By chance, a set of very early population records survived the devastation of the Public Record Office in 1922. On Holy Thursday 13 April, the final day of normal business at the Record Office, some unknown researcher was reading these precious pages. At closing time the archivist placed them in the Strong Room just off the Search Room, over the weekend, so they would be ready for the researcher when the office reopened after the Easter break. Later that night the Four Courts and the Public Record Office were occupied and, after a ten week stand-off, the courts complex and the Record Office were destroyed. Remarkably, any documents stored in the Strong Room, with its heavy steel door and barred windows, came through unscathed. And so we can get this glimpse of life in Tipperary over 250 years ago.
The most detailed surviving 1766 religious census return is for Newchapel parish, near Clonmel in south County Tipperary, in Cashel and Emly diocese. The parish minister of Newchapel was Francis Stephen Thomas, appointed to the parish a decade earlier in 1756, so it is reasonable to presume that he, if resident, was reasonably familiar with his parish. His 1766 census return for his parish certainly suggests a close familiarity with the area, as his return is the most detailed surviving census submission from the entire survey.
The Irish House of Lords’ resolution of 5 March 1766 required parish ministers to compile ‘a list of the several families in their parishes… distinguishing which are Protestants, and which are Papists, as also a list of the several reputed Popish priests and friars residing in their parishes’. If Reverend Thomas had complied with the order, his list of only 101 householders, should not have taken him more than an hour or two to compile. Thomas went far beyond the requirements however, creating an impressive account of the demographic structures of his parish. With the loss of many of the census returns in the Public Record Office fire in 1922 it is not possible to state with certainty that his was the most detailed return in the entire collection, but it is unlikely that there were many better.
What is certain is that Thomas’ census was not compiled, as others may have been, by simply transcribing information from a tithe or cess (tithes were a form of religious tax to fund the Church of Ireland, the ‘cess’ was a tax raised for local government list). Instead, it was the result of a considerable investment of effort on his part, and it is clear that the information it contains was obtained by traveling from house to house, questioning the inhabitants. His concluding observation, written in frustration, tells us so much: The Popish inhabitants conceal numbers of their children from a mistaken notion that they are to be taken from them.
Thomas’ census was presented on a large sheet, ruled into 14 columns, as follows:
Detailed information on the parish in 1766 can be readily extracted from the census. Of the 101 heads of household, 89 were males and 12 females, 6 of whom were noted as widows. Overall, females parishioners slightly outnumbered males – 303 females to 286 males.
The median household size in Newchapel was 5; the mean household size, 5.8. The largest household in the parish was Richard Moore’s, of Barn, with 22 members – Moore, his wife, seven daughters and eight male and 5 female servants. Four of the household were Catholics (probably four of the servants), the remainder were Protestants.
An informative statistical view of the parish can be quickly constructed. Twenty-eight of the 101 householders employed servants. Forty-nine households were nuclear (parents and children only) and an additional sixteen were nuclear families, with servants. Ten families were multi-generational. Nine households contained Protestant members, but only one household (Christopher Lowe’s) contained no Catholics.
The modern statutory census as we know it did not fully begin in Ireland until 1821, it grew over the decades to become a sophisticated scientific measure of the population, its ages, occupations, marital status, housing conditions and religion. Most of the parish returns made in 1766 were much more basic than for a modern census, but Rev. Thomas’ detailed work allows us to make a rare comparison of life in one district across many generations.
In fact, the information reported by Thomas’ was more detailed than the earliest statutory census inquiries and it was not until 1841, or later, that modern census outputs matched the level of detail found in Thomas’ return. We can compare his work with later censuses under a number of headings:
Had it not been for the lucky accident which saved these records from the fire in 1922 we would not have this rare and fascinating and detailed insight into family life in rural Ireland in the eighteenth century.