Although the reports of Irish record loss are overstated, many essential genealogy resources have survived. One of the most important is the census.
Those seeking Irish ancestors should start with these records, available online at no cost. Then, explore other sources such as land records (such as Griffith’s Valuation) and church records.
The 1901 Census
The 1901 Census is a significant source of information for those researching their Irish family history. It provides details of every person in the country who slept in their house on 31 March 1901, including their name, age, sex, relationship to the head of household, religion, and occupation. It also records the county and country of birth and if an individual is literate or unable to read and write.
The heads of household completed the enumeration forms for households on the night of the census (usually a Sunday) and were then collected by an enumerator. These forms were then copied into enumeration books. The original householders’ schedules from 1841 to 1901 were destroyed, but a few of the books survive today.
These books are arranged by townland and, in urban areas, by street. As such, they are beneficial for tracing your Irish family history. They can provide essential clues about where your ancestors lived, mainly if they were employed in agriculture or by the Royal Irish Constabulary (police force), army, shipping, or factories. However, it is worth remembering that the spelling of names in the census was not always consistent – illiteracy was rife, and for many people, Irish was their native language.
The 1911 Census
It is the cornerstone of family history research, giving you a snapshot of your ancestors at ten-year intervals. It reveals the names and relationships of each household member as well as their occupations and other information, such as the age of the children, their relationship to the head of the house, and whether the head was widowed or divorced.
Census records also reveal where your ancestors were born, which villages or towns they were from, and the parish in which they lived. However, in 1922, during the Civil War, almost all of Ireland’s earliest census records were destroyed in a bomb blast at the Public Record Office in Dublin. Only scraps from the four earliest censuses survived.
The 1911 Census was the first to include more detailed information such as nationality, duration of marriage, and how many living children there were (and how many had died). In addition, enumerators asked women how long they had been married and whether their husbands were dead or alive.
The suffragettes boycotted the census in protest at being asked to provide their ages and sex, and many women left their homes so that their names wouldn’t appear. This means that some people listed in the 1911 Census are untraceable, but it is still an invaluable source of information about your Irish genealogy.
The 1921 Census
The 1921 Census marks a milestone in family history. It was the first to include details of occupation and employer, allowing us to trace whole workplace communities. It was also the first to record divorce as a marital status. In addition, age was recorded as years and months rather than rounded figures, enabling researchers to pinpoint exact dates of birth.
Among other things, the Census of 1921 reveals how profoundly World War One had affected society. Many men had died in the conflict and others in the Spanish flu pandemic, which was reflected in demographic change. For example, the ‘orphan question’ revealed that many children had lost their fathers to war and their mothers to the pandemic.
Census forms were more complex, and enumerators were expected to complete them accurately.
It is a testament to the quality of the 1921 Census that it has survived intact, unlike the 1931 Census, which was destroyed in a fire, and the 1941 census, which never occurred due to World War II. For this reason, it has the potential to bridge a gap in research, which would only be possible using other resources such as the national register. It also provides fascinating insights into social history.
The 1926 Census
The 1926 Census is a massive collection of data. It contains 630,048 individual household returns and around 70,000 enumerators’ sheets, laced together in 2,464 canvas portfolios. Each one represents an enumeration area within each of Ireland’s 26 counties. The data is recorded in 10 volumes that cover the population, age, sex, family composition, occupations, Irish language, religion, housing, and industries.
The release of the 1901 and 1911 censuses set a new benchmark for family historians, and demand is growing for the digitization of the 1926 Census. This will enable researchers to understand better what life was like in the Irish Free State at the time and, potentially, discover family connections that might have otherwise been missed.
The problem arises because of a 100-year embargo on the publication of personal details entered on individual census forms. This restriction applies to records compiled after the foundation of the State, unlike the UK, which has no such restrictions. The release of the 1926 Census is likely to be delayed by up to a decade.