Content associated with: Report, Ireland, 1841    Page 1

Census of Ireland, 1841

Matthew Woollard

The 1841 census of Ireland has been feted by Crawford as a milestone in census-taking as it established the processes and provided a bench-mark for subsequent censuses in Ireland and elsewhere in Britain. This is not an exaggeration, but its success should not be seen in isolation. Apart from the organisational skills of Thomas Aiskew Larcom (1801-1879), this enumeration was highly influenced by a committee of the Statistical Society of London, and also by the earlier Irish censuses taken in 1821 and 1831.

This census was authorised by the Census (Ireland) Act, 1840 (3 & 4 Vict. c. 100) passed one day (10 August 1840) after its British counterpart. This Act contained considerably less detail than the British Act and it is this imprecision which led, in part, to a more detailed census. The Act authorised the census to be taken on a date to be fixed by the Lord Lieutenant during July 1841, but a decision was subsequently taken to fix census day as 6 June 1841, and a further act was passed to amend the earlier legislation (An Act to amend the Acts of the last Session for taking Account of the Population (4 Vict. c.7) regarding this issue.

The act's main points were to repeal the earlier census acts for Ireland which remained on the statute books and to authorise the police (and others) to:

take an account, in writing, … of the number of persons dwelling therein, and of the sex, age, and occupation of all such persons, distinguishing the persons born in the place or parish, and county in which they shall be then dwelling; and shall also take an account of the number of inhabited houses and of uninhabited houses, and of houses then building, within such districts respectively; … and shall also take an account of all such further particulars as by such instructions they may be directed to inquire into; such particulars and instructions having no reference to the religion of any person or persons.

The second clause of this act gave a relatively free hand to the Irish authorities to ask what they wished. Some details were required and the collection of information on religion was forbidden, but other information considered of value could be collected on the authorisation of the Lord Lieutenant, who almost certainly delegated this responsibility to the Chief Secretary, who in turn passed the task of carrying out the census to a group of commissioners: William Tighe Hamilton, Henry J. Brownrigg and Sir William Wilde (1815-1876).

These three men were probably chosen because of the responsibilities they held in other areas of the Irish administration. Brownrigg was Inspector General of the Constabulary, and as such controlled the personnel necessary for the enumeration; Hamilton, the Chief Commissioner, was a civil servant in the Chief Secretary's office, holding the purse strings and providing authority for the collection of unspecified information. Larcom, a career soldier, was working at the Ordnance Survey of Ireland and responsible for the Memoirs, which were to provide statistical, social, geological and topographical guides for Ireland. These guides were suspended after the publication of a single volume, but certainly provided an inspiration for the census. In Larcom's own words:

Under the name of Social Economy, I had included in the memoir, the statistics of Education, Benevolence, and Crime, as well as the number of the people, and, at former times, their condition, their religion, the different races of which they were composed, the amount of property and capital in stock, and a variety of other matters of interest as bearing on the state of a country and its inhabitants. The Act of Parliament for the Census prohibited inquiries on religion, but allowed such matters to be collected "as the Lord-Lieutenant should direct". This was understood by the authorities to mean that his Excellency might direct such inquiries as were likely to afford checks upon the accuracy of the enumeration, and the other points which were specifically enjoined by the Act. But I obtained the concurrence of my colleagues in such a careful arrangement of those additional inquiries as should subsequently enable us by their combination to throw some light on the condition of the people. (Larcom, 323.)

Thus, an enlarged scope for the census was defined which attempted not only to count the people, but also to help answer the 'condition of the people' question.

The procedures followed in taking the census were so different from their predecessor that it is worth reporting them in some detail.

As with all censuses, one of the first elements of the process was to divide the nation into discrete geographic units to be enumerated. By 1840 most of Ireland had been mapped by the Ordnance Survey, providing a sound basis for this task. Each barony was sub-divided into districts of townlands, which was used as the basis of enumeration. Given the very large number of townlands it is clear that many were grouped together to form a single 'enumeration district'. Each 'enumeration district' was served by an enumerator, usually a constable, but possibly a member of the coast guard or a civilian.

