Guide to National Archives of Ireland

Memorandum on the Fate of the Destroyed Returns
of the Census of Ireland 1861-91


Ireland is unusual among developed countries in having few census returns pre-dating the twentieth century, the great bulk of such records having been destroyed either as a result of war or of government order.While there is continuing debate over which side in the Civil War, pro-Treaty or anti-Treaty, bears the primary responsibility for the destruction of the returns of the Census of Ireland from 1821-51, there is no argument over the fact that this particular series was destroyed in the Public Record Office of Ireland, part of the Four Courts complex which was the location of major fighting in June 1922. Less clear, however, are the circumstances and even the dates on which the census returns for the years 1861-91 were destroyed. John Grenham merely notes that the 1861-91 returns had been destroyed before 1922 'by order of the government' (Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, page 12). J G Ryan concurs that the destruction was by government order, adding that the motivation was 'either to protect confidentiality or to make paper during the First World War' (Irish Records, page 14). While some quite substantial fragments of the 1821-51 censuses have survived (for details of which see Grenham and Ryan), very little of the 1861-91 returns have come down to us, two examples being transcripts in the Catholic Parish Registers of Enniscorthy, County Wexford, 1861, and Drumconrath, County Meath, 1871 (copies available on microfilm in the National Library of Ireland).

As the matter of the fate of the 1861-91 census returns comes up so often and clearly requires a more complete and satisfactory explanation, the writer recently approached a knowledgeable staff member of the National Archives of Ireland for a briefing. There now follows a summary of what was learned, the interpretation of the documents cited being of course the writer's responsibility. In the first place, it has to be said that the exact date or dates of the destruction of the census returns of 1861 and 1871 have yet to be established. However, a typed minute of the Registrar General, William J Thompson, dated 4 July 1911, provides some interesting explanatory information:

The destruction of the original Census Returns of 1861 and 1871 was authorized by the Irish Government many years ago, as they could not be treated as public records in consequence of the undertaking given on the householder's form issued for those censuses, to the effect that the information would be published in general abstracts only, and that strict care would be taken that the returns should not be used for the gratification of curiosity, or for any other object than that of rendering the census as perfect as possible. (CSORP 12400).

A handwritten note added that before authorising the destruction of the said returns, the Irish Government had 'ascertained that the householders' returns in connection with the Census of Great Britain in 1841, 1851, 1861 and 1871 had been destroyed'. Now while it is true that the household schedules for the censuses of England and Wales were destroyed, these had been copied into census enumerators' books which have survived. It has been suggested that the disposal of the Irish returns may have proceeded on the mistaken assumption that similar copies existed here, so that the act of destruction was in effect a bureaucratic blunder. It has to be said that no evidence has been produced to show that Irish administrators laboured under this misconception, so that their decision appears rather to have been cold blooded and to have proceeded from that overly literal and legalistic interpretation of regulations which besets some public officials. Now the argument from confidentiality does have a little plausibility, in that the 1861 census was the first which included a question as to religious denomination, a very sensitive matter then as now. Yet 'confidentiality' of course is a very flexible thing, not infrequently masking official arrogance and disregard for the public interest, which can certainly be shown to be the case in relation to the loss of the census records under discussion.

It should be explained that the Irish Registrar General, head of the General Register Office which came into existence in 1845, was the official with primary responsibility for administering censuses in Ireland from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, assisted usually by two other census commissioners. The Public Record Office of Ireland dates from1867, but the General Register Office was not legally, as opposed to morally, answerable to it with regard to its treatment of records it compiled, an unfortunate situation which continues to the present day in relation to the Public Record Office's successor, the National Archives of Ireland. Nonetheless, the Public Record Office was concerned about the destruction of census returns and did make its views known, as evidenced by the following comments of the Deputy Keeper, J J Digges La Touche, in 1896:

It will be a loss in the future should the census papers of 1881 and 1891 and the following years be destroyed, as the papers of 1861 and 1871 have been. (28th Report of the Deputy Keeper of Public Records of Ireland, 1896, page 6).

Notwithstanding La Touche's comments, and it would appear other representations by Public Record Office staff, the 1881 and 1891 census returns were to meet the same fate as those of 1861 and 1871. The fatal decision is recorded in a letter dated 26 March 1918 from one Edward O'Farrell, an official in the Chief Secretary's Office and a Census Commissioner, to the Registrar General, granting permission to destroy the censuses of 1881 and 1891, following the 'same course . . . as was adopted in the case of the census returns of 1861 and 1871' (CSO LB 240). Again, in the minds of some public officials, precedent is a well nigh sacred thing, and the fact that a certain course of action has been followed in the past means that it should be followed in the present and indeed ad infinitum. It can reasonably be assumed that the destruction of the 1881 and 1891 censuses occurred in that same year, 1918, and while the documentation discovered so far makes no mention of pulping to provide paper for the war effort, such a pragmatic use of the doomed archives seems plausible.

