To any fan of college football, Notre Dame is immediately associated with two icons - the Golden Dome and the Notre Dame Victory March. The Victory March is the most recognizable of all fight songs, arguably the most popular and was selected as the "greatest of all college fight songs" by college football at their centennial in 1969.
To millions of Americans, the Victory March is a powerful touchstone.
The words and music of Michael and John Shea, brothers and Notre Dame graduates, has resonated deeply among families and over generations. The Irish in South Boston, immigrant families in neighborhoods in New York, steelworkers in Pittsburgh, big shouldered Chicagoans, and schools and football programs throughout the nation have adopted the song. The Victory March unites families and generations with a university many have never visited.
Yet the brothers who wrote it - Michael J. Shea and John F. Shea - would never have imagined how much it could have impacted so many. Michael, a 1905 Notre Dame graduate, wrote the music and John, who earned Notre Dame degrees in 1906 and 1908, wrote the words. They hoped only that it would provide some spirit to games and encourage others to write an even better song.
Written in 1908, the song was first performed at Notre Dame under the rotunda of the Golden Dome on Easter Sunday in 1909. Enjoy listening to one of the pregame traditions as the Notre Dame Band Trumpet section plays the Alma Mater and the Victory March for the rest of the article.
The Sheas were motivated to provide Notre Dame with a song that would would provide even more spirit to games. They thought it would also encourage others to write an even better song.
Ten years after its introduction at Notre Dame, the University Band first played it at an athletic event.
The Sheas gave much of the credit for the success of the Victory March to Joseph Casasanta, band director from 1923 to 1942. Casasanta arranged the piece to sound the way we hear it today. Casasanta also composed the Alma Mater, "Notre Dame, Our Mother", "Hike, Notre Dame" and several other famous Notre Dame songs. Ken Dye, director of bands at ND, said: "It would never have caught on the way it has" without Casasanta’s touch.
According to a book, Shake Down the Thunder, by Murray Sperber, The Dome for 1915-16 praised the Notre Dame fan: "The real secret of Notre Dame's success lies in the spirit behind her teams... Because the men out on the field are not only the representatives of (our) school, but also (our) friends and associates, the Notre Dame rooter has imbibed the spirit of our teams: he never quits."
Wake up the Echoes....
So many of the phrases in the Victory March are now of legend and part of American sports vernacular. While the song remains copyrighted by the University, the Chorus is now considered part of public domain.
As Notre Dame won national championships under Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy, the song became emblematic of conquering challenges from the 1920s through the 1940s in America's post-Wars years. Phrases like "What though the odds be great or small" found their way into the hearts of so many Americans in the tuburlent times. Our post-War responses fueled America's growth as our love for college football grew.
Shake Down the Thunder....
After being rebuffed by the Big Ten, Rockne determined to take on all comers - to play anyone, anytime and anywhere - and Notre Dame shook the thunder from established collegiate football powers, winning five national championships in twelve years and 88% of their games. A small college in northern Indiana emerged as a national power. "Old Notre Dame will win over all."
As the Irish did win over all, they became a team for America.
While Her Loyal Sons Are Marching....
Michael Shea studied music in Rome after becoming a priest and taught ecclesiastical chants at Saint Joseph's Seminary in New York. He was an organist at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City and a priest at St. Augustine's Church in Ossining, Massachusettes until his death in 1938. His eulogist said: "He, more than any other student of his time, caught in his soul that indefinable but inspirational something that has become celebrated all through the nation and ... characterized as 'The Spirit of Notre Dame.'" Michael was also an accomplished poet whose phrases in many poems in the Scholastic are similar to those in the Victory March.
John Shea earned a baseball monogram at Notre Dame and went on to earn his Masters there, too. He became a Massachusetts state senator and lived in Holyoke until his death in 1965. In his later years, John's stories about the origin of the fight song differed.
The stirring, inspirational tones and words from the timeless Victory March have moved generations. At this time of year, Band tryouts begin with a walk through campus playing the fight song. It is part of pre-game pagentry at Notre Dame, as the Band enters the stadium and after the game. The song is part of graduation.
Most of us cannot remember the first time we heard the Victory March, nor can we define what it touches in us. We have no difficulty defining how much it unites us and our families.
Onward to Victory
The Sheas and Joseph Casasanta would be a bit speechless with pride to find out that their Victory March is now considered one of the four most well-known songs in America along with "The Star-Spangled Banner", "America the Beautiful" and "White Christmas".
The Victory March still embodies Notre Dame and remains a touchstone.
With another Irish Catholic coach from Massachusetts taking the helm at Notre Dame, the air is vibrant with expectation and excitement. Whether in two a days or when the snow falls over the Grotto, one can guarantee that a Notre Dame student has the tune in the back of his mind either as he finishes practice and prepares for a game - or prays for success in class.
How well Brian Kelly will succeed at Notre Dame is still to be answered. We all hope he will be remembered in years to come for his contributions like the Sheas are.
Rally sons of Notre Dame.