The enumerators were instructed to first complete a survey of the houses in their district, using a schedule known as Form B (reproduced in the Census of Ireland, 1841, Report of the Commissioners, xcii). The primary object in this survey was the house, and for each house the following information was required:

For farms:

For all properties:

Families were defined as "either one individual living independently in a house, or part of a house, on his or her own means of support, or several individuals related to each other, as parents and children, brothers or sisters &c., with the addition of servants or visitors, living together in the same house, or part of a house, upon one common means of support. A lodger, or family of lodgers, who do not board with the family of the house, should be treated as a distinct family. Where such do board with the family of the house, they should be treated as one with it".

The information on Form B relating to families and heads of families was used as a check on the information collected from Form A, which was to be completed by the heads of family. Blank copies of these were supposed to be distributed to each family in each house in the week before the census by the enumerator. Enumerators were instructed to ensure that the house number used in Form B was written on Form A.

Form A contained three 'tables' for each head of family to complete. The first asked for tabular information relating to each member of the family who were to be named in the first two columns. Age, sex, relationship to head of family, marital status, year of marriage(s), occupation, literacy (either 'Read', 'Read and Write' or 'Cannot Read') and birthplace. For those living on farms an additional question asked "What number of persons usually resort to the farm for daily employment". The answer was expected to be given for men and women separately. (For children the occupation column was also to be used for school attendance.)

The second table was for those members of the family 'whose home is in this house', who were absent on census night. Information was requested on name, age, sex, relationship, occupation, and place of residence.

The third table was for personal information on all people who died in the residence of the family completing the form, in the previous decade. Name, age, sex, relationship to the current head of family, occupation, cause of death and date of death were requested.

During the week following census day enumerators were to collect and correct forms A and then pass these forms to the Superintendent who subsequently returned them to the Census Commissioners.

The extent of material elicited in this enumeration was by and far the greatest ever attempted to be collected by a census in the British Isles to that date. However, the greatest innovation in this census was not the breadth of information collected, but the use of forms which were to be completed by the head of the family, rather than the enumerator. This practice had been recommended (for urban populations) by a committee of the Statistical Society of London in 1840 (Anon., 99) and had earlier been used at the Belgian census of 1829. The use of these self-enumerated forms reduced the cost of taking the census but necessitated that each individual listed should be named in order for the enumerator to 'check' the accuracy of the return. The practice of collecting nominal information had been used in the earlier Irish censuses even though they were not self-enumerated.

Once the forms had been returned to the Census Commissioners, they were prepared for tabulation. Full details of this process are not presently known. However, it is worth noting three classificatory devices that were used to tabulate the material.

The first innovation was to divide the population into two discrete elements, relating to 'rural' and 'civil' (i.e., urban). Urban population referred to those towns which had a population of at least 2,000. This distinction was made to draw attention to the "evils of crowded habitations". (Census of Ireland, 1841, Report of the Commissioners, p. viii).

The second was related to houses. From the various information collected on Form B and relating to the materials of construction (walls and roofs), the characteristics of the property (number of rooms, windows at front and stories) a calculation was devised to place each house into one of four categories. Precisely how this was done is not explained in this report, but the commissioners seem to have confidence in the results. The four classes represented, single room mud walled cabins (4th class), mud walled cottages with 2 to 4 rooms and windows (3rd class), farm or town house with five to nine rooms of stone or brick construction (2nd class) and 'all houses of a better description than the preceding classes (1st class). (Census of Ireland, 1841, Report of the Commissioners, xvi.). House accommodation was also classified using the house classification and the number of families resident in that house. These groupings are shown in the table below.

  Housing Class
Number of families I II III IV
One 1 2 3 4
Two to Three 2 3 4 4
Four to Five 3 4 4 4
More than Five 4 4 4 4

Thus, a first class house with four to five families was considered to represent third class house accommodation.

