Seosamh Ó hÉanaí: Dáta Breithe

By Míċeál Ó Loċlainn

1st October 1919.

Teastas breithe agus baiste Joe Éinniú.
Joe Éinniú’s birth and baptismal certificate.

There’s no question about the year or month of Joe Heaney’s birth but the actual date has been a subject of discussion. The first of October’s often mentioned, particularly as you get closer to his native district of Carna. But the fifteenth is also mentioned and has become something of a received wisdom. At time of writing (1st October 2019), it’s the date given on Wikipedia’s ‘Joe Heaney’ page. Other, more scholarly, works have also mentioned it; sometimes citing Joe’s birth certificate as definitive evidence. (To be fair, their authors would hardly have made this reference without good reason — but read on…) And indeed, in the past we’ve referred to it ourselves here in the Cartlanna.

The need to verify the correct date became pressing during 2019, when we were planning the October release for the centennial celebration series with members of Joe’s family. Not only were they sure that he was born on the first, they showed us a copy of his birth and baptismal certificate, which confirms it. Joe’s neice, Máire Éinniú, then very kindly made that document available to us and allowed us to reproduce it here.

The relevant part states: …Rugadh Seosam Ó Éaniú ar an 1aḋ lá de mhí Deire Fóġṁair 1919. (The spelling of the handwritten elements predates the standardisation of the 1940s; hence ‘Éaniú’.) Directly translated into English, this reads …Seosam Ó Éaniú was born on the 1st day of the month of October 1919….

So while the belief that Joe was born on the fifteenth must have come from somewhere, this official document clearly contradicts it and his family aren’t disputing the documentation. Following this, we’re after updating all references to Joe’s birthday in the Cartlanna in deference to the authority of these sources.

The fact is, in Ireland and elsewhere this kind of uncertainty about dates of birth isn’t entirely unusual where the births took place before, roughly, the mid-twentieth century. In the days before computerisation and mature telecommunication and transport infrastructures, many aspects of daily life ran at a slower and more informal pace. And of course, a lot more people were born at home then than now. Official registrations weren’t always a priority for members of the general public and rigorous accuracy wasn’t always a priority for local officialdom.

It’s worth pointing out that where uncertainty exists, and even where ‘family knowledge’ and ‘The Record’ are in conflict, it’s most unwise to blindly assume that the officially-recorded date must be the right one. Errors can originate anywhere. Consider another famous son of the Conamara Gaeltacht. To the certain knowledge of his family, the writer and political activist Máirtín Ó Cadhain was born on 20th January 1906 (in An Cnocán Glas, just west of An Spidéal; about forty miles east of Carna and fifteen miles west of Galway City). However, and for whatever reason, various items of official documentation give alternative dates. In that case, as in Joe’s, the evidence favours family knowledge.

More generally however, we just have to accept that some historical dates of birth — and indeed death — can never be known for sure.