimpse of the Irish coastline.

For the well-travelled offspring of Jack and Kay Gibbons from Dublin, Ohio, this trip was the obvious way to celebrate the couple’s 50th wedding anniversary. For 70-year-old Jack, class of 63 Notre Dame, and now on the university’s advisory council, it was truly a dream fulfilled.

“He had a liver transplant two years ago but he’s here,” said his daughter Kathleen. “He said that this was his goal, that his dream was to make it to this day, because he would probably never be able to come back.”

Ireland and Notre Dame flow in the veins of the Gibbons clan and the emotion was palpable among the 12-strong family group. “Watching a Notre Dame game on television at home, our parents would make us turn off the television at half-time and say the Rosary; not for the poor or the people of Haiti, but for the team,” said Kathleen, laughing. “I cried when the national anthem was played today at the game. I’ve been to 58 countries but I look around me in Ireland and I know that these are our people – these people look like me, they act like me . . . They are Ireland’s treasure”.

For the locals, it was emotional too, if for different reasons. The build-up provided some nostalgic flashbacks to our own joust at world domination. Twenty private US business jets at the airport; the city swamped with coaches and chauffeured cars; an entire pub instantly requisitioned for a private party on Saturday night; a wealthy businessman eyeing a 10-bedroom house in Cork and another intent on buying an Irish island.

Sarah Johnson talked proudly about her grandfather, Johnny Lujack, a Notre Dame alumnus, who won the 1947 Heisman trophy (for best college player in the US) and went on to play for the Chicago Bears. Happily, Sarah and her sister Amy (who met her spouse, Patrick Flanagan in O’Gara’s bar in St Paul’s, Minnesota) and their mother, also contributed to the economy by including a €795 handbag in their shopping spree. The grandparents have also been doing their bit, “by staying up very late and drinking a lot of Irish coffee”.

The inevitable flashes of stage-Irishry included a tractor and haystacks in Temple Bar on Saturday morning, and, reportedly, a cow being paraded through a pub. But it would be silly to imagine that the visitors were not in on the joke. On Friday night, the 9,000 ecstatic attendees at Notre Dame’s pep rally – staged by Philip King – emerged from the impressive expanses of the 02 arena into the docklands and basked in the balmy night air, flanked by the shimmering Liffey and a thoroughly modern streetscape.

They probably guessed they were in a city that confines its cows, tractors and haystacks to the outskirts as a rule.

Another 6,000 filled the cobbled courtyards of Dublin Castle for Notre Dame’s traditional pre-game Mass on Saturday morning, a novel spectacle in a country grown unaccustomed to such mass public exhibitions of faith. A droll Navy fan suggested that such is the deep-dyed Catholicism of the Indiana university, that the players’ dazzling gold helmets are cast from melted-down ciboriums. But even the Mass segued into exuberant, all-American razzmatazz, as ND’s mighty brass band, led by its magnetic white-clad director, wound back through the city centre, carnival-style, followed by thousands of good-natured Americans, cheered on by locals.

Meanwhile, out at the Aviva, upwards of 1,000 relaxed, well-heeled Notre Dame alumni and families were assembling in the president’s suite for an elegant lunch and grand cru wines, hosted by the university president, Rev John I Jenkins. Glen Dimplex boss Martin Naughton and Don Keough of Coca Cola – the driving forces behind the entire venture – watched contentedly as the room filled with influential Irish-Americans and no fewer than nine Irish Government Ministers, who had variable success at pulling off the smart-casual look.

No such problems for Guinness-sipping, uniformed Gen Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, who was conspicuous by his six security guards, while Cmdr Mark Mellett, head of the Irish Naval Service, was among our defenders in uniform. Among the pols scattered strategically around the tables were Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Ministers Frances Fitzgerald, Leo Varadkar, Brendan Howlin, Alan Shatter and James Reilly, and Fergus O’Dowd TD. Ruairí Quinn chatted to Notre Dame old boy and Papal Nuncio Archbishop Charles J Brown. Among the guests were the managing partner of KPMG Ireland, Terence O’Rourke, his wife Desiree and son John. They had linked up with John Veihmeyer, chairman and chief executive of KPMG worldwide and his wife Beth, both, coincidentally, three-quarters Irish with a German grandparent in the mix. Their children happen to be called Bridget, Eileen and Patrick, said Beth. “There is such an overriding love and admiration for Ireland. Nothing could ever, ever dilute what we feel about this country,” said Beth. “We don’t go anywhere else where we can laugh as much . . . I can’t imagine how anyone associated with the university can go home and not rave about the reception and the hospitality we have got here, for months to come.”

Kick-off at 2pm began with the spectacle of serried midshipmen from the Naval Academy – for whom this was a “home” game, God help them – marching into the stadium and saluting the crowd by tipping their white-topped hats in perfect synchronicity. The frenzied build-up featured all a student of Americana could desire: a cast of thousands, including a vast marching band, fantastically athletic cheerleaders twirling tinselly pompoms, a high-kicking leprechaun, several hundred enormous players sporting gleaming helmets, massive padding and tiny trousers, pumping rock music, a PA announcer who managed to sound deeply ominous even when announcing “Sweet Caroline” – and finally, an almighty roar of encouragement from the crowd as the guys lined up, then thundered down the pitch and stopped. And stopped. And stopped again. Then followed the most hellishly fragmented, 3½-hour game of football known to humanity, probably dreamed up by some unhappy male desperate for an excuse to get out of the house.

“I haven’t a clue what’s going on,” said Fergus O’Dowd benignly. “It’s like a series of stills,” mused Eamon Gilmore diplomatically. We say they wouldn’t want to try it in Thomond Park.

Suddenly the on- and off-pitch diversions began to make sense. All round the stadium fans were unceremoniously body-lifted by friends and given the bumps – face down, one for each point scored. A teenager attired in immaculate suit, shirt and tie looked only slightly discomfited after 50 of them – Notre Dame’s final score against Navy’s 10. Other distractions included the captivating mid-air bum-bump executed by celebrating players (we commend it to Thomond Park), the half-time performance by cheerleaders – and leprechaun – dancing an Irish jig, not to mention the ND band’s ability to execute a perfect shamrock and map of Ireland while playing When Irish Eyes Are Smiling and Danny Boy. A sigh of approval followed by a great roar greeted the unfurling of a giant Irish Tricolour by the band.

Then the midshipmen sang the Annapolis hymn and Notre Dame had its victory march – tunes as sacred as any anthem, clearly, as hands were laid on hearts and men and women blinked back tears.

It was that kind of day: funny, entertaining, baffling, sentimental, colourful, energetic and, at times, deeply moving. Above all, there was a sense on both sides that we had come full circle. This homecoming felt real.