This page explores the 1766 Religious Census, the only survey of the population's faith affiliations authorised on a national level. For information about other, similar historical censuses exploring the religious leanings of our Irish ancestors, follow this link.
The 1766 island-wide survey census was authorised by the Irish Parliament in March of that year. Precise reasons for its commission are lost to us, but it may have been
for ecclesiastical administrative purposes or even for security reasons.
Although concerns about the loyalty of Roman Catholics had been on the wane for some decades, harsh Penal Laws still restricted their religious, political and economic options, and the term 'Papist' was still regarded by some as synonymous with 'Rebel'.
However, it is unlikely to be a coincidence that just two months before the authorisation, the Old Pretender (the son of the exiled Catholic King James II of England, who the Pope recognised as the legitimate king of Great Britain) died.
On his death, the Pope acknowledged the ruling Protestant monarchy as legitimate. This effectively removed the threat of Rome-inspired rebellion among the Catholics of Ireland. Within just a few years, the Penal Laws began to be relaxed, and the (very) long path to Catholic Emancipation was started.
The House of Lords resolution instructed all archbishops and bishops to direct the parish ministers of their dioceses to return a list of the families in their parishes, 'distinguishing which are Protestants and which are Papists, as also a list of the several reputed Popish priests and friars residing in their parishes.'
That was it. No further instruction about how this religious census was to be carried out, no clear advice about what information was required, and no set format for the information to be submitted.
In view of the lack of clarity of how the 1766 religious census was to be carried out, there's no surprise to find that the census returns take a number of forms, including:
Most of the original returns were lost in the fire at the Public Records Office in 1922. Surviving returns include a number for the dioceses of Armagh, Cashel & Emly, Cork & Ross, and Waterford.
Fortunately, extensive transcripts were not held at the PRO, so these have survived but they don't cover all areas. The areas best represented by surviving transcript fragments include North Cork, Limerick, Londonderry, Louth and Wicklow.
The collection of original and transcripted returns is not held in one central depository so these are not necessarily the easiest records to access. Apart from the Arthur Tenison Groves transcripts (see below), all records are held in hard copy in Ireland.
Here are some options:
Records of genealogical value
While the above mentioned NAI's Guide to the Religious Census of 1766 is useful, it does not differentiate between those census returns that contain material useful for genealogy research (ie names, occupations, addresses and ages) and those that provide merely statistical information.
I have, therefore, devised my own list of returns that might be of value for genealogy purposes. Depending on the device you're using to view this page, it's either in the right-hand column or at the foot of the page.
I have, therefore, devised my own list of returns that might be of value for genealogy purposes. Scroll down to Fragments box.
If you see one of 'your' parishes in the list, you can find out where the transcripts are held in the NAI Guide. (While I have tried to be accurate, please double check with the holding body shown in the NAI Guide, and let me know of any errors you come across.)
► More Irish census pages