The Fighting Irish in Ireland. What a concept. Natural-sounding as Alice in Wonderland, and potentially even curiouser.
The University of Notre Dame football team, along with marching pep band, cheerleaders, flag-toters and one fist-thrusting leprechaun, all fly to Dublin this month.
Then, on Nov. 2 in a stadium that seats and stands 70,000 for hurling (which is a Gaelic game resembling full-contact field hockey), Lou Holtz's squad will take on a football team representing the U.S. Naval Academy in the first Shamrock Classic.
It's a genuine, official, counts-in-the-mythical-standings college football game (though Notre Dame figures to be a 237-point favorite over those Mids). Game time is 1 p.m. in Dublin, 8 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.
But this is more than Notre Dame-Navy football. It's also a travel opportunity.
Even this late, tour companies around the United States are selling packages that generally include air, six nights' lodging and game tickets. A quick survey found prices ranging from $1,355 to $2,349 per person, double occupancy.
At the low end, you get a roof and a bed, a little car, a game ticket and a map. Extra bucks should bring better hotels, escorted sightseeing, transportation, some meals besides breakfast, maybe a medieval banquet and a chance to smooch the Blarney Stone.
Some of the tour companies are in Chicago and Indiana, but most are in the Northeast -- and all are primarily after Notre Dame business.
"I've sold 400 [packages] out of Philadelphia," said Jim Burkhardt, president of Alexandria, Va.-based Isle Inn Tours. "I don't think out of the 400 anybody ever went to college."
Promoters expect 10,000
This kind of thing has been done in Dublin before. In 1988, Boston College (a school with Irish roots) celebrated its 125th anniversary there by upsetting Army 38-24 in front of 42,000 folks at Lansdowne Road, a rugby stadium. Roughly 6,000 bought packages in the States for that one; promoters expect to sell at least 10,000 for Notre Dame-Navy, though reports are mixed.
Sherry Goodwin, in charge of group sales at Travelmore/Carlson Travel Network in South Bend, Ind., said her agency sold out its initial 100 seats, added another hundred and sold them out by the first of this year.
"We did have one cancellation, so we do have room for a party of two -- but it's not like we have a lot of availability," she said.
Burkhardt said he has sold more than 2,000 packages, including 600 out of Annapolis and 240 to golfers backing Notre Dame.
He's disappointed. He expected to sell 3,500.
"I, myself, thought it would be bigger, until I saw the Notre Dame running backs," Burkhardt said after the Irish squeaked past unranked Vanderbilt in their season-opener. "Holy [moley], how can they recruit so well and then just not have anybody running the ball for them?
"What I loved was this one pass they had to defend against, when the 5-foot-4 midget couldn't get up to the guy's shoulders."
Big, big field
At least people who were at that game in Nashville could actually see the midget. It may not be that easy in Dublin's Croke Park.
"The field itself's probably 120 yards wide," said Bubba Cunningham, assistant athletic director at Notre Dame. "A [regulation] football field's only about 55 [yards wide]. It's also quite long, so our field will look like a postage stamp out there."
That was just one of the problems. The hosts have tried to deal with it by setting the football field off-center, but from lots of seats, the game will still be a rumor -- and about 30,000 of the park's 70,000 capacity is more-remote standing room.
Then there was providing locker rooms for all those football players. No sport played in Ireland requires that many players.
"There's a locker room, they have a shower area and then they have a warm-up area, where they stretch and warm up inside before they come out to the field," Cunningham said. "So a combination of all those rooms will house the 85 football players."
Finally, there was the problem of translating "Bubba."
Some things just don't translate, even in a country that speaks essentially the same language. American football may be one of them.
"This is not a sport that's real well-known in Ireland," said John Heisler, sports information director at Notre Dame. "And that's why the presence of the bands, the cheerleaders and things like that are going to have as much of an effect as anything -- the color and the pageantry, that sort of thing."
"It's a spectacle," said Cunningham.
Dublin itself will be something of a spectacle on Nov. 2. Kevin Kelly of the Irish Tourist Board is expecting 15,000 Americans in Dublin for the game. The city has only about 7,500 hotel rooms for everybody; all Ireland has maybe 10,000, not counting bed and breakfasts.
"What we did was flip-flop hotel rooms," said Burkhardt. "Say we're going into Dublin for three days. We would go in on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Saturday morning we'd go to the game and then leave.
"Then the other group would be coming up from Killarney or wherever. They would go to the game, then go to their room. That way, we effectively doubled the rooms available in Dublin."
Even so, game day could be interesting. Suitcases everywhere. Said Paula Daughtrey of Anthony Travel in South Bend: "When you have this many people going at one time, it gets to be a logistical nightmare trying to get everybody in and out of there for the game."
But Ireland knows how to handle crowds, even crowds of green-clad of Americans -- though this, said Ruth Moran of the Irish Tourist Board, may be the largest-ever one-day, one-site, peacetime invasion of Yanks.
"Around St. Patrick's, we usually get a fair influx," said Moran, "but it would be dispersed throughout the country."
Dubliners have survived worse, from Britain and the Continent.
"For some of these soccer matches and stuff, they'll bring in 30,000," Burkhardt said.
Those 30,000 didn't see anything like what visitors and locals will see this time.
"There will be great excitement with the bands," Kelly said. "Both bands are coming, and they'll be marching around Dublin and St. Stephen's Green."
And in the evening, pubs will beckon. A consumer advisory, courtesy of the Irish Tourist Board: A properly poured pint of Guinness in a Dublin pub will set you back about $3.50.
"But it's a big pint, an Irish imperial pint," said Kelly. "You get four of them, you're on your rear."
Pub Date: 10/06/96