Today, Irish-Americans and Catholics in general are unquestionably part of mainstream America. Even WASPS now drink green beer on St. Patrick’s Day, and seems like a looong time ago that people seriously questioned whether John Kennedy’s tepid, nominal Catholicism made him unfit to be President.
But, to put it mildly, that was not always the case. For many years, Catholics in general, and the Irish in particular, were regarded with hostility and suspicion by WASP America. Not surprisingly, then, Irish Catholics were inclined to rally around ANY other Irish or Catholics who seemed to epitomize success.
As mentioned earlier, Knute Rockne was both a brilliant coach (the first to make the forward pass an integral part of the game) and a smart marketer. A Norwegian Lutheran himself (he later converted to Catholicism), he saw that a successful Catholic school with a name like “the Fighting Irish” could appeal to fans in CHicago, Boston, New York, Philadelphia… anywhere there were Irish and Catholics who felt put-upon and outside the mainstream.
In Irish and Catholic neighborhoods all over the midwest and northeast, people who didn’t go to Notre Dame, and didn’t even KNOW anyone who’d gone to Notre Dame, came to regard the Irish as “their” team. Such fans are called “the subway alumni,” because they FEEL like alumni, even though they have no real ties to the school.
Interestingly, the subway alumni continued feeling this attachment to Notre Dame LONG after there were many actual Irish or Catholic players on the field.