American Football in Ireland has come a long way since broadcasting week-old NFL highlights on national television in the 80s. There have been seven Division 1 college football games in the country, plus a few FCS games and an NFL preseason game.
In August, the Aer Lingus College Football Classic will continue as Notre Dame takes on Navy. Last year’s matchup between Northwestern and Nebraska at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium drew an attendance of 42,699.
While the College Football Classic looks to be a consistent presence for the sport internationally, it’s been a long time in the making. Colum Cronin, co-founder and co-host of The Irish NFL Show, details how he got invested in the sport.
“I got into it because I saw the highlights,” said Cronin. “There was this team that played in neon orange, and they had a number seven who was here, there, and everywhere. He was Patrick Mahomes before Patrick Mahomes existed: he was John Elway. I fell in love with John Elway and the Denver Broncos.”
According to Cronin, UK television broadcasted football highlights beginning in the early 1980s. Ireland’s national broadcasting station followed suit in the mid-80s. There’s a catch– the highlights, broadcast on a Monday, were not of that week’s game. They were from the week prior.
Highlights weren’t the only reason behind Ireland’s craving for American football: heritage plays a large part in that as well. The United States Census Bureau reports that over 31.5 million American residents claim Irish heritage.
“You’d obviously have people who have relations in America,” said Cronin. “They hear about American sports. I had aunts and uncles and cousins who would’ve sent me over gear for Christmas, and I think that in particular plays a role [in the growth of the sport]”
The history of college football in Ireland can be traced all the way back to 1988, where a massive crowd of 42,525 flocked to Lansdowne Road Stadium to watch Boston College take down Army. Although there was another game in the same venue the next year, attendance severely dipped.
It didn’t take long for college football to find its way back to Ireland, though. The Wild Geese Classic in 1991 and 1993 pitted FCS schools against one another.
“I actually went to see my first live American football experience at the Wild Geese Classic in Limerick,” said Cronin. “I saw Fordham take on Holy Cross. Even back then, people were interested and wondering what this game was.”
1996 saw another D1 game, with Notre Dame and Navy (sound familiar?) drawing a sizable crowd for the Shamrock Classic. That was it for college football in Ireland up until 2012, when Notre Dame and Navy met yet again on international soil. Games were also played in 2014 and 2016.
In 2022, the Aer Lingus Football Classic finally kicked off after some COVID difficulties and cancellations from previous years. Northwestern defeated Nebraska 31-28 in what turned out to be a tight matchup. With COVID clearing up, the series looks to be more of a mainstay in Dublin.
“Now what you have is a recommitment to these college games and to growth,” said Cronin. “Last year, the stadium was almost full.”
The games don’t only draw Irish fans. College teams have brought crowds with them, especially those who want to see the sights and scenery that Ireland has to offer.
“I’m sure Tourism Ireland are delighted by the numbers and the revenue that [the games] bring in, and as someone who loves the sport I’m delighted that we get games,” said Cronin. “It brings a huge number of people into Ireland.”
Colum believes that as the games have grown in importance, interest will remain high. Compared to FCS games, a Power 5 conference showdown has massive implications towards the College Football Playoff, especially with an expanded field on the horizon.
“The games matter, and I think that makes a huge difference in terms of attracting people to it,” said Cronin. “If there’s something on the line, people will get into it a lot more.”
College football is known for its pageantry and traditions, and that seems to mesh well with Ireland and its storied history. Colum recounts seeing Notre Dame visiting in 2012 and staying in the area while he worked at Trinity College.
“You could see the pep rally they did there, and they had the cheerleaders in the front square of Trinity College,” said Cronin. “There was a real interest there. People went from the pep rally to listening to Irish music.”
Overall, the prospect of more college football in Ireland looks promising. The eyes of the college football world will be on Aviva Stadium as Notre Dame and Navy square off this August.
“It’s great for Dublin and great for Ireland that they have become the college football capital of Europe,” said Cronin. “The fans in Ireland understand the game. Fans here know what’s going on, and they’re able to follow.”
Besides just hosting games, Ireland also has tackle football and flag football leagues that are growing in popularity.
“Across the spectrum in Ireland, you’re seeing interest grow in the NFL, you’re seeing the interest grow in the college game, but you’re also seeing the interest grow in the domestic game,” said Cronin. “It’s a really exciting time to be a fan of the sport and be present in Ireland when all of this is building and growing.”
Huge thanks to Colum for taking the time to interview. Drop him a follow on Twitter @ColumFromCork, and make sure to check his podcast out @IreNFL.