Ó hÉanaí, Seosamh (Heaney, Joe; ‘Joe Éinniú’) (1919–84), sean-nós singer and storyteller, was born 1 October 1919 in Ard Thoir, Carna, Co. Galway, one of eight children of Pádraig Ó hÉinniú and his wife Béib Ní Mhaoilchiaráin (Béib Sheáin Mhichíl Shéamuis). He received his earliest education in the local national school, where he was encouraged to sing by his teacher, Bríd Ní Fhlatharta, and subsequently won a scholarship to Coláiste Éinde in Dublin from 1935 to 1937. He was expelled from the college before the Easter break in 1937. Liam Mac an Iomaire suggests that he may have been caught smoking (Comhar, 28). Afterwards he spent a period working for a farmer in east Galway and moved (1947) to Glasgow, where he found employment labouring on building sites. While in Clydebank, Glasgow, he met Mary Ní Chonghaile from Mweenish, Carna. They married in 1947 and had two sons and two daughters. The marriage failed and Seosamh spent most of his time until the 1950s working in London. He spent the period 1955–8 working in Southampton, and finally left Glasgow in 1965.
His reputation as a sean-nós singer had already been established before his departure from Ireland. He won the first prize in sean-nós singing at the Oireachtas na Gaeilge competition in 1942, where he first met Séamus Ennis (qv). A number of his songs were recorded by Ennis and Alan Lomax the same year. He returned from Southampton in 1955 to take part in the Oireachtas and won a gold medal. Three years later (1958) he returned again to perform in the ‘Óicheanta Seanchais’ organised by Gael-Linn in the Damer Hall in Dublin as part of An Tóstal, the national tourist festival. A number of his songs were recorded by Gael-Linn between 1959 and 1961. While in London he joined the pub scene and sang in a club organised by Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl in Kilburn, London. He also performed regularly in the Singers’ Club and sang with the piper Willie Clancy (qv) and fiddler Martin Byrnes. On his return to Ireland in the early 1960s, he spent a period in lodgings with Séamus Ennis in Dublin. He lived in poverty during most of this time, sometimes managing to make a living from singing. Together with Ennis and the group The Dubliners, he performed regularly in O'Donoghue's bar, Merrion Row. In 1965 he was invited by Tom Clancy (qv), of the Clancy Brothers, to take part in the Newport Folk Festival in the USA. He emigrated to the USA the following year and remained there for fourteen years, employed as an elevator attendant in an apartment block in Manhattan.
Seosamh first came to prominence in the USA as a sean-nós singer after the broadcaster Merv Griffin, who was a resident in the apartment block, invited him to appear on the Merv Griffin television show one St Patrick's night. In 1980 he was appointed part-time folklore teacher in Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, and subsequently in Washington University, Seattle. He took part in festivals and concerts throughout the US, including the Philadelphia Folk Festival, returning to Ireland every second year to perform in concerts organised for him by Gael-Linn. His last Irish concert was performed in the National Concert Hall in the autumn of 1982. Also in 1982 he was awarded the National Heritage Award for Excellence in Folk Arts by the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, DC. He was also awarded $5,000 and a plaque.
He suffered from emphysema and died 1 May 1984. With the assistance of Máire Davitt of Gael-Linn and Aer Lingus, his remains were repatriated to Ireland and buried in Maoras cemetery, Connemara. The poets Michael Davitt and Micheál Ó Cuaig composed poems in his honour and a commemorative festival, Féile Chomórtha Joe Éinniú, was inaugurated in Carna in 1986. He was the subject of a major RTÉ documentary, ‘Sing the dark away’, produced by Michael Davitt and broadcast in January 1996. An index of Seosamh's songs and stories, entitled ‘The Joe Heaney Collection’, compiled by Seán Williams in the Ethnomusicology Archives of the University of Washington, Seattle, was presented to the NUI, Galway, and to the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh.