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Lost & Found: The troubled history of the Irish Census

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

Up in flames: The Four Courts on the River Liffey, Dublin, burns following shelling by the Free State Army. Ireland's Public Record Office was destroyed including census returns for much of the 19th century.

The loss of virtually the entirety of the early Irish census records will forever remain the greatest tragedy of Irish genealogy.

There are varying factors for their loss:

The returns for 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851 were, for the most part, destroyed in 1922 in the fire at the Public Record Office at the beginning of the Civil War.

The returns for 1861 and 1871 were intentionally destroyed by government order in 1877 after statistical information had been extracted.

Those for 1881 and 1891 were pulped during the First World War, allegedly due to a paper shortage.

Some census record fragmentss have come down to us:

  • 1821 & 1831: Fragments survive for different areas throughout the country.

  • 1841: The only original returns for 1841 to survive are those for parts of Killeshandra, Co. Cavan. There are also a number of transcripts of the originals from various regions throughout the country.

  • 1851: Most of the surviving fragments of the original census documents are for Co. Antrim. There are also a number of transcripts of the originals from various regions across the country.

  • 1861: Transcription of one parish in Enniscorthy, Wexford.

  • 1871: Transcription of one parish in Co. Meath.

No surviving documents for any county survive from 1881 or 1891.

Surviving census records for Co. Mayo:

The survival rates of the earlier Irish Census records for Mayo are extremely poor.

1821: The return of one household in the townland of Ballycurrin, Shrule is all that survives.

1831: No surviving documents.

1841: Transcriptions of census returns for 3 households (one in Dooyork, Kilcommon, one in Uggool, and one in Lagcurragh).

1851: Transcriptions of census returns for 2 households (one in Cahir, Aughamore, and one Knockroe, Knock).

1861-1891: No surviving documents.



Discover the Irish National Archives project to recover 700 years of records lost when the Oublic Records Office was destr0yed in 1922.


The story of the Irish Census

The first attempt to carry out an official census for the island of Ireland was made in 1813. The undertaking of this census was entrusted to the Grand Jury - essentially the precursors of the County Councils - in each county.

Due to inadequate resources and other pervading issues, this enumeration failed, and was duly abandoned.

The next attempt, and what was to become the first comprehensive government census of Ireland, was taken in 1821.

This census was carried out under the superintendence of the Magistrates at the Quarter Sessions (courts). Though largely successful, this, and the subsequent 1831 census, were not without their teething problems.

Townland boundary queries, enumerator remuneration issues, and even open hostility to the enumeration in some areas, led to an unsatisfactory outcome for these early censuses. Advancements in other areas of civil administration in the 1830s would lead to the betterment of census enumeration.

Civil Advancements in 1830s.

By 1841, the townland boundary issue had been largely resolved through the completion of the Ordnance Survey.

Furthermore, household return forms (Form A) were given to the heads of each household to fill out themselves rather than being the preserve of the enumerator. Also, a reliable enumeration team from within the newly formed Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was established.

These developments made the 1841 the most satisfactory census to-date. The census was carried out every ten years until the year 1921 - when no census was taken owing to the War of Independence.

The next census took place in 1926 and represents the first census undertaken by the Irish Free State. From 1946, the census was carried out every 5 years.

Which census was best?

The best census returns compiled were those of 1841 and 1851. These censuses asked the householder to include the names of those normally resident in the household who were not in the house on the night the census was enumerated.

Importantly, and possibly of even more value in genealogical terms, they also asked the head of the household to write down the names of those normally resident within the household who had died since the enumeration of the previous census.

In the absence of civil records, and in the absence of church records in many cases, these census returns were outstandingly comprehensive.

Tune in next week for more information on the Irish Census.

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