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Tuesday 5 December 2023 Dublin: 5°C
Census National Archives A clipping from a census of Bowhill, Balrothery in Dublin - way back in 1821

Here's how you can shape the living history of Ireland next month

Make your mark on Irish history.

THE DEFINITION OF census is “an official count or survey, especially of a population”.

Isn’t it funny how a word can mean so much more than the sum of its definition?

A census of a county’s population paints a picture of that country – who lives in it, where they live and what their lives are like.

If we track these things throughout time, a larger and more meaningful image of the country emerges: the history of the people and where the nation is headed.

So let’s take a look at the history of the census in Ireland – and see if it might be able to show us a bit about ourselves now, and where we might be going.

Fadó fadó

The story of the census in Ireland is as chequered as the history of the country itself. For many years, the census of Ireland was covered under the broader census being undertaken by the United Kingdom.

A census of Ireland took place every ten years, starting off in 1821 until 1911. The total population of Ireland according to the 1911 census was 4,390,219 of whom 2,192,048 were men and 2,198,171 were women.

Mise Eire **** I am Ireland Liamfm . The GPO on O'Connell Street in Dublin (named Sackville Street at the time) Liamfm .

However, then there wasn’t another census in Ireland until 1926, due to the Irish War of Independence and the resulting bitter Irish Civil War. This time period will be fresh in all our minds this year of all years, what with it currently being the centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916 that sparked such a seismic political shift.

With such insurrection and subsequent unrest in the country, it’s entirely understandable that census-taking fell by the social wayside for 15 years.

Dublin’s burning

However, this time period is not just notable for its lack of a census. It was also a time during which many key Irish records from censuses gone by were lost – themselves caught in the crossfire of the Irish Civil War.

It was 30 June 1922 – after a two-day long stand-off – that an explosion and fire tore through the Four Courts on the Liffey’s quays in Dublin. The Four Courts housed the Public Records Office at the time, which held Irish census returns and parish registers as well as many other records of note.

four courts s_bonner2 The Fourt Courts - opened in 1802 and named for the four courts of Chancery, King's Bench, Exchequer and Common Pleas s_bonner2

It is this wartime loss of many types of records, some dating back to the 16th century, that makes it difficult for many Irish people nowadays to trace their genealogy – and proves the invaluable nature of records that document our shared past.

What survived?

Apart from some fragments, the Irish Census of 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851 were burnt (as well as just over half of the Church of Ireland parish registers).  Other documents, such as wills, legal and government records found a similar fate.

According to Irish Genealogy Toolkit, there were some valuable survivors from the Four Courts ash. They include the 1901 and 1911 census returns, which are available online and free of charge for anyone to look up. You can look up not only your family name, but also areas and specific addresses of historical interest to you.

This short video from the British Pathé archives tells the story of the Four Courts fire from a 1924 perspective:

British Pathé / YouTube

Today and tomorrow – sharing history

This tale of war and intrigue might seem part of a distant history, but it’s one that we all share and that has real impact on those tracing their family histories today.

So what does the census mean for modern Irish people? A census can provide keen insight into the current situation of a country – a snapshot of statistics that can be used to figure out where we’re at economically, socially and even environmentally.

The below graph from the Central Statistics Office shows our population grow and shrink over time, with information taken from the census:


You can explore that graph in more detail here – and many more like it across a range of subjects here.

The contemporary use of the census is used by the government to help plan and formulate policy, but it’s undeniable that they exist for posterity too.

Not only this, but taking part in Census 2016 is actively creating history for future Irish people – which will in turn help them to understand our Ireland and how it has changed.

Have you got any stories about how previous generations of your family lived? We’d love to hear them in the comment section.

The next census will take place on Sunday 24 April, 2016. When you fill in your census form on this night, you’re giving us the information we need now to understand what Ireland needs for the future. It’s your chance to make your mark on Irish history – don’t miss it. Find out more about Census 2016 here.

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