AN IRISHMAN will serve as leprechaun mascot for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team this season.
Notre Dame University attracted criticism earlier this year for its continued use of the mascot, which some felt reinforced certain Irish stereotypes.
However, Derry native Conal Fagan feels nothing but pride at landing the coveted role for the 2020 season.
Now in his final year at the Indiana university, Conal told ABC 57 that being involved with a team boasting such a unique Irish heritage is “pretty special”.
“The leprechaun is such a prestigious position, so having that culture and that heritage and knowing I’m part of that is something pretty special," he said.
It’s a role that Conal has occupied since 2018, after impressing during try-outs.
“It was tough. In a sense I was going into the unknown, coming to a different culture. Although we speak the same language, eat the same food - it's still a different culture.
“That was difficult to adjust to at the start. But like anything else you become accustomed to it and I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else in life."
Every game day, he dons the familiar green suit and hat and gees up the crowd with a jig or two.
Conal is currently some 3,600 miles from home – but he wouldn’t change his experience for the world, having earned a sought-after place on an academic program that brought him to America.
"I come from a working-class family. Two brothers and a sister and they’re all back at home. Parents didn’t go to the university so I am first generation student so it’s pretty amazing being here and being surrounded by this incredible place," he says.
Even so, his time at Notre Dame has not been without personal difficulties.
Just three months into his time there, he received the news his dad, who was previously diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, had sadly passed away.
“Coming to America I knew it was going to happen at some point,” he admits.
“It was a prolonged illness so I had that in the back of my mind. But at the same time it was what would he want me to do. I sort of see this as my legacy. Living my life through him.
“He’s constantly in the back of my mind. I know he would be proud of me doing what I am today.”
The leprechaun mascot is said to bring magical powers and good luck to the Notre Dame team, while reinforcing the university’s links to the Irish – something the institution insists dates back decades.
And while there may be some who scoff at the Fighting Irish and their mascot, Conal, personally, feels nothing but pride knowing he is part of the history and heritage of such a prestigious university.
"Sometimes I reflect upon and think about all the people who have been on this campus and walked on the same ground that I walked on,” he told ABC 57.
“Every morning I wake up and see the Golden Dome out my window. It strikes me at times knowing that I’m in America and not Ireland.”