Census records are one of the first records we use as genealogists. It’s important to find our ancestors in every census in which they were living. Our records in the US go back to 1790 with the exception of 1890 which was destroyed in a fire. The history of census records in Ireland is a sad one. The oldest surviving complete census of Ireland is 1901. It, along with the 1911 census are available for free on the National Archives of Ireland site. So what happened?
Census records in Ireland were taken from 1821. During World War I there was a paper shortage and so the government pulped the 1861 - 1891 censuses…no master copy was kept, so the destruction was complete. And then, in 1922 during the Irish Civil War the 1821 -1851 censuses were lost in the fire at Four Courts. Like our 1890 census, the loss at four courts was not complete; a few localities survived. So if you know where your ancestors lived in Ireland you should check for local records to see what survived. Both John Grenham’s Tracing Your Irish Ancestors and James Ryan’s Irish Records have chapters for each county which provide lists of surviving records. (The books are available in my Store.)
A few years ago, in a joint project with the Library and Archives Canada, the National Archives of Ireland digitized and indexed the two surviving censuses and put them online (for free) on their website. As with all databases you should begin by reading about the census here.
The Irish census Form A, contains a page for each family that was to be completed by the Head of the household. It asks for the names of all individuals living in the house, their ages, sex, relationship to the head of the household, religion, occupation, marital status and country or county of birth. It also asks about an individuals ability to read and write and whether they speak the Irish language. In the 1911 census, married women were asked how long they had been married, how many children had been born alive, and how many still living. My gg grandmother, Rachel Mackay was a widow in 1911 living with three of her children and a grandson, George Sprague. Everyone in the household was born in Leitrim except George who was born in Louth. This was interesting because the rest of the family had all emigrated to the US. George was the only one still in Ireland and he didn’t emigrate until 1914. The column asking how many children, appears to have been erased. I saw this for the first time in Ireland in 2001, working with the original forms. My notes indicated that my best guess on what had been written there was 44 years married, 11 children, 10 living. In the years since, I have found birth records for all eleven children and there is one daughter for whom I have found no marriage or death record.
But don’t stop there! Once you’ve identified your family look at the other forms. Form B1 provides the detail on houses and buildings on the property. Houses were valued by their building material, the type of roof and the number of windows. Did your ancestor live in a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd class house? Looking at all the houses in the townland, this will give you an idea of their social status. Rachel Mackay had a 2nd class house build of brick, but with a thatch roof, 3 rooms and 4 windows. While you’re looking at this form, check for familiar names.
Form B2 is a Return of Out-Offices and Farm -Steadings, in other words, other buildings on the property. Here we see that Rachel had a Stable, a Cow House, and a Calf House
The laws in Ireland state that the census records are closed for 100 years. After 1911, the next census was not taken until 1926 (in 1921 Ireland was in the midst of their civil war). Although there are ongoing discussions about releasing the 1926 census early (both 1901 and 1911 were released early), the issue appears to be deadlocked at the present time.
I’m sure many of you are thinking, my ancestors left long before 1901. Because of the practice of chain migration you should still search the census if you know the locality. Look for your surname, or others connected with your family in the locality. It might lead you to find your Irish cousins.
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