Blog post April 2021

Counting the people: Census anniversaries

The Census which was due to take place this month (April 2021) has been postponed for one year due to Covid19 restrictions. It is expected to be held instead on Sunday 3 April 2022. This week marks the 120th and 110th anniversaries respectively of two earlier censuses, 1901 and 1911. The 1901 census was taken on 31 March and the 1911 Census on 2 April.

For those of us in Ireland these have assumed major importance because they are the only census for which the actual forms completed in those years survive for all of the island. Due to the disastrous fire in the Four Courts building during the Civil War in 1922, all but a tiny fragment of the precious returns from 1821-1851 were lost. The returns from 1861-1891 had already been destroyed. Some sources suggest this was in the mistaken belief that the data had been abstracted into enumerators’ notebooks, which was the standard practice in England, Scotland and Wales at the time. Unfortunately, this was never the case in Ireland. There are also suggestions that the paper from some of these returns was pulped to make more paper…..


Our first image is extracted from the printed statistical returns available in the Library’s Special Collections. Though statistics can sometimes seem very inanimate, relating them to a place we know can often bring them to life. The extract here is from a table comparing the population of County Galway in the ten censuses from 1821-1911. The figures capture, more starkly than any elaborate description, the impact of famine and emigration on the county during the preceding ninety years.

It has been many years since the President of the University resided on campus but this was customary in 1901 and 1911. In those years, the President was Alexander Anderson, the professor of what was then known as Natural Philosophy. Today he would likely be based in Physics. The family were the subject of a post on the Archives and Special Collections blog in 2014.

This extract from the census return he completed for his family in 1901 provides information about his household. It and all other Irish household returns can be accessed on the wonderful digitized collection that is the National Archives of Ireland Census portal. A somewhat neglected element of these returns is what are known as the House and Building forms which tell us more about the physical surroundings in which people were living at the time. An elaborate calculation system based on the materials from which the house was constructed and the number of windows resulted in it being assigned to one of four classes with 1st class being the best and 4th class the worst. As the Andersons were living in the Quadrangle, they had the privilege of being able to say they had 19 windows in the front of their house and 15 rooms at their disposal in 1901! Other College employees who were living on the grounds at the time included the Townsend, Grealy and Donelan families. By contrast many of the houses in the Claddagh at the time were 3rd class houses, sometimes with only 2 rooms to accommodate families of 8 or 10 people.

The importance of the census as evidence for social conditions is further highlighted by the new question asked of married women in the 1911 census. This asked the woman about the duration of her current marriage, how many children were born alive and how many had survived. The responses to this question often point up the stark reality of childhood mortality characteristic of the period. Mrs. Mary Faherty, a fisherman’s wife from the Claddagh, for example, reported that, in her 14-year marriage, she had borne 8 children, 4 of whom survived. This was not confined to the less well-off, though undoubtedly poor nutrition and living conditions were a contributory factor. Mrs Mary Elizabeth Pye, wife of Joseph Pye, professor of Anatomy, was to report that in her 30-year marriage she had borne 5 children but only 3 were still living by 1911.

There are lots of other intriguing questions that can be asked of this census data, such as the number of people living in County Galway in 1901 who claimed to be over 100 years old (34, including Mary Walsh, whose age is recorded as 107!) and the number of County Galway residents in 1911 whose country of origin was India (58).

.The 1911 Census was taken on the eve of a decade of upheaval in political and social life in Ireland and around the world. Some small sense of that can be gleaned in hindsight from the appearance of census forms filled in entirely using Irish language and script. Here we see the entry for George Nicholls (Seoirse MacNiocaill) who was to become a leading light in the separatist movement in Galway in the following years.

He was lodging in the home of Caitlín, bean Mhic Ruadhraí (Mrs. Kathleen Rogers) in Salthill. For more on the life and career of Seoirse MacNiocaill see Tom Kenny's Old Galway column. 

Owing to the disturbed nature of the country in 1921 no census was taken in Ireland in that year. The next census occurred, under the auspices of the Irish Free State, in 1926. It is due to be made available for public consultation in 2027 though genealogists have been calling for an earlier release date as happened with both 1901 and 1911. No doubt it will provide scholars and researchers with much more food for thought!