Research Guide Subtitle: The Irish statutory censuses before 1922—a guide to loss and survival
Contributors: Brian Gurrin
First published: 2022
Use this guide for information on the nineteenth-century Irish census records, including
The first statutory census of Ireland began in May 1813. Although all census returns were to be with the Chief Secretary before the end of June, the census dragged on until 1815 with only part of the country counted.
The next statutory census was more successful. Held in 1821, it counted 6.802 million people on the island, and aimed to record the names of all people counted (although the names of servants were often not noted, though they were counted). The enumerators [pop-out: the officials working in each district, collecting the information and doing the counting] for the 1813-15 and 1821 censuses were primarily the barony constables. The 1821 census marked the start of the decennial series, and censuses were held every ten years between 1821 and 1911, the last Irish census to be held when all of Ireland formed a part of the United Kingdom.
The next census, in 1831, was less ambitious. Although it counted the entire population (7.767 million people), only about 1.25 million names were recorded, as only the names of the heads of households were collected, with the remaining members of the households just shown as numbers. In a break with the past, the 1831 enumerators were members of the public, often appointed following public competitions. More than 1,250 enumerators were employed, although the number of enumerators employed was decided by the individual counties, which led to wide disparities in the numbers deployed. County Kilkenny’s 170,000 population were counted by 78 enumerators, for example (2,179 people for each official), whereas Tipperary’s 402,000 people were counted by only 12 enumerators (33,500 per official).
The 1841 census was a groundbreaking undertaking, and can be viewed as Ireland’s first modern census survey. Unlike the three earlier censuses, which had taken place over extended time periods, with enumerators moving from house to house, recording the required details. It was intended that the 1841 census would take place on a single day (6 June 1841), with forms (form A) distributed in advance, to be completed by members of the households themselves. A blank 1841 census form can be seen here.
The experiment with lay people as enumerators was abandoned in favour of police constables. In reality in pre-Famine Ireland, high levels of illiteracy meant that many people could not complete their own census form, so forms often had to be completed by the enumerators. The Westmeath Guardian, for example, caustically observed (17 June 1841) that
The police have been busy since the 6th inst., in taking up the census papers, and their labours are not yet half ended. In almost every instance, they are obliged to fill up the papers themselves. Various are the opinions entertained by the country people, as to the probable and possible object of the government in their inquisitional search amongst the cabins and hen-roosts of the fine peasantry; the most settled opinion, seems to be, that the government is taking the census preparatory to a ballot, in case of war, and intend to levy a property tax in support of it, should occasion require.
In spite of these difficulties, the 1841 census was one of the great national surveys of pre-Famine times, and has been described, rightly, as ‘a work of greater breadth and vision than its predecessors’. 1 It reported the national population at 8,175,124, the highest population recorded by any Irish census.
The next census, in 1851, recorded the national population at 6.552 million, a decline of almost 20 per cent from the 1841 figure. This census was conducted in a similar fashion to 1841 and the 1851 form broadly resembled the previous one, with an extra question asking if individuals could speak Irish..
The 1861 census saw the introduction of a new question regarding religious persuasion, and thereafter the structure of the census forms remained broadly the same until 1911, when details on the duration of marriage and the number of children born alive within the marriage, and the number of children still living, were sought.
The census returns and papers for 1813–15, 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851 were moved to the Public Record Office of Ireland shortly after it was opened, and most of the original returns were destroyed when the archive was destroyed in 1922.
The census returns for 1861 and 1871 were destroyed by government orders shortly after they were processed by the census officials, under the mistaken belief that the Irish census process required enumerators to copy the details from the forms into Census Enumerators’ Books, as occurred in Britain.
In 1896 James Digges LaTouche, the Deputy Keeper of Public Records, appealed for the preservation of the remaining Irish census returns:
The census returns of 1813, 1821, 1831-4, 1841, and 1851, are of Record here transferred at different times from their various places of original deposit. Their accessibility to the public has proved of incalculable value in enquiries concerning title and pedigree and the tracing of next-of-kin and heirs-at.-law. This is a use of them for which they were not originally provided, but as often happens, the secondary use has proved of great importance and in quite a different direction to what the primary intention ever contemplated, and the present and future generations will find them increase in value as time goes on. It will be a loss in the future should the Census papers of 1881 and 1891 and the following years be destroyed, as the papers of 1861 and 1871 have been. Some arrangement might be come to by which they might be made available to the public, say twenty years after the making of them. 2.
Nonetheless, a shortage of paper during World War I saw the returns for 1881 and 1891 pulped in their entirety. 3.
2. Twenty-eighth Report of Deputy Keeper of Public Records (1896), p. 6
The 1901 and 1911 census forms have survived for all of Ireland, and are freely available for searching on the National Archives of Ireland website.
The census forms from the 1901 and 1911 censuses were not transferred to the Public Record Office of Ireland before 1922. Consequently they avoided destruction in the 1922 fire. By good fortune, they also avoided being pulped during World War I (pulping was the fate of the 1881 and 1891 return).
The loss of the census returns for 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891 is near complete. Since these census forms and papers were never transferred to the Public Record Office of Ireland, and were rigorously destroyed under various government orders, no original returns survive from any of these four censuses. Furthermore, as these censuses were never available to the public for inspection, virtually no transcripts have survived. In fact, the only known extracts or transcripts from these four censuses are:
Some information survives from all of these censuses, although the coverage is patchy.
These census returns were in the Public Record Office of Ireland and available to the public for inspection (and copying) for about half a century.
The returns from this census did not record any names (except in County Dublin, and Lecale half barony, County Down), but it reported population numbers to townland level only. Original returns from the census survive for two areas, however, both in County Galway. These are; the complete return for the entire barony of Longford, County Galway (population, 18,642), and the complete return for the parishes of Cargin and Killeany parishes (combined population, 2,088). Figures to barony level across Ireland can be found in volume iii of William Shaw Mason’s Parochial survey of Ireland (pp xxi-xlv), with detailed barony figures available for counties Carlow, Kildare, Longford, Meath, Roscommon, and Waterford, and for Carrickfergus, Drogheda, Galway Town and Waterford City. Many of the parish accounts in the three volumes of Shaw Mason’s Parochial survey contain 1813-15 census figures, sometimes to townland level. Figures from this census can also be found in contemporary newspapers and magazines.
Four original volumes survive from the 1821 census, covering:
An interesting aspect of the 1821 census, however, is that the 1821 Census Act ordered that each county was to retain a duplicate copy of the census within its county records. Unfortunately, most of those local copies were also submitted to the Public Record Office before 1922 and they perished, alongside the original volumes. However, fourteen parish volumes from County Cavan were retained locally, and consequently, they survive.
Furthermore, since the 1821 census was the first census to record the names of the population it proved attractive to genealogists, and many thousands of names were copied from the volumes by researchers before 1922. The survival rate is patchy, but many thousands of names can be identified for County Kilkenny, in the Carrigan Notebooks (St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny City) and the Walsh Kelly notebooks (Genealogical Office), including a complete transcript of the 1821 census returns for the south Kilkenny parishes of Aglish and Portnascully (GO 684).
Since this census only listed the names of householders, instead of all household members, it proved less attractive to genealogists and little of it survives, although some records exist for parts of Kilkenny, including a contemporary copy of the census for the Tighe Estate records, in the vicinity of Inistioge. An interesting side note to the 1831 census, however, is that its returns were used by the Public Instruction Commission in 1834/5 during their inquiries into the provision of educational services. To support their work, the Commissioners had the entire census copied, unfortunately these copies were also moved to the Public Record Office and were lost in 1922. However, the Ordnance Survey compiled a complete copy of the 1831 returns for County Derry. These volumes were in the Ordnance Survey Office in 1922 so this copy survived.
