Just outside Brian Kelly’s office at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex are treasured relics that symbolize the gridiron dominance of the Notre Dame football team.
They vary in quantity (six at present) and shape (spherical, cone, oblong). They are unique in their rendering, but always include elements that acknowledge their contested ownership.
They are the rivalry trophies — one for each of Notre Dame’s best-known opponents: the Navy Midshipmen, USC Trojans, Purdue Boilermakers, Michigan State Spartans, Stanford Cardinal and Boston College Eagles.
This is a story of a seventh trophy: A gift from a Irish dignitary that routinely inspired front-page headlines, was saved from a landfill and now resides with a private collector.
A GIFT FROM THE EMERALD ISLE
The Shillelagh has two seemingly contradictory origin stories, with one fact not in dispute: The three-foot long, knotty piece of wood was undoubtedly a gift from William T. Cosgrave, the first prime minister of the Irish Free State.
In the first telling — a Nov. 20, 1936 article in The Scholastic, the weekly student magazine — it was Hugh A. O’Donnell who urged Cosgrave to donate the club so that the university could use it as an athletic trophy. O’Donnell was well-connected, a former university Alumni Association president, founder of the Notre Dame Club of New York City and, at the time of his trip, a New York Times editor.
“Notre Dame and Northwestern will play football for a shillalah, a custom started only this year, but one which stands a good chance of becoming tradition,” revealed the editors of The Scholastic in their Feb. 13, 1931 edition.
While Knute Rockne was later credited as the one who identified Northwestern as the worthy adversary, there’s no contemporaneous account found that identifies him as progenitor. (Rockne would die in a plane crash in March 1931.)
In fact, a December 1940 Scholastic article stipulates that Cosgrave’s donation went initially to the Irish Council of Chicago, which in turn “offered it as a symbolic football trophy in the Notre Dame-Northwestern series, to remain in the hands of the winning school until its team was defeated by the other.”
Regardless of who Cosgrave sent it to, university President Charles L. O’Donnell, C.S.C., thanked Cosgrave for the donation in an Oct. 2, 1931 letter now held in the Notre Dame Archives.
“Mr. President: I have the honor to accept in the name of the University of Notre Dame and of Northwestern University the trophy which you have graciously bestowed as a prize to be contested for by the football teams of these two universities. The silver band on the beautiful blackthorn stick is being suitably engraved, recording your name as the donor of the trophy.”
The university president concluded:
“Since this trophy is an Irish blackthorn from Ireland and is presented by the president of the Irish Free State, and since the Notre Dame football team is known through the length and breadth of America as the ‘Fighting Irish,’ we feel that this trophy properly belongs at Notre Dame and shall do our utmost to see that it is kept in this hospitable environment. The first game for its possession will be played on October 10th. I shall advise you in due course of the results of that contest.”
On Oct. 14, Father O’Donnell made good on his promise to keep Ireland’s leader in the loop, writing:
“I beg to report that that game last Saturday between the football teams of Northwestern University and the University of Notre Dame ended in a scoreless tie. This result was probably due to exceedingly bad weather. There was thunder and lightning and a deluge of rain all through the game. Under the circumstances, football could not be played.
“Meantime, then, your beautiful trophy will remain in our possession until the two schools meet again, and I hope still longer.”
Cosgrave’s secretary replied Oct. 30, reporting the Irish president was “very pleased to know that the blackthorn walking stick is the trophy for competition between the teams of the two universities.”
A ONE-SIDED AFFAIR
While Notre Dame and Northwestern now had a nicely mounted cudgel to fight for, the rivalry, as it were, continued as it had before the arrival of hardware.
The Irish had won 8 of the 10 games against the Wildcats prior to 1931, with one tie. The teams played each other annually from 1929 to 1948, with the Irish winning 17 of 20.
When the Wildcats felled the Irish on the field for the first time in 1935, Notre Dame coach Elmer Layden threw the victors a banquet and presented them the trophy to take back to Evanston.
