Figure 1: Mary and Joseph register for the census before Governor Quirinius. Byzantine mosaic at the Chora Church, Constantinople.
‘In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.’
The origins of the census date back to the early ages, indeed, there is evidence in the Old Testament of various counts. Closer to Ireland, the earliest evidence of census include ‘the Breviary of Charlemagne and the Domesday Book in England … the latter was compiled by order of William the Conqueror towards the end of the 11th century’. Directly relating to Ireland, in 1672, Sir William Petty attempted to ascertain the population of Ireland. However the methodology was very crude and his estimate was a total of 1,100,000 living in the country. His rationale was that each family had five to six members and the number of families in Ireland was 200,000 (click here to view). Next to attempt a census was Captain South in 1695, followed by Thomas Dobbs in 1712, 1718, 1725 and 1726. In 1731, responsibility for the task was transferred to the Clergy. Between 1754 and 1805 a number of censuses were taken. Finally in 1812, an Act was passed by the British Parliament to undertake an Irish census, unfortunately this census was incomplete and unsatisfactory as the count was not confined to one year and many districts were excluded.
Figure 2: Sir William Petty.
Irish Census 1821 -2016
The first relatively accurate Irish census took place in 1821. The country was divided into baronies, parishes and townlands and although the count did not occur on one specific night, it did happen over a short period of time and each area was administered by an enumerator. This enumerator was given a notebook, in which, they recorded details of name, age and occupation, and these details were subsequently copied into printed forms. The next census took place ten years later, however its reliability is questionable as the count did not take place on one night and enumerators thought they would be paid according to numbers enumerated.
The first accurate census of Ireland took place on Sunday 6 June 1841 and showed Ireland having a population of 6,528,799 men, women and children. A census took place every ten years up to and including 1911, no census was taken in 1921 due to the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War. The first census in the new Irish Free State took place in 1926 following the enacting of the general Statistics Act 1926. A census was taken every ten years until 1946, and following that every five years, except 1976 and 2001. The 1976 census was cancelled due to Ireland’s dire economic position, however a restricted census was taken in 1979 as up-to-date population figures were necessary. The 2001 census was postponed until 2002, this occurred as a result of a severe outbreak of foot and mouth disease.
Figure 3: 1821 Census Return.
Census records online
Over the last two hundred years, a huge amount of information has been collected about our relatives but unfortunately in 1922, a material amount of this information was lost forever. On 30 June of that year, seven centuries of priceless Irish documents stored in the Public Records Office were destroyed by an explosion at the Four Courts, Dublin. However, even before the 1922 fire, the census of 1861 to 1891 were lost forever. The original returns for 1861 and 1871 were destroyed shortly after the censuses were taken. The returns for 1881 and 1891 were pulped during World War I, possibly due to a paper shortage. Fortunately the 1901 and 1911 census records survived in the Registrar General’s Office. Although fragments of the 1821 and 1831 census returns survive, the majority were lost as well as the returns for 1841 and 1851.
Figure 4: Four Courts, Dublin ablaze in 1922.
Currently, a project, "Beyond 2022: Ireland's Virtual Record Teasury” has begun and will see the creation of a virtual reality reconstruction of the Public Record Office. The project, funded by the Irish Research Council, is in collaboration with Trinity’s four archival partners: The National Archives of Ireland, The National Archives (UK), The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland and The Irish Manuscripts Commission. On the centenary of the Public Records Office blaze the project will launch a Virtual Record Treasury that reconstructs Ireland’s archives. (To find out more about Beyond 2022 go to https://beyond2022.ie/).
Possibly the most startling aspect of Ireland’s population statistics are the shift in numbers between the census of 1841 and 1851. This drastic reduction in Ireland’s inhabitants is as a direct result of The Great Famine which ravaged the country between 1845 and 1851. In the ten years after 1841, 1,417M men, women and children either died from starvation, or emigrated to avoid their ill fate. Contrast this trend with the population of England and Wales; in ten years the population of these two countries increased by 13% compared to the decrease of 22% in Ireland.
Figure 5: Census shift 1841 V 1851 Ireland (Republic), England and Wales.
One very interesting statistic to note is the decrease in population in the six counties of Ulster. Although in the nineteenth century, Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone were part of Ireland and remained so until the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, was the writing on the wall over half a century earlier. Whilst the average drop in population of the twenty-six counties of the Republic of Ireland was 32.2%, the effect of the famine on the six counties of Northern Ireland was much lower at 12.5%.
Figure 6: Census shift 1841 V 1851 Ireland (Republic & North), by Province.
In all, Ireland’s population as decreased by 1.7M between 1841 to 2016, females outnumbered males in the years 1821 to 1901 and 1986 to 2016, with males outnumbering females between 1901 to 1986.
Figure 7: % of Women V Men, Irish Census (Republic), 1821 - 2016.
Although the details of the various census prior to 1901 are lost the summary information does provide a fascinating insight into Ireland in the nineteenth century. This summary information includes details about population, religious denominations, age groups, emigration,, vital statistics and a wide variety of other information and if you would like to learn more, Irish Historical Statitics, edited by W.E. Vaughan and A.J. Fizpatrick is an excellent read.
Figure 8: Summary Abstract 1831 Irish Census.
 Luke 2:1-7, Holy Bible: English Standard Version.