The original 1841 census forms were all destroyed, with the exception of the returns for Killashandra parish, Co. Cavan, all of which survived (12,500 names). The 1851 census returns, which were bound into large volumes, were also entirely destroyed, aside from fourteen volumes for parts of County Antrim, which had been temporarily removed from the shelves for rebinding. Some genealogists’ transcripts and extracts from the 1841 and 1851 censuses have survived.
The 1841 and 1851 censuses assumed a practical importance after the passage of the Old Age Pension Act in 1908, as they were one of the routes by which applicants could prove their age eligibility (70 years old), by applying to the Public Record Office for a search of the returns to be undertaken. Thousands of requests for census searchers were received at the Record Office in the closing quarter of 1908, necessitating the employment of temporary additional searchers to meet the unprecedented workload. 4. Thousands of these search requests have survived, and in some cases the PRO searchers transcribed the entire household of an applicant onto the search form. These transcriptions prepared in reply to OAP enquires have survived and can be searched online at the National Archives of Ireland (see below).
4. 41st DKPRI, pp 6-7.
After a census was complete the returns were abstracted into parliamentary reports as tables of statistics which were then published by parliament (no reports were prepared after the 1813-15 census, because not all areas were enumerated).
The earliest parliamentary reports (1821, 1831 and 1841) published abstract population information to parish level. From 1851 the data were abstracted to townland level.
After independence, censuses were held in the Irish Free State in 1926, 1936, 1946, and generally every five years from 1951 (1976 census cancelled for financial reasons; a census was held in 1979; 2001 census postponed until 2002; 2021 census postponed until 2022).
The National Archives provides a freely available, user-friendly census search page (http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/search/) where researchers can search:
These censuses can be searched, and images of the original forms can be viewed. For 1901 only one side of the form is available (the list of people who slept in a house on census night), but for 1911 both sides of the forms can be inspected.
The National Archives also provides a genealogical webpage (https://www.genealogy.nationalarchives.ie/), which has searchable access to the surviving Census Search Forms which were received at the Public Record Office of Ireland following the introduction of the Old Age Pension. An example of a search form which contains extracts for a complete household can be viewed here.
The National Archives also holds 13 volumes of Church of Ireland Parish Registers search forms created before 1922, many of which also contain searchers’ notes from census entries. These search forms are not currently available for free online searching.
Within a few years of the introduction of the Old Age Pension Act the Deputy Keeper reported that ‘extensive repairs have become necessary to the returns of the census of 1841 and 1851, which have necessarily suffered much from continual handling for Old Age Pensions searches’. 5. To prevent damage to the Dublin City returns an abstract of the census returns for 1851 was prepared by David Chart, to ‘be used henceforth to check the statements of applicants and to locate families then living in Dublin, of whose address there is no certain knowledge’. 6. A partial index for Belfast’s 1851 census was also prepared. 7. Both of these items (two volumes for Dublin (CEN 1851 18/1-2); one volume for Belfast (CEN 1851 19)) are available in the National Archives of Ireland.
A very small number of damaged census forms and pages dating from 1821 and 1851 recovered from the Public Record Office are available in the National Archives of Ireland. These have been made available for online examination through the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland.
Transcripts of, and extracts from, census returns for the censuses of 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851 can be found in many genealogical collections in the National Archives (for example Crosslé notebooks; primarily Connacht), National Library of Ireland and the Genealogical Office (for example, Walsh Kelly notebooks; primarily Kilkenny and Waterford; Census of Carrigallen, 1821 (NLI p. 4646)), and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (part of Kilmore parish, County Armagh). In addition, local histories, local journals and genealogical journals often contain transcriptions of census returns.
Examples of these include:
All of the published Irish census reports (1821-1911) are publicly available online (http://www.histpop.org/).
