Beliefs Opinion Politics

COMMENTARY: Football incident shows anti-Irish bigotry still alive

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at or contact him via e-mail at agreel(at)

UNDATED _ Consider a scenario. Let us suppose that the predominantly black Grambling University plays a football game at the predominantly white Stanford. Let us further suppose the Stanford band does a half-time show that makes fun of slavery.

Imagine the national outcry _ there would be headlines in The New York Times, a lead story on CNN, maybe even a feature on”Night Line.”There would be charges of racism and demands that Stanford apologize, the band be closed down and the rest of the football season canceled.

What else would you expect of a university so sensitive to the possibility of giving offense it changed the name of its team from the Indians to the Cardinals?

But that is exactly what happened when Notre Dame’s football team descended on Palo Alto, Calif., and, Stanford mocked Catholics and made light of the Irish famine of 1847, the worst famine _ in terms of the proportion of people who died _ in recorded history.

In the pre-game show, Stanford, in a play on words with its football team’s name, depicted a Catholic cardinal as anti-intellectual, irrational and paranoid about science.

During halftime, the band performed a skit featuring a character named Seamus O’Hungry, a simpleton whose”sparse cultural heritage consisted only of fighting, then starving.” Unlike our imaginary scenario and its consequent outcry, however, there was no public clamor over the Stanford incident. The country didn’t even notice.

After 10 days, the president of Stanford issued a weak, half-hearted apology _ to Notre Dame, not to all Irish Americans. But the national media did’t notice that, either.

What conclusions could one draw from this phenomenon? There are several and most of them spell”the Irish don’t count.” _ Most outrage at bigotry is phony.

_ The Irish don’t count.

_ There is a statue of limitations on genocide.

_ The Irish don’t count.

_ Stanford is a den of hypocrites.

_ The Irish don’t count.

_ Anything that is Catholic is a free-fire zone for bigots.

_ The Irish don’t count.

Meanwhile, William Donohue’s Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights is so busy trying to drive”Nothing Sacred”off the air it seems not to have noticed the horror at Stanford. Nor did Religion News Service carry a story. As far as the Catholic press is concerned, nothing seems to have happened.

Following that logic, maybe the famine never happened either and those 2 million people never died.

History tells us otherwise. We know the Irish rural day-worker population was virtually wiped out and the English government continued to export food from the country. English leaders said the famine was good for the Irish because it would teach them the virtue of hard work. English leaders said England didn’t cause the famine because it was not responsible for the potato blight.

But 600 years of oppression and 300 hundred years of penal laws had reduced the Irish to marginal subsistence farming. England was therefore an indirect cause of the famine, just as it is the cause of the current”troubles”in Ireland. The Great Hunger is in no way a laughing matter, particularly on its 150th anniversary _ except at that paragon of political correctness, Stanford University. Moreover Stanford got away with it.

Why? Because Catholics don’t count, especially if they are Irish.

Italians and Poles don’t count either. Anti-Catholic bigotry continues to be the Great Lie in American culture. It exists, it is pernicious, it is filled with falsehood and hatred, but it is to contemporary America what sex was to the Victorians _ the ugly little secret that is never mentioned, the prejudice which we pretend does not exist.