Ireland's first population census was in 1821
How to access early population census returns in your Irish genealogy research
The first four census of Ireland were arranged by county, barony, civil parish and townland.
The 1821 Irish census
Who was recorded: Every member of the household was included together with their name, age, occupation and relationship to the head of household.
What was recorded: The acreage held by the head of household and the number of storeys the dwelling had.
What has survived: Some fragments of this population census for small parts of counties Armagh, Cavan, Fermanagh, Galway, Meath and Offaly (then called King's County) are available at the National Archives in Dublin (see Resources below).
The 1831 census
Who was recorded: Every member of the household was included together with their name, age, occupation, religion and relationship to the head of household.
What was recorded: The acreage held by the head of household.
What has survived: Most of the returns (or copies made in 1834) survive for Co. Derry.
These are available at the National Archives in Dublin, at PRONI in Belfast and the Genealogical Centre in Derry (see Resources below).
The 1841 census
Who was recorded: Every member of the household was included in the 1841 Irish census, together with their name, age, sex, relationship to the head of household, occupation, literacy, birthplace and marital status (including date of marriage). This population census also recorded members of the family who were not at home that night including those who had died since 1831.
What was recorded: A grading system was applied to the standard of the home. There were four categories.
Mud huts without windows were the lowest.
What has survived: The only original returns to survive are those for parts of Killeshandra, Co.Cavan. These are in the National Archives in Dublin. There are also a number of transcripts of the originals, mostly for locations in the south of Cos. Kilkenny and Monaghan, but also for a few isolated households in Cos. Cork, Fermanagh and Waterford. All are available at the National Archives in Dublin (see Resources below).
What the statistics showed: A total island population of 8,175,124, of which only 15% lived in towns.
The 1851 census
Who was recorded: Every member of the household was included, together with their name, age, sex, relationship to the head of household, occupation, literacy, birthplace and marital status (including date of marriage). Like the 1841 census of Ireland, absent and deceased members of the family had to be accounted for.
What was recorded: Landholding acreage and a grading system for the standard of houses.
What has survived: Most of the surviving fragments are for Co. Antrim and the single townland of Clonee, Co. Fermanagh. These are available at PRONI in Belfast and at the National Archives in Dublin (see Resources below). In addition, PRONI holds some population census returns for parts of what is now Northern Ireland. The National Archives in Dublin holds extracts for some parts of Co. Monaghan and lists of heads of households for Dublin City and one ward in Belfast. The Genealogical Office (see Resources below) holds extracts of this population census for some Co. Kilkenny parishes.
What the statistics showed: A total island population in the aftermath of the Irish potato famine of 6,552,385 a fall of 1,622,739 in ten years.
The Irish census of 1851 recorded a total of 3,190,630 men and 3,361,755 women. Of the men, 20% were farmers (290,000 with over 15 acres of land; 192,000 of 5-15 acres) while 46% were labourers or herdsmen. Shopkeepers accounted for 3% while there were slightly more (3.3%) employed as cobblers or tailors, and more again (3.9%) were weavers.
Of the women, just under 20,000 (2%) were farmers, 15% were labourers or herdsmen. A similar number to men were shopkeepers, and just under 10% were seamstresses. The biggest groups were the 230,802 domestic servants (24%) and spinners and weavers (15.6%). These figures clearly show the size of the Irish linen and cotton industries in Ireland at this mid-point of the 19th century.
(Find out more about the work involved in transforming the flax plant into Irish linen.)
A labourer's 1851 household return
As you can see, Robin and Margaret Hull have four children, the youngest of whom, 12-year-old Harry, is working as a servant in Scotland. The elder boy, William, aged 14, is a linen weaver while his two older sisters, Debby and Jane, are servants. Although the parents claim to be literate, they don't seem to have entirely understood all the specified criterion, eg ages and year of marriage.
(This image is reproduced with the kind permission of the National Archives of Ireland.)
For more details about the surviving fragments and transcriptions for these four Irish censuses, contact:
The 1830sA decade before the Irish potato famine, a Frenchman named Gustave de Beaumont visited Ireland and described a typical cabin:
"One single apartment contains father, mother, children and sometimes a grandfather or a grandmother; there is no furniture in this wretched hovel; a single bed of straw serves the entire family.
"Five or six half-naked children may be seen crouched near a miserable fire, the ashes of which cover a few potatoes, the sole nourishment of the family. In the midst of all lies a dirty pig, the only thriving inhabitant of the place, for he lives in filth. The presence of the pig in an Irish hovel may at first seem an indication of misery; on the contrary, it is a sign of comparative comfort. Indigence is still more extreme in the hovel where no pig is to be found."
De Beaufort made clear that this miserable dwelling was not the home of a pauper. It was the home of an Irish farmer or agricultural labourer.
There are monuments to the Irish potato famine, or the Great Hunger as it is often called in Ireland, in many Irish cities and towns as well as in places around the world to which the victims fled. More about Irish emigration.
The photo above shows a detail of the Famine memorial on Dublin's Custom House Quay. Created by Irish sculptor Rowan Gillespie, the memorial is made up of six life-size bronze figures, including a dog.
The 1840sThe population census of 1841 showed that almost one half of the families in Ireland in 1841 lived in one-roomed cabins of about 3m (12 feet) wide by 3m (12 ft) to 7m (21 ft) long.
The smaller ones consisted of just one room while others would have separate kitchen. The walls of these cabins were typically made of mud. Only occasionally would they have a foundation of stone.
Usually there were no windows and the floor was natural earth and sunken by a couple of feet below the level of the ground outside.
The roof was made of sods of earth piled on rafters or straw for thatch.
It was not until 1874 that a Public Health Act made it illegal for animals to share accommodation with humans.
From the papers"In taking the Census in May Street, Limerick, the Enumerator reports that in one house there are 22 families, comprising 91 persons."
Limerick Chronicle, 29 July 1831.