A life-time of questions
JOURNEY Man left on hospital doorstep finally unravels mystery of his identity
Earlier this year, at age 83, Joe Day met his sister for the very first time.
This is the high point in a remarkable story, spanning over eight decades and featuring a fair share of lows.
The cold depths of Brackley Lake are visible from Joe’s home on the outskirts of Templeport, but sat in a black armchair he remains close to the range’s heat leafing through a few documents. Each page offers a morsel of information relating to himself, adding to his newly emerging, patched together identity.
The pages speak of decisions made by others that defined his life, penned in the terse language of officialdom. A photocopy of a logbook for St Felim’s hospital is one such foundation stone for Joe Day’s identity: ‘Found on steps at lodge entrance to institution at 6am, March 1938’.
Joe believes he was given his name by someone working at the hospital. While he was registered on March 22, he insists he was found on March 19 – St Joseph’s Day, hence his name Joseph Day.
“Stick something down, that’ll do,” is how Joe suspects the conversation between staff at St Felim’s might have went.
For many years he didn’t make the connection between his name and date, and suspected he may have been related to other families elsewhere in the county with the surname Day.
Joe was adopted at two and a half and raised by decent people, Michael and Kate Dolan in Gubnagree – a mile from his current home.
“He was a lovely man,” Joe says fondly of Michael, his affection surviving all these decades. “By Jesus, she was a sergeant,” he adds of his adopted mother.
“Them was the times, and they were hard times. We lived on 35 shillings a fortnight plus the milking of two cows.”
He quizzed Kate about his real mother, but she insisted she knew nothing other than his abandonment at the hospital. He admits to wondering why his parents gave him up, “but then you couldn’t come up with a solution”.
Whilst Joe is appreciative of the home the Dolans provided, their relationship remained detached to some degree.
“They were good enough but, if they were going anywhere, I never was brought with them. I was left at home.”
Nor does he ever recall being introduced as the Dolans’ son if anyone called.
“There were no remarks passed at that time – ‘Hello, how are you?’ and that was it. And if it was anyone important you were sent to bed. You didn’t meet them. That happened on a number of occasions.”
The stigma of his background followed him through life, whether it was from snide comments or the way he was treated in school.
“We were looked down at as low society class – and we were taught nothing, I got the ash plant,” he says with a rueful laugh.
He specifically recalls a prominent person in the community saying, “I never liked you nor the breed of you”.
“That was the classic remark coming down agin you,” he says matter of factly.
Joe repaid the Dolans for the upbringing they provided through supporting their daughter Anne Dolan who had a severe disability. He was very fond of Anne, but caring for her was a major responsibility.
“I looked after her from 1958 to 1970,” he recalls. “I could do nothing in between.”
He adds: “I was what you could call cook, school teacher, butler, doctor, nurse and all bar the priest.”
When Anne passed away, Joe was once again left without roots of any sort. He tentatively began to make inquiries about his mother.
“When she died, I was in Cavan a couple of days after for a few things, and just popped in,” he says of the Deaths, Births and Marriages office in Cavan.
“Ah Jaysus when I wasn’t executed I was lucky,” he quips. “They just simply didn’t want to know. The minute she pulled it [file] out – ‘Aw no, it’s not here’.”
He then went to “a stallion above in the hospital to do with the nuns” and got no further.
“‘I know nothing,’ she says. Never even left me to check the record or anything. They did not want to know.”
Sadly it’s a familiar story.
“It was a closed society, you weren’t to disturb anybody,” laments Joe.
Dejected by this response and with seemingly nowhere else to try, Joe’s sense of dislocation persisted. That’s not to suggest his life was unhappy, just incomplete.
He worked in the building trade in Dublin, and did a variety of jobs in England before returning to West Cavan in 1978. He met his wife Anne a week later. Together they had two daughters Joanne and Fiona who they reared at the rural home on the outskirts of Bawnboy, and who still live locally.
Bernie McGovern was the driving force behind uncovering Joe’s past. A family friend, Bernie has West Cavan roots, though she is from Lincoln, England.
