Irish Roots

April 26th, 2010

John Grenham

As well as causing unfortunate accidents, idle curiosity is a great source of unlooked-for discoveries. Grazing the online 1911 census again recently, I tried searching the “infirmities” column. This is the section of the census return where individuals were to be described as “Deaf and Dumb; Dumb only; Blind; Imbecile or Idiot; Or Lunatic”. The aim, one presumes, was to collect medical statistics, and the nature of the afflictions chosen implies some eugenic intent. Inevitably, quite a large number of people misunderstood its purpose, and saw this section as an invitation to tell the government about their troubles. All of these returns can now be retrieved simply by choosing “Other” in the “Specified Illnesses” search box.

In the midst of the cheerful lists of “All right” and “No infirmity”, and the rather less cheerful “Bad Corn” and “Cold in Chest” and “Want of Money”, one return stood out. As their infirmity, Ellen Barry of Churchill Terrace in Sandymount and her two daughters had entered “unenfranchised”. Further investigation showed a number of similar returns, including a Kathleen Hannon of Lower Leeson Street who entered “Not naturally infirm, but legally classed with imbeciles on account of my sex”.

The description of census day on the National Archives website, part of the fascinating and underappreciated contextual material, points out that the suffragette movement throughout the United Kingdom had called for a boycott of the census. Evidently, some suffragettes decided to be visible to history (and the census enumerators) by protesting on the form, rather than simply refusing to fill it out. Further idle grazing even shows a number of women recording their religion as “Militant suffragette”.

This is history in wonderful personal detail, and it is only possible because the National Archives has invited idle curiosity by making the census available for free.


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.


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