200 years of the Census in Ireland: ‘that part of the [Record Tower] collection which seemed least likely to be inquired after’

Dr Brian Gurrin, Beyond 2022


The census of Ireland of 1821 was a remarkable undertaking, recording the names and details of 6.8 million of Ireland’s inhabitants. The enumeration commenced throughout the island on 28 May 1821, 200 years ago to this day.

The first census of Ireland commenced on 1 May 1813, but, to the embarrassment of many, including William Shaw Mason, the census commissioner, the survey was wound up with only parts of the country enumerated. Shaw Mason was retained as commissioner for the next census, Ireland’s second attempt to count the national population. This census, held in 1821, proved more successful, and preliminary population figures, to county level, published promptly by parliament in 1822, put the national population at approximately 6,846,949.[1]

Likely, it was the failure of the 1813 initiative which required the production of early preliminary figures, for, when the official population report appeared, two years later, its numbers differed substantially from those issued in 1822. Running to near 400 pages, the official volume presented the most advanced and detailed population statistics that had hitherto been available for Ireland (Fig. 1). For each of the forty counties and counties of cities/town, numerical totals were presented, to parish level, in a clear, tabular format, on:

  • Housing (inhabited; uninhabited houses; houses under construction).
  • People (males; females).
  • Occupations (agriculture; trade, manufactures and handicrafts; all other occupations).
  • Education (male and female pupils).

Observations on schools, notes on ecclesiastical arrangements and administrative boundaries, and the like, were also given. Similar data were also provided for urban centres, even ones as small as Garrynoe in County Limerick, which was categorised as a ‘town’ though consisting of a mere 6 houses and 48 inhabitants.[2]

The provisional figures were adjusted for 38 of the 40 county administrative areas – only Drogheda’s and Kilkenny City’s numbers went unchanged. In some instances, substantial adjustments were made. County Meath’s population was reduced by more than 15,000, County Cork’s by an extraordinary 72,000, and Limerick City’s was pegged back by nearly 12 per cent, while Galway’s, Leitrim’s and Sligo’s numbers were all boosted by almost 20,000. The official national population for 1821 was reported at 6,801,827.[3]

Figure 1 – Population of Arklow and Templemichael parishes, County Wicklow.

The 1821 census was an extraordinary undertaking. Notebooks, printed forms (Fig. 2), and printed instructions were distributed in advance to the appointed enumerators. The Act left the determination as to ‘whether the account should be taken by baronies or by parishes’ to the individual counties, and Shaw Mason determined that greater accuracy was obtained when smaller units were used.[4] The census answers were to be recorded in the notebooks, and later transcribed by the enumerators onto the printed forms. Unlike the succeeding census, the names of all inhabitants were recorded. When the survey was completed in an area its enumerator was to produce his printed forms at a special court session, where he swore an affidavit as to the accuracy of his data (Fig. 3), and the forms were then transmitted to Shaw Mason’s office in Dublin Castle.[5]

Figure 2 – Blank printed form, 1821 census.

 

Figure 3 – Affidavit of William Hanan, enumerator for Birr, County Offaly.

 

At the Census Office the returns were checked, and abstract figures calculated. The bundles of printed forms were then collated by county and barony, and bound into 479 large volumes.[6] These books, containing the addresses, ages and occupations of 6.8 million named individuals, were retained in the Record Tower, Dublin Castle, until they were transferred to the Public Record Office of Ireland in 1869, initially to the basement corridor of the Record Treasury, and later they were moved to bay 6I on the top floor (Fig. 4). There they remained until the destruction of the Archive in 1922. It is a measure of how research priorities have changed since the 1860s that Deputy Keeper Samuel Ferguson could describe the census volumes as ‘that part of the [Record Tower] collection which seemed least likely to be inquired after’.[7]

Figure 4 – PROI label for Navan Lower and Upper baronies.

 

Although the loss of the original volumes was near total in the 1922 fire, some interesting elements from the survey survive. Original volumes are extant for:

  1. Aran and Athenry baronies, County Galway (6I-5-79).
  2. Ballybritt barony, King’s County (6I-1-51).
  3. Navan Lower and Upper baronies, County Meath (6I-2-2 – Fig. 4).
  4. Parts of Lurg and Magherastephana baronies, County Fermanagh.[8]

For Cavan, a number of volumes exist, covering about one third of the county, but these were transcribed from the original papers before they were sent to Shaw Mason’s office in 1821. These volumes were retained locally, in the Sheriff’s Office in Cavan, and were released to the custody of the Public Record Office after 1922.[9]

Because the 1821 census was Ireland’s first successfully completed enumeration it proved attractive to genealogists and local historians, and many thousands of names were transcribed from the volumes before they were burned. Notable transcribers of 1821 census information included Philip Crosslé and Gertrude Thrift, and in particular, William Carrigan (Fig. 5) and Edmund Walsh Kelly, who extracted data on about 8,000 Kilkenny inhabitants. Other notable data derived from the census include street-level populations for some urban areas, including Belfast and Kilkenny City (Fig. 6), and detailed townland data for the barony of Rathvilly, County Carlow (Fig. 7).

Figure 5 – Census extract for Delany household, Durrow.

 

Figure 6 – Street summary, Kilkenny City.

Figure 7 – Townland data for Rathvilly barony.

 

The census of Ireland of 1821 was a remarkable undertaking, recording the names and details of 6.8 million of Ireland’s inhabitants. The enumeration commenced throughout the island on 28 May 1821, 200 years ago to this day.

Dr Brian Gurrin, Beyond 2022 Research Fellow,

28 May 2021.

 

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[1] Abstract of the population of Ireland, with a comparative view of the number of houses and inhabitants, H.C. 1822 (36), xiv, 737.

[2] Abstract of answers and returns, pursuant to Act 55 Geo. 3, for taking an account of the population of Ireland in 1821, H.C. 1824 (577), xxii, 411, p. 192. (hereafter Cen. Ire., 1821).

[3] Cen. Ire., 1821, p. 378.

[4] Cen. Ire., p. xi.

[5] Cen. Ire., pp 383-5

[6] Second report of Deputy Keeper of Public Records, Ireland (1870), p. 53.

[7] Second report of Deputy Keeper of Public Records, Ireland (1870), p. 12.

[8] Fifty-fifth report of Deputy Keeper of Public Records, Ireland (1928), p. 109.

[9] Fifty-sixth report of Deputy Keeper of Public Records, Ireland (1931), p. 413.