Football’s Coming Home


Sam Geoghegan looks back on the Emerald Isle Classic, and tells us what it means for Ireland’s sporting future

Anyone living in Dublin at the beginning of September will be well aware that an American football game took place in the Aviva Stadium on the same weekend that Mayo defeated the defending All-Ireland champions.

The game was between the University of Notre Dame, also known as the “Fighting Irish”, and the Midshipmen of the US Naval Academy. Notre Dame and Navy is one of the most storied rivalries in all of US college football. Although both sides have not reached the dizzying heights of their glorious past, this fixture still remains one of the games to look forward to each season.

Navy and Notre Dame have played every year since 1914 which makes it the longest uninterrupted intersectional series in all of college football. Notre Dame’s dominance is evident in past statistics having won 70 of the previous 83 meetings between the sides, including a 43 game winning streak between 1964 and 2006. Navy however, have won three of the last five encounters.

With 35 thousand US visitors travelling to Ireland for one weekend, many of whom can trace their ancestry here, events throughout Dublin were organised for the entire weekend. Supporters of Notre Dame stayed here in UCD Residences. Notre Dame and Navy both held practices in UCD and Trinity College respectively, with Trinity hosting a pep rally on the Thursday. The Navy boxing team participated against the Trinity boxing team and their respective rugby teams faced off against each other as well.

Six high school football games were played around Dublin and Meath on the Friday evening. Trim in Meath also hosted a five day ‘Feile Americana’. The USS Fort McHenry docked in Dublin Pier for 11 days and Taoiseach Enda Kenny officially opened the Notre Dame Pep rally in the O2 in Dublin. The rally was broadcast live by RTÉ as Notre Dame traditions were mixed with contemporary Irish music.

Saturday morning saw Temple Bar turn in to a massive tailgating venue for fans with gardaí turning a blind eye to people consuming alcohol on the streets. Dublin Castle held an open air mass on Saturday morning. Then, of course, the Aviva Stadium played host to an uneven 50-10 win for Notre Dame in the afternoon.

This one game is said to have been worth over €75 million to the Irish economy. The Department of Tourism hurried to launch ‘The Gathering 2013’, a program that aims to attract as many people with Irish roots as possible from across the globe to come ‘home’ to Ireland in 2013, ahead of schedule, with many of the 35 thousand visiting Americans claiming Irish descent.

‘The Gathering’ sponsored the game, known as ‘The Emerald Isle Classic’, and was heavily plugged for television audiences in the States. The game was nationally televised on CBS and, although it began at 9am EST, it was re-played later on in the day and was the leading sports story on ESPN.

Hotels were booked out as Dublin Airport experienced its busiest day ever on the day after the game. Brown Thomas on Grafton Street had its best trading day since Christmas Eve 2007 on the Friday. All of Dublin’s bars, restaurants and shops appeared to be back in the Celtic Tiger days as there were no signs of any recession. Even the weather was perfect the whole long weekend.

It proves that Ireland, and especially the state-of-the-art the Aviva venue, can hold a major sporting event. In the past ten years, we’ve seen the Special Olympics, the Ryder Cup and the UEFA Europa League Final come to these shores and the Heineken Cup Final will also be played at the Dublin 4 stadium in May.

Minister for Sport Leo Varadkar has previously stated his desire to host the Rugby World Cup there and the FAI have registered their interest in staging the 2020 European Championships along with their Scottish and Welsh counterparts in the Aviva. This American invasion has only boosted our chances and reputation. More importantly for American football fans, we could we see an NFL game sometime very soon.

NFL officials inspected Croke Park in the spring and came away very impressed. The US Ambassador to Ireland, Dan Rooney, is the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and has hinted at a desire to have a game here. Following the success of the ‘International Series’ in Wembley, there is a commitment to play at least one game a season there up until 2016.

There is an increasing likelihood that other venues might host an NFL game starting next year. Ireland, along with Germany, would seem to be top of that list. One thing is for certain, we have proved we can handle it.

The hosting of the Emerald Isle classic can only be seen as a resounding success as Irish eyes were smiling and we saw the positive influence sport can have for the economy and for a nation’s morale.