Many of the published reports from the censuses of the Free State or the Republic of Ireland censuses can be found on the Central Statistics Office website (https://www.cso.ie/en/census/censusvolumes1926to1991/historicalreports/).
A very detailed statistical report for Rathvilly barony, County Carlow, was published by parliament following the 1821 census. 8.
Some Catholic parish registers contain census extracts or abstracts which are not available elsewhere.
The published 1831 census, for example, presents information to parish level, but a register of Clara and Horseleap parish, County Westmeath, presents numbers to townland level. The parish priest of Kilmacabea and Kilfaunaghbeg parishes, County Cork, organised a census of his area for submission to the Public Instruction Commissioners in 1834, and an abstract to townland level is available in one of the parish registers.
Additionally, some parish registers contain private censuses, or population abstracts, including:
Genealogy books and guides should be consulted, as these often provide details on surviving census returns and transcripts. 9.
Researchers should also contact the Local Studies section of their county library, and/or their county archive, as these will often have copies of surviving census material.
5.43rd DKPRI, p. 11.
6. 47th DKPRI, p. 7.
7. 50th DKPRI, p. 8.
8. Account of Progress on Statistical Returns of Counties of Ireland (Carlow, Barony of Rathvilly), H.C. 1825 (214), xxii, 309.
9. For instance, John Grenham’s Tracing your Irish ancestors.
Census forms and returns are usually straightforward to understand, although it is important to note that the ages of persons listed were often incorrectly recorded. Doubtless, some people would have been unaware of their correct age, and others may have lied. In many cases it fell to the enumerator to form an estimate of age. The 1821 enumerators, for example, were instructed as follows:
In taking the account of the age, the enumerator must decide according to the best information he can procure, either from the accounts given by the persons themselves, from his own knowledge, or from the information he is able to collect from other sources; and on this point particularly, the greatest attention must be paid to the feelings of the persons concerned. Where the precise age cannot be ascertained, or where there is reason to believe that it is inaccurately stated, the enumerator must be guided by his own judgement. 10.
The 1841 enumerators faced similar problems, leading to ‘two classes of error – one from the common anxiety of individuals to deceive others, as well as themselves, into the belief that they are younger than they really are – the other from the tendency, which all inquirers on this subject have noticed, of speaking in round numbers, and thus swelling the decimal ages, 10, 20, 30, 40 etc. To obviate these sources of error, it has been usual to ask only the next five below the age of the individual. That is, a person 27 years of age was allowed to call himself 25, and one of 33 might be set down as 30’. 11. This casual approach to recording ages resulted in ‘age heaping’ in all , where the numbers recorded for specific ages (multiples of 5 and 10) were exaggerated at the expense of other ages.
The introduction of the Old Age Pension, in 1909, led to a notable increase in the number of people recording their ages as 70 or greater; rising from 187,000 in 1901 to 295,000 in 1911, and researchers will commonly observe people ageing by more than 10 years between censuses. 12. This 1901 census form shows Thomas and Roseanne Devine aged 47 and 43 respectively in 1901, but by the 1911 census Thomas’ age had advanced by 20 years and Roseanne’s by 23 years.
10. Cen. Ire., 1821, p. 383.
11. Cen Ire., 1841, p. xlv.
12. Cen. Ire, 1911, General Report, p. xxv.
The loss of so many Irish census returns, either by accident or design, will prove frustrating to many researchers, but it is important to remember that even where the actual returns have been lost, the published census reports for all censuses from 1821 are freely available.
Although these reports do not contain the names of the inhabitants, they do provide a wealth of detail on the social and economic makeup of Ireland, and they present great detail on local societies in the past, providing researchers with the context for examining how communities were ordered and organised.
Census substitute material, such as the Tithe Applotment Books (1820s-30s) and the Valuation Office books (1820s-50s), available on the National Archives of Ireland genealogy portal, and Griffith’s Valuation, all freely available online, can be usefully used in conjunction with the information in the published reports to allow for a broad examination of family and local history.