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Monday, May 20, 2024
The Observer

‘Turn off the music’: Controversy ensues over Celtic Chant

At the last home game of the season, on Nov. 19, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish routed the Boston College Eagles during a 44-0 game, with offensive moments set to the band playing “Celtic Chant.” The piece was composed in the summer of 1998, and is accompanied by arm-pumping routine led by the cheerleaders. The music is also accompanied by less-sanctioned profane chants of “f*** you Zahm” ringing out through the student section.

That snowy morning, students swiping through Instagram stories saw a post from the Notre Dame Student Government account, with an image of the band presented over a blue background. 

“Students! At today’s game during the Celtic Chant, remember: There are kids in the stadium! Fr. Zahm was a great priest who gave his life in service to Notre Dame,” the story read. 

The thinly-veiled rebuke of the chants appeared after concerns raised by faculty, student body president Patrick Lee told The Observer.

“Just like we are elected to serve the students — and we’ll listen to any student concern — we also keep an ear open to faculty and administrative concerns just in case there’s any kind of gap that we can bridge in that relationship,” Lee said.

He said the concerns fell on sympathetic ears in Student Government.

“We agreed with the concerns that the words of the chant do not necessarily represent the shared values of the Notre Dame student body. And thought that it was worth the effort to remind students of why they might refrain from that particular channel,” Lee said.

The music has been a part of Irish football games for 24 years, and “Celtic Chant” composer Ken Dye, the director of the band, told The Observer that the piece was written because he felt the band needed a piece for the offense.

“It is a strong piece that brings out the power of our band and drums,” Dye wrote in an email. 

Dye also said the fist-raising began at the same time as the music began to be played.

“This choreography was started spontaneously by the students and cheerleaders, and has been in place since 1998,” he wrote. 

The explicit chanting was a more recent innovation, one Dye doesn’t approve of.

“I hadn’t noticed it until recently. I think there are more appropriate words that should be devised by our student section,” he wrote.

Chief among the advocates for the cessation of the Zahm chants is Notre Dame engineering professor and alum Todd Taylor. He’s reached out to leaders across Notre Dame, from the top brass of athletics, to student affairs, to the Congregation of Holy Cross. Taylor said that he first noticed the chanting six or seven years ago.

“My wife and I sit right behind the students in the corner of the endzone just in the first few rows in the upper deck, and it's just very apparent what they're doing. And as I talked to more and more people — and it really doesn't matter if it's a student, if it's a member of Holy Cross, if it's a professor or alumni — everyone says the same thing. They can't really believe that it goes on,” he said.

Taylor, who lived in Zahm House as an undergraduate, argued that the chants are offensive for a number of reasons.

“It's the wrong thing to do. Screaming profanities in large groups in a public space is just not right, number one. Number two, it is not the Notre Dame way. This is not what the students are here to do. It's not why they're here. It's not what we prepare them to do in the future. And number three, a lot of students really have no idea why they're doing it. And so they have no background, they have no context. They didn't even know Zahm was named after a priest,” he said.

Taylor fondly recalls the brotherhood and community he experienced in Zahm House, but says that it has no bearing on his advocacy around the chant. 

“It's interesting to me that we have a chance disparaging a dorm that doesn't even exist as a dorm right now,” Taylor said. His proposed solution is simple.

“I think the ultimate solution, which is what I requested initially, was to shut down the chant. Just turn off the music, stop playing it. It's very simple,” he said. “I'm very open to other alternatives, if someone is creative enough to figure out how to stop 8,000 students from doing something they've done for years and years and years and years. Typically, when you change those traditions or you want to change that culture, you have to change some of the underlying principles or reasons behind why that is what it is. No one seems to be willing to turn off the chant.”

Because of reluctance on the part of leaders that Taylor has spoken to, his advocacy has taken a different shape.

“We've gone to Plan B, which is trying to do a communication aspect. I've seen one Instagram post which was actually an Instagram story, not a post so it lasted, you know, 24 hours and nothing since. I've reached back out to a number of leaders, reached back out to the head of the cheerleading organization to try to again sponsor some more creativity, some more solutions, some other ideas,” he said.

Taylor understands that some might not understand why he’s dedicated so much time to this cause.

“Some of my classmates are like, ‘don't you have bigger problems to work on?’ Well, yeah, and I'm working on those too. So again, just put it on the list of things that need to be solved and worked on and fixed. This falls into the category of a wrong thing to do. We can argue about the level of wrongness. But it's kind of an absolute no-brainer. Two minutes. You solve it and you kill it. And nobody wants to make the decision. I don't understand why, so it's going to stay on my list of things that need [to be] worked on while I'm here, being a part of the community,” Taylor said.

Contact Isa Sheikh at isheikh@nd.edu