THE ‘LIFELINES’ OF THE IRISH CENSUS
Updated: Sep 21, 2019
The Irish Census of 1901 and 1911 provides a treasure trove of information about our ancestors, the type of house they lived in and their neighbours. But what other information do the forms reveal? The census information can provide clues which are a little like the lifelines in Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? You may have suspicions about your family history but the little additional nuggets of information that can be gleaned from the census can help you confirm these suspicions.
‘Ask the Audience’
Indirectly, the census provides us with pointers to ascertain previous generations. In Ireland, and for that matter, in other societies, forenames were given to children based on a naming tradition. Usually the first born son was named for his paternal grandfather, next born son, for his maternal grandfather, the third son for his father. For girls, there was a similar tradition, first born after her paternal grandmother, second, after her maternal grandmother and third after her mother. This general rule has proved very valuable for some of my ancestors, but for other branches of my family, it has just confused matters as the naming pattern does not meet the usual traditions.
Taking my great-grandfather, Michael White, as an example. His first born son and daughter are Richard and Norah, suggesting these are his parents’ forenames. The second born daughter is Mary, is this my maternal great-great-grandmother’s name? Interestingly and a bonus certainly for my research is the fact that two relatives are included on the census, Anne Hurley and Anne Donovan, which are important clues.
Figure 1: 1911 Irish Census – Michael & Mary White.
The 1911 census indicates that my great-grandparents married in 1906, so the 1901 census should show Michael and Mary living with their parents and reveal if the White family observed the naming traditions.
Figure 2: 1901 Irish Census – Michael White. 
The 1901 census reveals that Michael and Mary White named their firstborn son and daughter after Michael’s parents Richard and Hanora White. My great-great-grandmother, Mary White (nee Donovan) was not living with her parents in 1901, as her mother died shortly after her birth, and her paternal aunt Anne Hurley reared her. Consulting Mary’s birth certificate it shows that her mother and father were Richard and Mary. This confirms that the naming tradition was followed, however, whilst this naming pattern is a great aid in research, it is important not to make leaps of faith as you can create a bogus branch of your family tree, so remember genealogical proof standards – establish the proof of a conclusion with reasonable certainty.
Figure 3: Birth registration of Mary Donovan.
In certain cases, the naming tradition can be abandoned where a death of a relative around the time of a birth occurs, the newly born child is often named for the deceased. In the case of my maternal great-grandmother, Ellen, eldest daughter of John and Mary Hennigan. The 1901 census reveals the very useful fact that John Hennigan’s mother, Mary was still living, so why was Ellen not named Mary? John Hennigan’s sister, Ellen died aged eighteen, in 1870 as a result of scarlatina, his daughter was born in 1872 and probably was named after her deceased aunt.
Figure 4: 1901 Irish Census - Ellen Hennigan.
‘Phone a friend’
Other useful information that can be garnered from the Irish census are adult siblings or elderly parents living together. John Hennigan again is a useful example, in the 1901 (figure 4), it records his mother Mary and his brother Maurice living with him. These two snippets of information are vital clues in deciphering John’s parentage. Unfortunately, Mary is a popular name in the early twentieth century in Ireland, so are there any other clues that can help.
Again John S. Hennigan is providing another clue. The initial would suggest that there are two John Hennigans living in the townland and John S’s father’s forename begins with S.
Figure 5: 1901 Census search results.
So now when I do a search to find my great-great-grandfather, I know he had at least two sons, John and Maurice, his forename began with the letter S and his wife’s name was Mary. It is very probable that the results of Parish Baptism (figure XX) showing John and Morris Hannigan are my great-great-grandfather and his brother. The page from the register records my great-great-grandmother’s maiden name as Buttimer.
Figure 6: Parish baptism results.
So remember the next time you are researching the Irish census look out for additional clues that the forms are showing or return and review the forms you have already found. You may not win a £1,000,000 but you may unearth new evidence or reignite your search for elusive ancestors.