Still, it was hard for the Midshipmen not to be intimidated by their surroundings. Except for a sprinkling of sailors on liberty, Dublin was blanketed by citizens of Notre Dame Nation. Roving bands of Notre Dame boosters poured out of tour buses and picked the stores clean of wool sweaters and Waterford crystal. Dubliners could only shake their heads as crowds of giddy Tip O'Neill look-alikes packed the pubs and guzzled Guinness as if they were playing parts in a Brendan Behan play. The crowd at Croke was the smallest for a Notre Dame game since Holtz took over in 1986, but it was the friendliest road crowd in college football history.
Notre Dame touted the game as "the largest single tourist event ever in Ireland." An estimated 8,000 tour packages were sold in the U.S., and some 15,000 Americans made the transatlantic trek. Another 10,000 or so Yanks arrived from elsewhere in Europe. It was the third time an American college football game had been held in Dublin—Boston College beat Army there in 1988, and Pitt beat Rutgers in '89—but it was the first such match at Croke and the first involving Notre Dame. Dublin was overrun, and it seemed that everyone was either Irish or pretending to be.
"I'm rooting for Navy because I just met four people from Navy, and they seemed like good people," said Noel Collins, a 23-year-old cook from Cork, as he sipped his Guinness at a pub called Bellamy's. How many Notre Dame people had he met? "What do you mean 'how many'?" Collins, shouted. "Everyone else!"
Navy actually had more players with Irish backgrounds than Notre Dame did, including three Midshipmen with relatives living in Ireland. The Irish had just a handful of Irish-Americans in uniform, but they had history on their side. One account has it that the school acquired its nickname and its national following in the 1920s when Irish immigrants in New York claimed Knute Rockne's teams as their own. Today in Ireland the popularity of the Fighting Irish is easier to explain. "They're the only college team we get on TV every week," said Emmet Riordan, a writer for The Title, a national weekly sports publication.
Unlike the Midshipmen, the Notre Dame players got out of their hotel, saw the sights and met the people. Shortly after touching down in Dublin, the team drove an hour south to Glendalough, in County Wicklow, where the players viewed ancient monastic ruins. A few players, punch-drunk from their crowded 7½-hour flight from Chicago, chased some sheep around a field. The sheep had better luck than the Midshipmen. "Some of those sheep had pretty good moves," said Notre Dame tight end Pete Chryplewicz.
Before the players were allowed to crawl into bed, they sat down to dinner together at their Dublin hotel. The food was served, but in keeping with team tradition, the players didn't touch it until Holtz arrived in the room. The food service manager, stunned by the starving players' respect for their coach, said, "So he's sort of like God, huh?" He was assured that, in this crowd, Holtz was close.
When Holtz and his players walked down O'Connell Street, Dublin's main drag, they were constantly stopped and asked to sign autographs and pose for pictures. Of course, the people asking were insurance salesmen from Illinois. "It's a long road game, but it's a great time," said Irish quarterback Ron Powlus. "I don't want to leave. I'd like to stay a few more days."
The true Irish, to their everlasting credit, had trouble grasping the magnitude of college football. When a local TV crew showed up late for a Notre Dame practice, its members couldn't understand why they weren't allowed to shoot video of the drills. Only the first few minutes of practice could be filmed, they were told. Why? Why couldn't they film the end of practice? "I had to admit," said one Notre Dame official, "it was a good question." As part of her story, one TV reporter suggested the game would be a great place to see "single American men." She didn't mention that most of them would look like Tip O'Neill.
When representatives of a popular late-night TV talk show called to request appearances by Holtz and Powlus on Friday, they were told it was impossible. The players had curfew, and the coaches were busy. Instead, Notre Dame offered its band and cheerleaders, including Gee, the leprechaun. The response from the show? "Even better." The 125-member band lugged its equipment to the studio and played the Notre Dame fight song on national TV. The leprechaun sat and swapped stories with Gay Byrne, Ireland's answer to Leno and Letterman. "He's bigger than those guys," Gee said of Byrne. "He's a living legend." Sort of like Holtz.
On Friday the Notre Dame players and coaches toured Trinity College, a 400-year-old institution in the heart of Dublin. Who says football players never get near the books? The Irish players strolled through the famous Long Room, a library that holds 200,000 volumes, and then viewed the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the gospels that was copied by monks in the eighth and ninth centuries. It wasn't 18 holes at Druids Glen, but it wasn't bad.