“She asked me a couple of times - I said I’ll not bother my head, that kind of thing. She said, ‘Come on we’ll give it a try’.”
On his 80th birthday Joe relented. Bernie has a great talent for research. Historic documents were released by the HSE in Februrary 2020 and this information was supplemented by a few more details from Tusla.
Bernie registered Joe with the MyHeritage and Ancestry websites. Joe had his DNA analysed; a swift process. Then Bernie reached out to people who were deemed genetically compatible, which proved a more complex and lengthy matter.
The first breakthrough discovery was the identity of Joe’s mother. She was a lady called Anna Rose Brady from Kilsallagh in Bawnboy. Aged 23, she gave birth to Joe ‘out of wedlock’, as disapproving neighbours might have put it at the time.
Six months after the birth, Anna Rose was married to a man called Peter Heavey. “She was married in a month, the match was made at a fair in Bawn,” says Joe. The Heavey couple settled in Swanlinbar about four miles away and had six children together.
Is it not a bizarre coincidence that Joe was adopted by people living only a matter of a few miles from Anna Rose’s homeplace?
“That is the funny part of it,” accepts Joe. “I don’t know, I just can’t put my finger on it anyway.”
There’s more coincidences. Joe actually knew his mother to see and even met her on one occasion. He sold a motorbike to Anna Rose’s son. The son had no money on him at the time, but told Joe he could collect it at his house.
“I was made welcome and was made tea,” recalls Joe of the remarkable encounter.
And was Anna Rose there?
“Yes, and I didn’t know it [she was my mother].”
Did she know he was her son?
“That’s what I don’t know. That was the bit I slipped up on,” he says unfairly on himself.
Joe held a variety of jobs, mostly in construction, but was also a grave digger in his time. He suspects he unwittingly prepared his mother’s resting place.
“I dug that many of them,” he says. He has since visited Anna Rose’s grave.
There was an outside chance that Joe may actually have found out the truth of his backstory long before now, when he was still a child living with the Dolans.
“Someone came looking for me one time to get me back. I remember it well. There was a bog on the land and I was brought out there the whole day to clamp turf.
“I would assume it was Anna Rose, or someone acting on her behalf.”
The dates on a print-out show that Anna Rose didn’t die until 1989. That means she was still alive when Joe had initially looked for his mother.
On a happier note, Bernie’s research revealed that Joe had six half siblings on his mother’s side, three of whom are still alive. Anna Heavey was born in 1939, a year after Joe, to Peter and Anna Rose. She had five other siblings Peter (RIP), Margaret (England), Mary (RIP), Desmond (Sydney, Australia), and Carmel (RIP).
Anna met and married a Longford man, Jim, and they currently live in Alabama.
Bernie had reached out to Anna and a connection was made. Joe and his half sister spoke on the phone. Despite her advanced years, Anna vowed to come over when she was able, but of course Covid dictated the timetable. When an opportunity arose, Anna was true to her word and she made the 15-hour flight, along with her 90-year-old husband. They even endured the ordeal of quarantine to meet the brother she never knew she had.
There was reportedly a proud, if nervous moment for both. Chatting for a whole afternoon, Joe says he felt a connection with Anna.
“I felt comfortable. You knew you were talking to someone your own equal, your own age.
“I felt a bit lonely when I was going,” said Joe, acknowledging they may never meet again given circumstances and his poor health.
Bernie’s research also discovered much about the other side of Joe’s family tree, but that is another story altogether. Suffice to say, his father was a man by the name of Fitzpatrick, also from West Cavan, who passed away in England over half a century ago and is buried at home. Happily Joe has discovered he has a half brother on his father’s side, with whom he has met and gradually built a good relationship.
While he was reluctant to let Bernie undertake the research, he admits to being “glad now”. The stigma haunting him all this time, of not knowing who he was, has finally been put to rest.
“It brought everything out into the open – people would have been ‘He’s gone and doesn’t know who he is’, that sort of way. That’s finished, no one can say that now.”
And what of his name – is he going to change it from Joe Day to Fitzpatrick?
“I’m 83 I’m not going to start that caper with the court here there and yonder. I’ll stick with what I have, and it’ll do good enough.”