Reflects on His 90 Years
(Appeared on front page of
Fairfield Sun 3/17)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved
Fairfield, CT – The son of a publican, he labored on farms and docks in his native Ireland, traveled to America in the late 40s to better his lot economically, and married and put four children through college. However, his proudest achievement may be the role he played in establishing Fairfield’s Gaelic-American Club.
Ninety-year-old Peter Bellew, the youngest of five children, was born in County Dundalk in the south of Ireland. His father, Michael, was raised on a farm but became a publican, running bars. Michael first worked in Glasgow, Scotland, running an establishment there, then bought two others himself. He returned to Dundalk and opened a local bar called Bellew’s.
When Peter was just two, his mother, Jane, contracted influenza and passed. “We moved to Dublin, where dad opened another bar, and stayed for about three years,” Bellew said. “Then, in 1927, we moved to County Armagh. At that time, I was about seven and dad, because of poor economic conditions, decided to go to America. He had two brothers and two sisters that had established themselves there.”
When Bellew’s father left, the boy’s sister, Louise, took over care of the house. Two years later, in 1929, the world stock markets crashed, the Great Depression began and unemployment became rampant.
It was a difficult time Bellew said, but added, “We got by. When you’re young like that, you’re not depressed by conditions.”
Bellew went to a local school until age 14, which was the extent of his education. His favorite subjects were math and geography. He was also good at running, winning several trophies, and played Gaelic football. He was usually a forward and played for the local town. A favorite pastime was fishing in the lakes around the area and he would catch pike, roach and perch to bring home to dinner. In the wintertime, he joined neighbors in sending greyhounds after jackrabbits.
“I also enjoyed very long walks,” Bellew said, “often for four or five hours, across the fields. There was no restriction as to whose land you could go on.”
His first work experience was helping local farmers with cutting oats, making hay and gathering potatoes. That was in the fall. In the spring, he helped sow the potatoes, dropping them into position in the farmers’ fields.
“I would also do all the milking, checking the cattle and helping the farmer take the cattle to the local fairs,” Bellew said. “Each town had a fair on a different day. That was a big deal.”
After completing school, he worked on the farms steadily for about two years, then in a quarry near Belfast feeding a breaker. “My job was to lift these massive rocks, place them in the jaws of this stone breaker and grind them,” he said.
In 1937, Bellew moved into Belfast into what was known as “digs” – a room in a house in which you were also fed – and got work on the docks. “The war was coming and the shipyard was starting to gather scrap metal to provide to the foundries to make ammunition and guns,” he said. “I went around in a truck to collect anything that was metal – railings around big houses, decorative iron, any old obsolete machinery. I would bring it back to the dock for pick-up.”
The hard-working young man had also established himself as a musician, an accordion player, and would do gigs at local parish halls. “I had started playing at nine on a borrowed button-keyed accordion. I played with a band six nights a week. Our Sunday night ritual was to play Ard Scoil, a high school of dancing,” he said.
In Northern Ireland, there was no real obligation to serve in the military, said Bellew. However, the government did make him return to work on the farm in Armagh, “They needed to have us keep up food production,” he offered.
Off to America
When WWII ended, Bellew obtained a passport and emigrated to America. “I came over on Pan American from Shannon, by way of Newfoundland, where we had a two-day layover,” he said. “We ultimately landed at LaGuardia, where I got a taxi to Grand Central and train to Bridgeport where my father had an apartment. We hadn’t seen each other in almost 20 years. It was a strange meeting after so long a period, but we got along pretty well.”
During the war, Bellew’s dad had worked at Chance Vought, a Stratford-based builder of Corsair aircraft, and had recently retired from there. When Peter arrived, his father was bartending at Nelson’s, a local bar.
“I got work at the Underwood Company in Bridgeport,” said Bellew, “assembling adding machines. It was piecework and I was able to make some good money doing it. I ended up working there for ten years.”
During that period, in 1950, he met Ann McInerney, from County Galway, Ireland, who was working in a family business. “She was lovely, one of these persons you could talk to and get along with well,” Bellew said. “I bought a house in Fairfield, on Bonney Terrace, and when we married in 1952, she moved in with me. Our first son, one of five children we would have, was born in 1953.”
In 1957, Bellew changed jobs, taking a position initially as a turbine tender for Connecticut Light and Power, in Devon. In 1960, CL&P built another generating plant in Norwalk, where he was transferred. Fifteen years later, Bellew moved the family to Easton, where he still resides. In 1985, after 28 years, Bellew retired from CL&P.
“I put all my children through college. Four of them went to UConn, while my youngest son went to Harvard,” said Bellew. It was a remarkable accomplishment for an immigrant with a farming background.
The Irish Club is Born
“Back in the late 40s, I had the fortune to meet and become lifelong friends with Jimmy Corcoran,” said Bellew. He was from Tipperary and worked for Carpenter Steel in Bridgeport. We were very Irish and used to go down to Seaside Park mostly in the evenings after work to play Gaelic football and hurling. We often talked about starting a club for Irish Americans. There were many of us here in the area that had come from Ireland, had settled in the Bridgeport area and were seeking social activities to keep the culture going.”
In 1948, Bellew and Corcoran rented a room in a building on State Street in Bridgeport and held the first official meeting of the Gaelic-American Club. Nine people showed up and Corcoran was elected president, Bellew treasurer and Maureen Doonan as secretary.
The Club held social events in other ethnic club spaces, moved in the early 50s to a third floor space on Fairfield Avenue, moved again to a ground floor hall on Goodsell Street and, in 1984, relocated yet a third time to a space above Fairfield Center Jewelers in downtown Fairfield. “Membership exploded and we knew we had to get a larger dedicated space,” said Bellew. “We discovered a lot at 74 Beach Road, got a loan from the Bank of Ireland in New York and began building a facility. In May 1993, our dream was realized. The Club opened and was an instant hit, and now membership is around 6,000. I’m fortunate to do quite a bit of traveling worldwide, but it’s comforting to come back to a place with Irish culture and so many dear friends.”
Gaelic-American Club: A Community Anchor
Tucked back from busy Beach Road, the Gaelic-American Club, established in 1993, has become an important center for Irish culture and meeting place for Irish families and their friends. According to co-founder Peter Bellew, the Club offers classes in Irish dancing, geology, plays and music instruction.
With regard to weekly offerings, Monday nights are open to anyone that wants to come perform or learn an instrument. Tuesdays, children learn step dancing from the Lenahan School. On Wednesdays, you can find Bellew himself playing the accordion, with a singer accompanying, performing favorite tunes like “The Fields of Athen Roy”, “Bring Me Back To Mayo” and “Toorah Loorah Looral.” Set dancing is offered on Thursdays in the Carolan Room. Fridays and Saturdays feature music in the pub.
The Club is also home to Feile, which is a non-profit founded in 1988 with a mission of supporting the community. It offers scholarships to high school students and makes donations to various charitable organizations. Funding is raised primarily through a 3-day annual Irish Festival. This year, it will be held mid-June at Fairfield University. The Fest attracts about 10,000 people every year who come to enjoy the Irish culture of dancing, plays, music, food and vendors selling Irish products.