The Irish exacted their revenge the following year, when, in the final game of the season, they upended the undefeated, top ranked Wildcats, 26-6.
“Northwestern not only lost a mythical national championship here last Saturday in their defeat by the Irish, but they also gave up possession of the Shillelagh — symbolic trophy of the Wildcat-Irish battles,” wrote The Scholastic. “Tug Wilson, director of athletics at the Evanston institution, brought the Shillelagh down with him in anticipation of again taking it back to the Purple campus. Bob Wilke, Bunny McCormick, Larry Danbom among others succeeded in making him change his mind so that when Mr. Wilson left for Evanston he was without the shillelagh. He had presented it to Elmer Layden after the game.”
Layden came to the “Wailing Wall” — a luncheon of Chicago coaches and fans — to relinquish the shillelagh nine days after the Wildcats’ blanking of the Irish at Dyche Stadium in November 1940.
SHILLELAGHS SUDDENLY SPROUTING
Notre Dame was just getting started with trophies.
In 1949, the university added a megaphone to its re-ignited rivalry with the Spartans. Three years later, the Irish were playing the Trojans for a jeweled shillelagh. In 1954, Irish coach Terry Brennan began exchanging a shillelagh with Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty. (That tradition ended with Brennan’s firing in 1959.) By 1957, the annual game with Purdue was also being played for a shillelagh.
When Notre Dame resumed its annual meeting with Northwestern in 1959 after an 11-year hiatus, the Ara Parseghian-led Wildcats ripped off four consecutive wins.
With the trophy seemingly ensconced in Patten Gymnasium, Irish scribes were routinely omitting the shillelagh’s existence in their previews and recaps.
The Chicago Tribune did its best to return the hype to the shillelagh in 1962, when a reeling 1-3 Irish squad visited the No. 3 Wildcats in Evanston.
In doing so, Charles Bartlett re-wrote the shillelagh’s origin story.
“The Shillelagh is no sprout among football trophies. Notre Dame and Northwestern will be playing for it tomorrow afternoon for the 23rd time since the late Knute Rockne put it up in a 1930 presentation to K.L. “Tug” Wilson and Dick Hanley, then athletic director and football coach, respectively, of Northwestern.
“Rockne originally had been given the Shillelagh by William T. Cosgrave. ... Cane or cudgel, walking stick or weapon, call it what you will. The Shillelagh has become the inner symbol of one of football’s great feuds.”
A TRASHED TROPHY
The series took a two year hiatus in 1963 and 1964. The Northwestern student newspaper’s last mention of the shillelagh appears to be 1962, according to university archivist Dana M. Lamparello. The Observer, Notre Dame’s student publication, mentions it once in 1968 and 1971.
In fact, it appears the teams stop trading the trophy when the series resumed in 1965.
We know this only because the trophy reappears once more — briefly — in February 2016.
It’s in a catalog for RR Auction, Amherst, N.H. Push past the regalia from the Wild West’s secret societies, the signed etching of Albert Einstein and the promotional brochure for the Titanic, and trophy appears on page 259.
Its forty-plus year absence is explained in 16 words: “The present owner found it being discarded at Northwestern in Evanston sometime in the mid 1970s.”
Bobby Livingston, an executive vice president at RR Auction, declined to offer more detail, including whether the pre-auction owner was a student, employee or visitor to the university.
“Unfortunately, he [is] not able to provide much more in terms of the details of the sale; his clients wish to remain anonymous,” spokesman Mike Graff offered in an e-mail exchange.
Lamparello said Northwestern tried to reacquire their discarded piece of history, “but we didn’t have enough in our budget to meet the auction price.” It sold for $12,344.33, an amount that includes a buyer’s premium.
When Notre Dame and Northwestern meet for the 49th time on Nov. 3 in Evanston, there will likely be plenty at stake. Unfortunately, Notre Dame’s oldest trophy won’t be part of the spoils.