Recovered census will help unravel life in pre-Famine Ireland

Beyond 2022 to make available copies of millions of documents destroyed 100 years ago

Most of the records from the religious census were burned in the fire that engulfed the Public Records Office during the shelling of the Four Courts in June 1922. Photograph: National Library of Ireland

The first population census of Ireland before the Famine has been substantially recovered and will now be digitised as part of the Beyond 2022 initiative.

The 1766 religious census was an attempt by the Church of Ireland to determine how large its congregation was and by extension how large the numbers of those belonging to other faiths, most notably the Catholic Church.

The House of Lords sanctioned the survey to determine which “are Protestants and which are Papists, also a list of the several reputed Popish priests and friars residing in their parishes”.

Most of the records from the religious census were burned in the fire that engulfed the Public Records Office during the shelling of the Four Courts in June 1922.


Also destroyed in the fire were the pre-Famine 1821, 1831 and 1841 censuses and the postwar 1851 census. Just charred fragments from those censuses remain. The rest of the censuses for the 19th century were pulped by the British government.

Beyond 2022: Ireland’s Virtual Record Treasury is an attempt to recover as much material as was burned in the fire using copies that were stored elsewhere.

Speaking at the University College Cork national conference on the Civil War, Beyond 2022 deputy director Ciaran Wallace said they had been able to recover about half of the religious census using sources found elsewhere.

Mr Wallace said that before the Beyond 2022 project, only about 7 per cent of the returns were available. Thanks to the copies that have been recovered from the Public Records Office in Northern Ireland and also the Church of Ireland archives in Dublin, that religious census now covers half the country.

Social relations

Mr Wallace stressed that even at the time it did not cover all the country, but about 80 per cent was covered. The records were uneven. Some gave the names and addresses of all people living their parish, others just the religious denomination of inhabitants.

Nevertheless it constitutes the most comprehensive survey of Ireland carried out before the Famine, especially given the priceless loss of the official pre-Famine censuses.

“It gives you a sense of social relations in an area. In some cases the ministers wrote little comments such as ‘Catholic families will not give me information because they think the state will take their children’,” Mr Wallace said.

“It is gratifying to see the map of original coverage and the map of re-coverage. Depending on the colour coding, you can see which were headcounts and which were named heads of households.”

The Beyond 2022: Virtual Record Treasury is one of the big initiatives of the Decade of Centenaries and will be launched on June 27th.

Documents dating from the 13th century have been recovered. The Medieval Treasury Records for Ireland from the 13th to the 15th century, which show taxes paid to the crown, are being translated from Latin into English and will be digitised. They will give a comprehensive picture of economic activity in Ireland 700 years ago.

The Cromwellian land survey will be digitised, showing who owned the land before Cromwell took over and it was regranted to settlers. The survey has been combined with the Down Survey maps from the same period, which measured every townland to be forfeited to soldiers and adventurers.

There are 50 million words of searchable text, which will be available free of access to the public.

Zoe Reid, senior conservator at the National Archives of Ireland, said she hoped the virtual treasury would be of interest not just to historians but to the general population.

“What has been produced is very definitely something that the public will want to interact with it. The potential is huge. It will be all about how the public will use it,” she said. “It is not intimidating. Nobody has to be a medieval scholar to understand it.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times