|Don Keough (left), former Irish president Mary McAleese, and Martin Naughton|
When 35,000 Irish Americans make their way to Ireland for the Notre Dame/Navy game on September 1st, it will be the single biggest exodus of Irish Americans to Ireland in history.
Along with the supporters will come the Notre Dame marching band and hundreds of school sporting and educational administrators.
Navy will also have their share of supporters, many of whom will travel from American bases in Europe.
Senator John McCain is also considered a likely visitor and several other leading politicians have expressed interest.
It will be an economic and tourism bonanza for Ireland, which the country desperately needs. Hotels and bed and breakfasts all over Ireland are busting at the seams for that weekend.
The man who played the largest role in creating the Notre Dame presence both in Irish America and Ireland will also be a quiet visitor to inspect his handiwork.
Don Keough, now in his eighties, former Chairman of the Board of Notre Dame and founder of the Keough-Naughton Institute on the Notre Dame campus is the man who reconnected Notre Dame and Ireland.
He retains the enthusiasm and work ethic of a much younger man and his love for Ireland and Notre Dame’s Irish project is undimmed by the passing years.
While it should have seemed such a natural fit, Keough, former President of Coca Cola and now Chairman of New York investment bank Allen and Company, had an uphill fight on his hands creating the Irish connection at times.
He traces his roots to Wexford and was instrumental in Cole setting up a major operation in Ireland. However, his ambitions for Ireland spanned far wider than just business involvement.
There was a prevailing view in some circles in Notre Dame that the college did not want to be so closely tied to its Irish American identity and it needed to expand its base rather than focus on its magnificent Irish heritage.
While the leprechaun mascot and the Fighting Irish moniker was fine there was very little effort to match up the college with its Irish Catholic roots in any serious way.
Keough, whose sons and daughters attended Notre Dame, was having none of that. The Keough Institute later renamed the Keough-Naughton Institute named after Keough, and Irish businessman Martin Naughton who has played a huge role in establishing it, has now become the most sought after Irish studies program in the US.
As Notre Dame’s President John Jenkins notes: “Notre Dame’s Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies is the nation’s foremost Irish studies program, and Notre Dame has the most prominent presence in Ireland of any American university."
The Keough-Naughton Notre Dame Study Centre-Ireland is housed in historic O’Connell House in Dublin, engages in extensive cooperative agreements with Trinity College, Dublin, and University College Dublin (UCD).
It is the wellspring of all Irish activity and connectivity between Ireland and Notre Dame. It has a stellar faculty and hundreds of kids clamor to take the courses in Irish studies at Notre Dame while the Dublin campus is one of the most sought after locations for overseas study.
Side by side Keough and Naughton have developed Irish political and academic links. Prime Minister Enda Kenny went to Notre Dame last St.Patricks Day to toast the upcoming game.
College president Father John Jenkins has also become a huge booster for the Irish project.
His speech acknowledging the amazing role of Irish clergy and Notre Dame’s sacred place in the Irish American pantheon that he made at the American Irish Historical Society in New York a few years back is considered the best ever made on the topic.
When the teams trot out on the Aviva stadium pitch on September 1st before 60,000 fans many waving Irish tricolors Don Keough and Martin Naughton can take great satisfaction in what they have created.
Ireland and Notre Dame were once like two ships in the night, now they are sailing the same water s and both Irish America and Ireland are benefiting in a major way.