Take time to explore this online blast from the past


NET RESULTS:The National Archive has brought us a marvellous, virtual slice of 1901 in its online census – and there’s plenty we can learn about ourselves from it

I LIVE in a two-up two-down house built around the turn of the last century in the north inner city. One of the features of such houses – when it has not been torn out – is a half rectangle of metal mounted into a slight indentation about six inches off the pavement next to the door.

Being a girl from Californian suburbs that came ready-made with paved streets and neat walkways, I had to be told by a neighbour that these odd bits of metal were foot scrapers to remove the dirt from the bottom of your shoes before you entered the house.

Okay, that made sense, except I could never picture why they were needed, given that many roads around here would have been cobbled and, I supposed, reasonably clean.

Thanks to a fabulous online resource – the National Archive of Ireland’s 1901 and 1911 census – I can now understand exactly why such houses have these little remnants of the past. In the fantastic photo collection included to give context for the two censuses are some striking images of Dublin’s mucky, dirt-filled streets.

Horse-drawn carts ramble up a street in the Coombe in 1913 through a sea of dirt. The road around Stephen’s Green: dirt. The upper end of what would become O’Connell Street in 1910: dirt.

The sheer grime of day-to-day life for all classes comes alive in these archived photos.

The National Archives launched the 1901 census online last week in the packed reading room of its building on Bishop Street. If the building had been struck by a meteor at the time of the launch, I’d say half of Ireland’s historians would have been wiped out in a single blow.

This was clearly an event – or rather, an Event – in the calendar of those who love history, archives and the past. The real event though, of course, is the website itself, and the fact that it is now live and – especially wonderful – available to you and me.

This is not always the case. Many national archives around the world make census information available but only to a limited audience.

A historian friend noted that this is the case with the British census, as well as census archive information in several other countries.

However thanks to this truly inspired nearly €4 million project, created with Government funding and built with the support of many museums, libraries and archives throughout the island and abroad, anyone can access this material.

It will benefit people around the world researching their Irish roots, students from the very young to those pursuing doctoral work, scholars of all sorts, writers researching books, and the person at home who wants to jump into the riches that can be found here.

There is so much to dabble in – hours and hours of exploration.

Helpfully, users are given plenty of guidance as well as context. A large section on early 20th-century Ireland breaks down into a number of chapters that give background for understanding Ireland at the time of the two census years. There is also a photographic archive which brings the period to life.

Then there is the amazing resource of the census itself.

Visitors to the site can choose to browse the census for 1901 or 1911, or can search each census for people or locations. For 1901, there are more than 4.5 million records from over 850,000 households, which completed the form on Sunday census night, March 31st, of that year.

You can locate a specific address in a specific city, town or village and see exactly who was resident on that evening in either year. You get a sense of the panoply of Irish life, from wealthy landowners out in their estates to the heaving tenements of the poor in the inner cities,where more than 100 souls might have been squeezed into a single building.

At the launch, the census return for the family of James Joyce was dissected in a fascinating way. Twelve Joyces lived in house 8.1 in Royal Terrace, Clontarf West, Dublin, according to the census.

A roster of the stairstep children born by Joyce’s mother Mary – 10 of them, nearly one a year – is listed. Only 39, she would die before long.

James Joyce (19) is listed as a student. He could speak Irish and English, the form states. The entire family, down to James’s eight-year-old sister Mabel, could read and write.

Don’t let me detain you though – I am sure you have found , or will find, someone or some place that intrigues you, somewhere in this marvellous, virtual slice of 1901.

National Archive census site: www.census.nationalarchives.ie/