John Neary aged (almost) 90

It is appropriate that I am writing this post about my Irish cousin John Neary on one of the days of early February. The precise date is irrelevant. The conflicting facts are:

  1. John Neary was born on 1st February 1924, making him aged 90+
  2. John Neary was NOT born on 1st February 1924, making him aged almost 90

This conundrum is a recurring theme in Irish Ancestry Research which I have to explain over and over again to inexperienced family historians. Why do our Irish ancestors have one date on their birth certificates and (more often than not) other dates that they claim are their true birthdays? Unfamiliar amateur researchers often whine that they cannot find a birth cert which matches their ancestor’s known birthday from passed-down family lore. Or, on the contrary, they reject indisputably correct birth data because they have retrieved a birth certificate which displays a specific birth date in black and white, and therefore it cannot be challenged …. or can it?

The reason for the conflict is surprisingly quite simple – and it is a phenomenon which continued into the first half of the 20th century.

When an Irish Catholic baby was born in rural Ireland, the priority was to get the child baptized pronto before any illness threatened its chances of surviving into infancy and beyond. And I mean quickly, e.g. typically within 72 hours of birth. The reasoning was that Roman Catholics believed that no-one could enter Heaven unless they were baptized. If a non-christened baby died a day or two after delivery, then it was sent to “Limbo” – and a poor mite in limbo was not in Hell but could never reach Heaven. So a RC baby was baptized in a hurry, and a small fee was paid to the parish priest, and baby’s head was wetted in the church, or wherever convenient, and again by the proud parents at home, or in the local pub. And that was that – job done.

Then, a few weeks later, someone would remind the Irish parents (anytime after 1863!) that the British rulers now demanded that the baby’s birth must be registered with the local Civil Registrar, and for this nonsensical burden, the poor parents would be charged another fee. The birth registration was often postponed until funds were raised, or the proud parents were threatened with a court appearance plus fine for non-registration. Next, one parent was tasked with heading into town to find the Registrar’s Office, and this could be a major (costly) journey if the town was 10 or 15 miles away. Usually the father “volunteered” to carry out the despised process on the town’s next market day, or maybe the one after. Perhaps he could sell some livestock to pay for a darned birth certificate.

And so it came to pass, after a considerable interval of several weeks stretching to months, that Dad ventures into the Registrar’s Office to declare that his wife’s delivered his fifth or sixth or seventh (etc.) son or daughter. Dad might remember the correct child’s name – but not always. He almost certainly could not remember the exact birth date of his latest progeny … and didn’t really care, so long as the child’s name appeared in the holy baptismal register back at home. Most of these dads from the rural farming community were ill-educated, and one can imagine that a wild guess at a birthday was narrowed down to a particular period between notable events such as Holy Days, depending how conscientious the underpaid Registrar was. The result of all this haphazardness was that (usually) Dad came home with a birth cert showing something like the name of the family’s latest addition alongside an arbitrary date demanded by an unloved official representing the government – not the sacred church. To compound matters, this unwanted certificate was screwed up and hidden in a drawer, never to be used again … because a Baptismal Certificate had a much higher importance in any Catholic household of old.

Now it starts to make sense. This is why many Catholics use their date of baptism as their DOB. This is why DOB’s on ancient Irish birth certs are (more often than not) completely misleading. This is why you can have an Irish ancestor who was apparently baptized before he was born! Always try to inspect the original baptismal register entry featuring your Irish ancestor and TRUST the info gleaned – above fancy-looking birth certs, or conflicting census data, or any other despised official document.

John Neary says that he was baptized in mid-February 1924, and so he adopted 14th February as his birthday (if asked). However, he never celebrated his birthday until he was in his ninth decade. He and his family could never afford to. Not many Irish farming families could. How can a poverty-stricken RC family throw 12 or 14 parties a year for their offspring. And so, sadly, birthdays are ignored and forgotten about. They are more important to genealogists and descendants than they ever were to our actual Irish ancestors.

John Neary’s birth certificate says that he was born on 1st Feb 1924. John knows that that is wrong but that is what it says on all his official documents such as his pension paperwork. He respects the date for ID purposes, and respects his dad for at least getting the month correct when the Registrar grilled him! From all the available evidence, we can only guess that John was really born on or about 12th February 1924. Does it matter? What DOB would you put on his gravestone when John eventually starts his journey to Heaven?

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310W

John Neary born (circa) 1st February 1924

The main thing is …. doesn’t he look in rude health for a man born just after the Irish Free State came into existence.

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