Navigating the Irish Census - How to Utilize Online Records for Family History

Many people put off researching their Irish ancestors because they hear that almost all census records were destroyed in 1922. While that’s true, there are several alternatives to finding your ancestors.

The ‘Family Form A’ requested names and relationships but included a house survey (Form B) and a ‘Shipping Return’ for those emigrating (Form O). Additional forms introduced in 1851 included institutional ones for workhouses, hospitals, educational establishments, and barracks.

How to Utilize Online Records for Family History

Many people are put off researching their Irish ancestors by being told that the records were lost in a fire in 1922. While it is true that many of the census records were destroyed, there are alternatives available that can open doors and solve puzzles. These are census substitutes and commercial directories.

An excellent way to organize your research files is by allocating numbers to each of your ancestors. This enables you to record siblings and their relationships. A file system will also help transport your research to other family members. This could be by photocopying the relevant pages to a computer or using a folder or binder for each family.

The 1851 Census

Although less comprehensive than the UK’s 1841 Census, Ireland’s 1851 Census offers a snapshot of households nationwide. The information recorded here can be invaluable for family historians.

It was the first census to ask for each person’s town and parish of birth and their marital status and relationship to the head of household. Furthermore, ages were downrated to the nearest five years, which can help narrow searches.

While losing many of the earlier census records is a significant setback, there are still ways to track down your Irish family history foundation. For example, Griffith’s Valuation and Tithe Applotment Books make for functional Census substitutes.

The 1861 Census

For each household, a list of all residents was recorded, including name, age, sex, relationship to the head of the household, and occupation. In addition, the country of origin was also listed for those born outside Ireland.

Address and house number were included for all households unless they lived in an institution such as a prison, where only the district was recorded. Occupations were detailed in 1861, as were marital status (M for married, W for widow or spinster) and nationality.

Sadly, many of the original census returns have been lost, and 1861 is no exception. However, some census substitutes provide valuable information for tracing your family tree.

The 1871 Census

Fortunately, most Irish census records from this time were not destroyed in 1922. You can find these surviving returns online.

You can browse these indexed transcripts by street/townland, town, and civil parish. You can also view households surrounding your target household using the Browse function – this is especially helpful if you know only the name of an ancestor. You can also try searching by occupation if you know what your target ancestor did for a living. You may want to consult historical maps, gazetteers, and other references before interpreting the results. You may find it easier to find your target ancestor if you search for someone with a more uncommon name.

The 1881 Census

For the first time since 1861, the 1881 Census is now available to search. This release, joining earlier releases of the 1901 and 1911 censuses, is perfect for tracing house histories, as people were enumerated by address.

Unlike the previous censuses, 1881 records also feature a map pin locating each household on historical and modern maps, making it even easier to visualize where your ancestors lived. 

The 1891 Census

Many people are put off researching their Irish ancestry because they have heard that ‘all the census records burned in 1922’. While true, other sources can be used as census substitutes, including land records and tithe applotment books.

The 1891 census is now available online and contains valuable information such as name, age, sex, religion, and occupation. It can also be compared with modern street maps to pinpoint household locations in townlands and streets. 

The 1901 Census

The 1901 Census was the first complete all-Ireland census available to genealogists (the earlier ones were almost destroyed). 

The information requested was similar to the UK census: name, age, sex, relationship to head of household, religion, occupation, and whether deaf and hard of hearing, blind, imbecile, or lunatic. A new question also asked whether the person could read, write, and speak the Irish language.

The 1911 Census

Unlike previous censuses, the original household manuscript returns survive for the 1911 Census. These contain information about everyone who lived in the house on census night, including family members, servants, lodgers, and boarders. They also include the head of the household’s signature.

This is the only census in which a head of the household’s signature appears on the searchable household schedules. It was also the first time that occupations were recorded.

Occupations can be challenging to decipher because they may have been written in Irish or English and have different spellings. It’s worth consulting historical maps and gazetteers to discover these variations. To narrow your search try searching for the surname with a place name or vice versa.