Somewhere along the line it was decided that a wrought-iron cage was simply not enough security, so rows of sharp spikes, as long and deadly as steak knives, were added to the top of the fence that surrounds Hill 16, a storied section of the stadium called Croke Park in North Dublin. There are no seats on Hill 16; the tickets are cheap, and the patrons are tougher than pub pork chops. To these fans, a luxury box is one that holds Dunhills or a new pair of work boots. If the denizens of Mill 16 had been born and raised in the U.S., they would have loved Art Donovan and hated Art Modell.
When it was announced two years ago that Notre Dame and Navy would be playing American football on the Croke (pronounced Crow) field on Nov. 2, 1996, there was some concern about how the patrons of Hill 16 would handle it. This is, after all, not your average working-class section in your average 55,000-seat stadium. Hill 16 was once the site of a massacre, and we're not referring to the kind that occurs when the Buffalo Bills reach the Super Bowl.
On Nov. 21, 1920, a police force under British rule, retaliating for an Irish Republican Army attack earlier in the day, opened fire on the Croke crowd at a Gaelic football match between Dublin and Tipperary, killing 12 people, including a Tipperary player. The park remains sacred ground for many Dubliners, and until last Saturday afternoon no "foreign" sport had been played on its pitch. Only Gaelic football and hurling had been allowed. Soccer and rugby, considered British games, are still forbidden, but the people of Dublin opened their hallowed stadium to American college football, and the reviews were overwhelmingly positive.
In their minds all the Dubliners did was give Ireland over to the Irish, and the lads from Notre Dame capped off their first trip to the Emerald Isle by running over a tough Navy club 54-27. It was the 33rd straight time Notre Dame had beaten Navy, stretching the longest head-to-head winning streak in Division I. In the end Dublin was nearly as delighted as the kelly-green-clad visitors who flooded the city for four days. "Absolutely brilliant," said Pete McMahon, a dirty-faced 13-year-old, as he stood in the front row of Hill 16. "I don't know exactly what's happening out there, but it's exciting."
Of the announced crowd of 38,651, approximately 8,000 were jammed inside the bars on Hill 16. The spiked fence apparently serves a purpose at the most spirited Gaelic football matches, but it wasn't necessary at the first NCAA tilt in Croke. For much of the game the fans on Hill 16 seemed to be in a subdued state of curiosity, at a loss to tell the difference between an incomplete pass and a fumble. But they came alive when Ryan Gee of Notre Dame high-stepped down the sideline and toward the end zone in front of them. Now this, they could tell, was exciting.
They roared their approval, which was a relief for Gee, who wasn't sure how the Irish people would react to a goofy little guy with a red beard, a bright-green leprechaun suit and a silly hat. "I was a little curious," Gee said in a way that made curious sound like scared out of my knickers.
As it turned out, the Notre Dame mascot was happier than Lou Holtz was with Saturday's result. The fans loved Gee—USC crowds should be so nice—who even stepped through the iron bars and stood awhile on Hill 16. "I couldn't believe it: Nobody gave me a hard time at all," said Gee, a junior government major from Spokane. "I didn't know what to expect, but these people were great."
They still might not like foreigners on their field, but to the folks on Hill 16, this was different. These were the Irish, and this was Ireland.
It was technically a home game for the Midshipmen, but they wouldn't have felt more outnumbered if they had played the game in downtown Baghdad. It was their choice; Navy split a $1.7 million appearance fee with Notre Dame and exported its best team in years to enemy territory. It was business. "Sure, we would have rather played at home, in front of our own fans," said Navy tackle Scott Zimmerman. "But we knew what we were getting into. We knew there'd be a lot of distractions and a lot of people rooting against us. But we pride ourselves on being able to overcome things like that. We just didn't do it."
Navy, 5-1 going into the game, took a decidedly different approach to the trip from the one adopted by Notre Dame, which was 4-2. Except for holding a couple of brief practices, the Irish could have been following the itinerary of an alumni travel group. The Midshipmen, on the other hand, showed up on Thursday morning, a day later than the Irish, and spent very little time touring. Navy coach Charlie Weatherbie gave his players two hours to walk around downtown Dublin on Thursday, while they were still wiped out from their overnight flight. The Midshipmen spent the next day and a half in preparation for the game. Navy had much to lose; it was the first time since 1981 that the Midshipmen had gone into the Notre Dame game with a better record than the Irish, and they were dreaming of a bowl bid. "We look at [this game] as a privilege," said Weatherbie. "I can't think of a better place to play Notre Dame than Dublin."