As the oppressive heat of the summer breaks, ushering in the welcome relief of crisp fall air, another college football season dawns, and with it the promise of new adventure. A clean slate to dart down another unexplored county highway, discovering new corners and eddies of the American landscape. Football is a mere footnote to the narrative; this is an ongoing odyssey to continually explore the world around me. The “Emerald Isle Classic”, featuring Notre Dame vs Navy, offered a unique chance to expand my journey into the international sphere with a rare international college football game in Dublin, Ireland.
With my friend Chrissy along for the entire campaign, we spend the week leading up to kickoff avoiding the crowds in Ireland. Instead, racing a shiny black Volkswagen Passat through a different corner of the United Kingdom; the fabled Scottish Highlands. Crossing the Mallaig ferry to the Isle Of Skye, and pressing northward into the jagged Trotternish range, we hike through the curious, supernatural landscape of the Quiraing. Impossibly green, the plush grasses cling to towering buttresses of ancient volcanic basalt, silhouettes of eerie weathered pinnacles poking through the thick grey mist. A few sheep graze precariously among the shrouded crags, their coats thick to fend off the constant, menacing winds. The Highlands are hard country. The birthplace of uisge beatha, the “water of life”.
After an incredible week of heavy food and heavier drink, we leave the rugged Scottish countryside behind to the beckoning harps of Ireland. Cautiously weighing my luggage to avoid their sneaky fees, I board the quick RyanAir flight from Edinburgh into Dublin. Football season is underway.
Filing into the opulent lobby of the Shelbourne Marriott across the street from St. Stephens Green, I’m greeted by a bell hop bowing in a top hat. The lobby overflows with starched blazers, khakis and floral dresses. My wrinkled hooded sweatshirt and hiking boots seem strangely out of place here. Despite the disheveled look, I’m upgraded to the JFK Suite, a perk of Marriott status points. It’s bigger than my apartment and the digs come with a full living room, a few flatscreen TV’s and some chrome racks in the bathroom that preheat the towels. There’s a framed silhouette of Jack himself hanging on the wall, a tribute to the time he spent here in the winter of 1963, a few short months before his assassination. I’m more excited about the free breakfast.
Despite the comforts of the hotel room, we hastily hit the streets to check out the city. It’s Friday before game day, and the place is flooded with Americans, some 35,000 of them accordingly to official tallies. Notre Dame and Navy gear abounds, the sidewalks a dawdling sea of awful, shimmering Cutter & Buck windbreakers. Grey and silver coiffures belie a considerably older demographic than a typical college crowd, confirmed by the prevalence of tasseled loafers. We duck into the first pub we can find.
Naturally, I opt for the local brew; Guinness. It flows almost continuously from the taps, set to rest tantalizingly on the bar top while the cloudy chocolate swirls gradually settle before being topped off with a thick, creamy head by the deft hand of the patient barman. After a week of travel, the pillowy black elixir drinks exceptionally well. I take them down in huge gulps, leaving rings of foam stacked down the glass. Everyone insists Guinness tastes better in Ireland, but I can’t discern a difference. I suspect this is mostly psychological, it’s vacation beer after all, and vacation beer always tastes better. Even a Corona probably tastes good on vacation. Too bad I’ll never find out.
We hit a handful of pubs that night, O’Reilly’s, O’Donoghue’s, O’Neill’s and a handful of others with token Irish names. They all look remarkably similar inside. Traditional, dimly lit, worn Irish Oak covering every surface. There’s no pretension, no annoying music and flat screen TV’s blaring away, and the collars stay refreshingly unpopped. The drinks are simple. Beer. Whiskey. Simple men can talk with their friends, clang a few glasses, the same as it’s been for generations. I soak in more atmosphere, and even more stout. A few Americans sidle up to the bar next to me, boorishly waving a few euros at the bartender. They order a round of Coors Lights and Budweiser, bottled of course. I resist the urge to choke slam them through an oak barrel.
Wake up comes early on Saturday morning and we hit the Temple Bar area to get in some pre game festivities. Already a popular spot with tourists, the narrow cobblestone streets are mobbed with fans spilling out of the various pubs. I elbow us into the Temple Bar Pub, a landmark tavern adorned with a colorful cascade of hanging baskets filled with white petunias and violet pansies. After a token Guinness within the hallowed walls, the cramped quarters and long lines grow unbearable. Retreating a few blocks away, we wander into the Mercantile Tavern and straddle a couple seats with a little more breathing room.
After a few pints, the trek to Aviva Stadium begins. The route has been well marked with signs, and the steady herd of jersey adorned fans proves easy to follow. Shuffling through a few residential neighborhoods, the crowd grows increasingly thick with green and blue t-shirts until the glass expanse of Aviva emerges in the distance. After passing through the entrance gates to the courtyard, the Notre Dame bookstore, never missing an opportunity for revenue, has a merchandise trailer set up. Across from it, bathed in rays of golden sunlight poking through the puffy Eire sky, a beacon of stunning contrast stands proudly – an Irish concession trailer selling nips of hot whiskey.
Our seats are high, perched just under the massive white steel trusses that form the spine of the circular stadium roof. With 55,000 seats nested beneath the glass canopy, Aviva is an impressive, modern, structure that feels larger than the capacity would imply. Designed by famed stadium architects HOK Sport, their resume boasts nearly every contemporary stadium design in the world.
On the field, the Irish make easy work of the Midshipmen. I sip a few draught Guinness’s while the Notre Dame offensive line manhandles the outsized Navy squad. At 5 euro apiece, the beers are affordably priced the same as you’d find in the local pubs. And after jumping out to a 24 point halftime lead, the listless crowd takes advantage of the free flowing concessions. The game has all the markings of a college football contest – the players, the band, cheerleaders, etc.; but the atmosphere is noticeably subdued. It’s an older, more refined crowd that made the pilgrimage, and the few Irish natives sprinkled in attendance seem more enamored with the contest than most. Regardless, it’s a season opener under a brilliant sunny afternoon in Ireland. There are certainly worst places in the world to be. Let the new season begin…
Special thanks to Chrissy for her continually positive spirit, and making this trip such a memorable one…
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