Census, 1861

Next Sunday, 10th April is Census Day 2011. In filling out the forms, we will be continuing a long tradition stretching back to 1821, perhaps 1813, and almost 1801!

The first Census was to occur in 1801, but because the Act of Union came into effect on 1st January 1801, Ireland was not included. A decade later, Ireland was again excluded because of the lack of logistical capacity and it wasn’t until 1813 that an attempt was made to enumerate the population of Ireland by formal Census (see earlier article on pre-Census enumeration attempts). This was a failure, but lessons learned were effectively put in place to ensure a successful Census in 1821, when the population of the Parish of Powerscourt was counted and recorded as being 2,437, with 165 people living in the village. The population of County Wicklow recorded in this Census was 110,767. Only a fraction of returns from 19th century survive but there exists for each Census from 1821 a very detailed report on the Census, available to view through the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers (HCPP), available electronically at the National Library of Ireland.

As each decade passed, the Census enumeration became more sophisticated. In 1841, enumeration changed from orally recording data to providing households with forms to complete in advance, similar to how it is done today. Because the 1821 and 1831 Census were obtained by oral methods, it has been estimated that they over-estimate the population by about 5%. In addition, aided by new information from the fresh Ordnance Survey data (the parish was mapped ca. 1838-9), Census returns were compiled at the townland level. In addition, health and disease was recorded – providing information of crucial importance in the 1851 Census for documenting the effects of the Famine.

However, it is the 1861 Census, 150 years ago this year, that is the magum opus of Irish Census. Coupled with improvements in previous decades on the recording of health, education, employment, disease and death, this Census also recorded for the first time the religious affiliations of the people. The data available from this Census is bewildering, with tables of data available on all of the above themes, often as a function of age and religion. The Census provides a very rich profile of the life of people, by providing both a snapshot at the time of enumeration and by considering trends across the decades.

Extract from 1861 Census Report


In 1861, the population of the parish was 2,285, with 1,904 people living in rural parts of the parish, 381 people living in the village and 86,479 in the county. The population had dropped dramatically from its peak in 1831 (4041 rural, 497 village,121,557 county). In the book I make the argument, based on the population figures through the century, that there was a decided shift off the land in this period, with the proportion of people living in or near the village declining at a much lower rate than those in rural areas. 6% of the population lived in the village in 1821; by 1861 this had risen to 17%, steadying to 15% by 1901. This movement off the land was probably due to reduced income from the land for the lowest levels of labourer, ability of slightly larger farm-holders to run bigger farms and a change in agricultural production which meant that not food was necessarily local any more. The reduction in population on the land was slightly more marked for women, whose population in rural areas of the parish declined faster than men. Hannigan makes the point that because of Wicklow’s proximity to Dublin, women in the north of the county tended to migrate to the city for domestic jobs. The largest decline in population over the course of the century was in the townlands around Curtlestown, followed by those around Glencree, Powerscourt Demesne and the smallest decline around the village. One positive consequence of population decline was the elimination of fourth class housing over the period 1841 – 1871. Another aspect discussed in detail in the book is the rising literacy levels in the parish, coupled with the establishment of schools and the National School system of education, 1831.

For the 1871 Census, the organisers were told with little notice that they were to adopt the “English” system, to have a uniform measurement across the Kingdom. This system was considered inferior to the one used in 1861, but nevertheless, the amount of data generated is impressive. After 1871, some data was not recorded at townland level, or even parish level, and the applicability to local history is unfortunately diminished. However, as a bank of data, the 19th century Census are of enormous value to studying a wide range of themes of interest to local historians. By 1901, household returns are available, and the Census again becomes a hugely valuable resource.

The Census provide for additional depth when used in conjunction with other population surveys and public inquiries, such as the 1834 Religious Inquiry (allowing comparison of religious population between 1834 and 1861) and the Poor Inquiries, allowing for a comparison of health data. The HCPP documents are text-searchable, but sometimes the text does not match, because of poor quality copy. If planning to dive into the Census for historical research, I wholeheartedly recommend E. Margaret Crawford’s book “Counting the People: A Guide to the Censuses of Ireland 1831-1911” which is a great guide to using Census data for local history studies.

Further Reading

Ken Hannigan, “Wicklow before and after the Famine”, Wicklow, History and Society, Geography publications, Dublin.

Michael Seery, Enniskerry: A History, History Press Ireland, provides a lot of information about the parish and village in the 19th century derived from Census data.


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