Irish census records date back to 1821, but...
You'd be forgiven for thinking that as a result of such extensive record-taking (which started two decades before similar all-names censuses were taken in England,
Scotland and Wales, and three decades before the USA), your Irish ancestor search through the 19th century was going to be a breeze.
Sadly, that is not the case. The original census returns for 1861 and 1871 were destroyed shortly after they are collected, and for some inexplicable reason (possibly for something as prosaic as a need to create additional storage space), the records for 1861 to 1891 were pulped, by government order, during the First World War.
Just a few years later, in 1922, an explosion and subsequent fire at the Public Records Office in Dublin destroyed most of the four censuses taken from 1821 to 1851. Only a few fragments of these censuses survive.This means that the censuses of 1901 and 1911 are the only complete sets available for your Irish ancestor search. These have now been digitised and released, free, online, and you'll find links to detailed pages and blank transcription forms below.
Because virtually all of Ireland's 19th century census records were destroyed, family historians must instead rely on other genealogical sources for that period.
The most useful are land records (especially Griffith's Valuation), religious censuses, school registers, old-age pension applications and other miscellaneous lists of names such as trade directories.
Before you start looking into those alternatives, though, take a look to see if any of the fragments of Ireland's earliest censuses are worth pursuing. Their potential value will depend largely on whether or not you know your ancestors' place of origin.
Click on the following links for further details on:
1920s censusesAn Irish census wasn't taken in 1921 due to the civil war which was raging throughout the island at that time. However, one was taken in 1926: the Irish Free State Census.
This is scheduled to be released in 2026 but the Irish Government has approved plans to release it early, as one of the major 1916-anniversary commemorative projects.
Free Irish census formsWhen carrying out genealogy research using the 1901 census, transcribe all the details of your ancestors onto these free blank census forms.
The Four Courts
Located on the north bank of the River Liffey, Dublin's Four Courts building (see photo left) opened for business in 1802 and originally held the four courts of Chancery, King's Bench, Exchequer and Common Pleas. It was designed by James Gandon, the architect also responsible for the Customs House, a simliar landmark of the Irish capital a little further along the river.
By the early 20th century, the four courts had been replaced but the name retained, and the west wing of the building was being used as the Public Records Office and housed many genealogical treasures including Irish census returns, originals wills dating to the 16th century, and more than 1,000 Church of Ireland parish registers filled with birth, marriage and death records.
Sadly, most of these were lost during the Irish Civil War in 1922 when an explosion and fire ravaged the building. As well as destroying many irreplaceable genealogical records, the interior was seriously damaged and the central dome collapsed. It has since been restored and is considered one of the architectural gems of Dublin.
The famous Fire
You will hear and read much about this fire in the course of your genealogy research.
Too often, it is mentioned alongside a claim that 'ALL' Ireland's records were lost and, as a result, tracing your Irish ancestors is an impossibility. (I wish I had a Euro for every time I've encountered this tale Id be exceedingly rich!) It simply isn't true.
The 1901 and 1911 Irish census returns survive. So do all civil registration records.
So do all Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist church registers and nearly half of all Church of Ireland parish registers (not all parish clergymen had sent their records to Dublin).
So does Griffiths Valuation the primary source of land and property records for the middle of the 19th century.
So do indexes to wills and probate bonds. So do a good number of local muster rolls, poll tax lists and other records dating back to the very early 1600s. ..... I could go on!