Research Tip of the Week

Counting all the people: 200 years of Irish census

Sitting in traffic on the way home, an ad in the Irish language came on the car radio. Despite 14 years schooling in it, I’m not fluent, and had to concentrate to understand what was said: “take part in the census” and contribute to your future.

At the time of writing, we’re only a day away from the 2016 Irish Census, on Sunday 24th April. The 2016 Census will take place 203 years after Ireland first began to take a census. The first Census of Ireland in 1813, was abandoned as a “bad job” after two years. Even so, it marked a seismic change in how the government thought of the people of Ireland. For the first time, it looked beyond the land-owners, merchants, professionals and large farmers, and began to try and count all the people.

The first complete census of Ireland was in 1821. Although Ireland was already the most surveyed part of the British Empire, the 1821 Census was the first time that the entire Irish population was ever recorded. Its’ purpose was to gather statistical data to shape government policy decisions. In the early years (1821-51), the census focused on collecting data on births and deaths, emigration, housing-stock and disease.

In 1841 Census Commissioners were appointed for the first time, to oversee the project. The early Census Commissioners were an interesting bunch and included Thomas Larcom who led the Ordnance Survey to map Ireland, and the surgeon and author William Wilde, better known to posterity as the father of Oscar.  William Wilde was a powerhouse of a man.  He wrote on Irish archaeology, antiquities, history and folklore, and also wrote several travel books.  He was fascinated by the early science of epidemiology and grasped the idea that evidence from the census could be used to trace patterns of disease and disability in the Irish population, with the potential to revolutionize medical treatment.  From 1841 to 1871 Wilde analysed the census to extract useful knowledge on hereditary, and the progress of epidemics, and diseases like Tuberculosis.

As a consequence between the mid to late 19th Century, Ireland had “one of the most advanced health services in Europe.”

Unfortunately, since the 19th Century census was first taken, we have lost 99% of the records. All is not lost however. We still have the statistical figures extracted from the original records, published every ten years from 1851.

The census statistics provide a mass of data, which can be used with other records to create a ‘prosopography’ – a study of the lives of a community in their own time and context.

By Fiona Fitzsimons

Research Expert

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