Thus perished the documents enumerating the population of Ireland in the second half of the nineteenth century, documents which would have been of prime importance to genealogists and social historians had they survived. Of course if these later census returns had not been destroyed by government order, they might well have been burned in any case in 1922 with the earlier 1821-51 returns, had they been deposited in the Public Record Office. However, it is not impossible that the 1891 returns at least, if not the 1881 returns, could still have been in the custody of the General Register Office in 1922 awaiting transfer had they not been disposed of earlier. As reprehensible as were the actions of the calloused and uncaring soldiers who shelled and mined the Public Record Office of Ireland in 1922, we might expect slightly more elevated standards from supposedly cultured civilian officials. And it was not from England that the order to destroy the census returns of 1881 and 1891 came in 1918, but from an official with the very Irish name of O'Farrell, writing in response to the request of another Irish-based official in the General Register Office. We can also exempt staff of the Public Record Office of Ireland from any blame for the loss of the 1861-91 censuses; perhaps they might have protested more vigorously, but we have seen that they did make representations which were in effect disregarded.

So it is that the 1901 Census, which thankfully was preserved and was deposited in the Public Record Office after 1922, has come to be the earliest surviving census covering the whole of Ireland north and south. Interestingly, the reverse of Form A of the 1901 Census, and of the subsequent 1911 Census, contains exactly the same provision as that already quoted in justification of the destruction of the returns of 1861 and 1871:

The facts will be published in general abstracts only, and strict care will be taken that the returns are not used for the gratification of curiosity, or for any other object than that of rendering the Census as complete as possible.

Fortunately, and no doubt as a result of the shocking destruction of earlier records, the narrow interpretation of the above provision was not maintained by public servants of the new Free State regime after 1922, and the 1901 and 1911 Censuses have not and presumably never will be destroyed by officially approved action. Interestingly, the Registrar General at the time of the 1901 Census was Sir Robert E Matheson, an energetic official familiar to Irish genealogists as the author of two extremely useful reports on surname distribution and variation (republished in one volume by the Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 1982, under the title Special Report on Surnames in Ireland). One wonders if Matheson would have taken as inflexible a line on the destruction of census returns as that of his successor William J Thompson?

The above of course is only in the nature of a preliminary sketch of the fate of the destroyed Irish census records of 1861-91, and in time others will no doubt add to it and perhaps even correct some elements. The question arises as to whether the General Register Office today holds any old records, for example, letter books of the Registrar General, which might throw further light on what is really a rather shameful chapter in its history. It is an indication of how little things have changed that we know only in outline what records are held by the General Register Office, for there exists, in the public domain at least, no comprehensive archival list of its holdings from 1845. Genealogists in particular can reflect on the fact that General Register Office records of non-Catholic marriages from 1845, and of all births, marriages and deaths from 1864, are doubly vital in the Irish context precisely because of the loss of the bulk of pre-1901 censuses. Yet the General Register Office makes its records available to genealogists in Lombard Street East, Dublin, in conditions that have deteriorated progressively over the years, charging fees to boot (see our online Guide to the General Register Office of Ireland). General Register Office management and the Department of Health have remained deaf to the entreaties of the genealogical community to do something to improve access to vital records, for example, by distributing or selling copies of the indexes at least to repositories in Ireland and abroad. Perhaps the personnel involved may be moved by some kind of shame over the actions of their predecessors in destroying irreplaceable census records, so that even at this late hour they might reconsider their ungenerous policies concerning access to records of births, marriages and deaths.

Today the 1901 Census can be searched in the National Archives of Ireland, Bishop Street, Dublin, together with that of 1911 and the surviving pre-1901 fragments, while the first census taken in an independent Ireland, that of 1926, is still closed. In order to conserve the original census returns from damage caused by handling, the National Archives is in the process of making them accessible for research in microfilm form only, copies of which can also conveniently be searched in a number of repositories nationally and internationally. It has to be said that some problems have been encountered with the microfilms of the 1901 Census, in that it has been found that some returns may have been omitted during copying, so that access to the originals is still required, and the deficiencies should be corrected without delay. The 1901 Census of England and Wales is subject to a 100-year access rule, and therefore will only be released for general public consultation in January 2002, but of course copies of the pre-1901 censuses are intact and accessible as already noted. The English Public Record Office has actually digitised the 1901 Census of England and Wales, so that it will be possible to search it online via the Internet from points all round the world (see Public Record Office | Census). What chance is there of the Irish Government funding such a far-seeing programme to make our 1901 Census readily available nationally and to the Diaspora internationally, together with other records which partially substitute for the pre-1901 census returns lost not only through the fury of war, but also as a result of the narrow vision of public officials?

Sean Murphy
Centre for Irish Genealogical and Historical Studies
25 October 2001