The third classification relating to occupations is probably the most interesting. Firstly, families were classified according to 'pursuits'. This was intended simply to distinguish between families dependent on agriculture and those on 'manufacture and trade', and provides a reasonable comparison with the figures presented in England and in Ireland in the previous census. Secondly, families were classified according to 'means'. The groupings used for this classification are simple, while the rules for allocating families to each group seem complex, they are based on occupational information. The three groups could be said to represent upper, middle and lower social classes. Thirdly, people were classified according to how they ministered to the wants of others.

The results of this census were published in two parts. A third volume was published in 1844. The first contained a report and reproductions of the forms, followed by a sequence of county tables (grouped by province). Six tables were presented for each county. The first general table gave parish-level statistics on population, housing, families, occupations and education. The five other tables were only presented at a county level, distinguishing between 'rural' and 'urban' districts and covered ages, education and school attendance, marital status, housing and occupations. The last of these tables contained 'occupational group' level information. This first volume also contained a number of summary and miscellaneous tables

The second part, entitled Report upon the tables of deaths, was authored by William Wilde, and provided a report with statistical information tabulated from the third part of Form A. The breadth of knowledge demonstrated in this report along with its methodological brilliance have long overshadowed the remainder of the published output of this census.

The data provided to Wilde presented him with a number of methodological problems. First, the cause of death needed to be standardised; for example, scarlet fever was commonly known as 'red rash' or ruadh (redness). Second, causes of death needed to be systematically classified into a nosology. Third, he was faced with data of diminishing accuracy. The second of these issues was resolved with recourse to the nosology devised by William Farr and used in the English reports of the Registrar-General, and the third problem was generally ignored, but recognised. The first was resolved by a searching and detailed study of diseases in Ireland. In his commentary each of the 93 major causes of death was subjected to a detailed description, a discussion on the various Irish terms used to describe the disease, along with a historical survey.

Wilde also surveyed all the coroners' inquests for the decade, partially as a check on the information on Form A. He also examined causes of deaths in insane and lunatic asylums and hospitals and other sanitary institutions. The final part of the report contained a special sanitary report on Dublin City which included a map with each of the main thoroughfares coloured in "according to their wealth, character, more or less healthy position, and the occupations of their population" (Report upon the tables of deaths, lxviii).

Finally, a separate volume was published in 1844 (independently of the parliamentary paper series) entitled Addenda to the census of Ireland for the year 1841; showing the number of houses, families and persons in the several townlands and towns of Ireland, containing the population figures for townlands.

The 1841 census of Ireland has generally been considered for its accuracy, though there is no independent evidence for statements of this kind. Judging from the quality of its administration it is likely that it represented the highest possible level of accuracy. It introduced an important innovation — the use of the householders' schedule (though simultaneously with the rest of Britain), and it took considerable advantage of the Ordnance Survey for sub-dividing the country into administrative districts. The census commissioners used their responsibilities to collect information over and above that specified within the Act increasing the scope of the census. Classificatory devices like those for occupation, cause of death and housing quality were pioneering, as was the use of rural and 'urban' districts.


Anon, 'Report to the council of the Statistical Society of London, from the committee appointed to consider the best mode of taking the census of the United Kingdom in 1841', Journal of the Statistical Society of London, 3 (1840), 72–102.

E. M. Crawford, Counting the people. A survey of the Irish censuses, 1813–1913 (Dublin, 2003).

T. Larcom, 'Observations on the census of the population of Ireland', Journal of the Statistical Society of London, 6 (1843), 323–351.

G. S. L. Tucker, 'Irish fertility ratios before the famine', Economic History Review, 23 (1970), 267–84.

Census of Ireland, 1841, Abstract of Census of Ireland for the year 1841. 1843 BPP LI. [View this document: Abstract, Ireland, 1841]

Census of Ireland, 1841, Report of the Commissioners appointed to take the census of Ireland for the year 1841. 1843 BPP XXIV [504]. [View this document: Report, Ireland, 1841]

Addenda to the census of Ireland for the year 1841; showing the number of houses, families and persons in the several townlands and towns of Ireland (Dublin, 1844).