The Irish are getting ready to mark the 100th anniversary of the Rising, the spark that would become the War for Independence, and then sadly, the Irish Civil War. Celebrations are planned throughout, although the men and women who changed that part of the world are long gone. Men like my grandfather. Not that they would have talked much anyway. That generation kept their history, accomplishments, and emotions to themselves, a recurring theme throughout. How times have changed.
George Bell was his name. He grew up on a farm in Hollymount, Mayo but wanted to be a haberdasher. History would have other plans. On Easter Monday, 1916, a group of rebels took over buildings in Dublin with the aim of ending British rule. It wasn’t long before they surrendered, and the leaders hastily executed within earshot of their families. Soon, a torrent began to form across the country. “All changed, changed utterly,” wrote W.B Yeats in his poem, Easter 1916.
A few days later, young George was arrested on suspicion of being a messenger, but was released on account of his age. A year later, he would join the Volunteers and “go on the run,” as he put it in a 1966 Daily Journal article.
When war finally broke out in 1919, George was made an officer in the Offaly Brigade. We know little of what he did during those years. Nothing about the skirmishes, the fears, what it was like to sleep in the rain, or see a comrade fall. My sister, a child at the time, once asked him the question everyone considered but never posed.
In 1920, the running finally caught up with George when auxiliaries caught him in a field. In his overcoat was a gun, a crime punishable by death. He heard one of them say, “I know him. His name is Bell and he’s from Mayo.” In an instant, the butt of a rifle knocked him out cold. He was sentenced to ten years in Dartmoor Prison, but would live. After a year he was released (per the 1921 Anglo-Irish Peace Treaty) and paraded back home for playing a part in Ireland’s fight for independence. But the feeling wouldn’t last. A bloody civil war would break out between those who supported the treaty (26 of 32 counties to be free) and those who did not (all 32 counties or nothing). George didn’t join in. At 22, he was a tired old man. He would say little about the turn of events, except that it was too sad to contemplate.
When it all ended in 1923, everything was broken. Deep wounds and dirt-road infrastructure meant that it would be decades before Ireland would be on sound footing. In 1927, he said goodbye to all that he held dear and left for America. He had risked his life, sacrificed his health, participated in the hell of war, and spent four years on the run or in prison to secure freedom for a country that he would leave behind.
And so began the second life of George Bell, the immigrant. Upon his arrival, he was greeted by government agents who told him he was on a watch list and to mind his business. He did just that, although he did try his hand as a bootlegger. The police arrived one day and held out their hands and he shook them. After they shut him down, he realized they didn’t come in looking for friendship. His innocence was just too much to overcome.
“We don’t talk about those things,” he said softly. She went back to doing cartwheels. Like most immigrants, George felt interminably out of place. One day, he landed a dream interview with a clothier. As he sat outside the mahogany-laden office, he looked down at his clothes. He could hear his accent in his mind. He stood up, wished the receptionist a good day, and walked out. A man who helped bring an empire to the negotiating table could not overcome the insecurity of being himself.
But he subsisted, and in time began to flourish. He married Mollie Flynn (who he met on the transatlantic voyage), moved to Elizabeth, and had four children. He became a head of security, and in 1961, was named Grand Marshall of the Newark Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. This quiet man who let go his dream of being a tailor was soon striding down the middle of an American metropolis in a tuxedo and a top hat, the guest of honor in front of thousands.
But it’s his ordinary life that defined him. He remained a consummate gentleman, making everyone laugh with his storytelling and self-deprecating style. He read, spoke softly, and moved slowly. He opened doors and complimented everyone he could find.
George and Mollie lived out their remaining years in a hand-crafted cabin overlooking Culver Lake (Sussex County), surrounded by farms and rolling hills, expansive skies and stone walls. A corner of Ireland in northwest New Jersey.
He died while splitting firewood in 1976. Mollie died in 1987. Parents of four, grandparents of 16, and great-grandparents of 30.
George Bell, the freedom fighter who became an immigrant, changing not only Ireland in the process, but America too. As immigrants often do.
And so it goes.
Photo: George Bell, the author’s grandfather, at the bullet-riddled Dublin GPO in 1966.