Pioneering study charts population fall since Famine

EVERY SCHOOLCHILD in Ireland is taught that the population of the country declined by two million people during the Famine.

EVERY SCHOOLCHILD in Ireland is taught that the population of the country declined by two million people during the Famine.

For the first time that decline is charted on a locality-by-locality basis by a team based at NUI Maynooth’s National Centre for Geocomputation.

The team, led by its director Prof Stewart Fotheringham, has taken census data from 3,452 electoral districts and mapped the changes in population from 1841 to 2002, the last year in which it is possible to compare figures on an all-Ireland basis because the North only has a census every 10 years.

Although Ireland’s population decline after the famine has been well documented, the census information has not been collated in such a comprehensive fashion before.


The atlas of Irish Famine data 1841-1851 takes a detailed look at Ireland throughout the Famine years, charting population decline and changing agricultural practices.

The population change atlas 1841-2002 demonstrates how the decline in Famine population continued inexorably in many places until recently.

Examination of data from between 1841 and 1851 demonstrated how the impact of the Famine differed from area to area.

In Roscommon, which lost a third of its population during the Famine decade, there is a marked contrast between the east of the county and the west.

In west Roscommon the notorious landlord Maj Denis Mahon, who was shot dead in 1847, forcibly evicted thousands of his tenants, with some parishes experiencing a 60 per cent decline in population.

In east Roscommon, where conditions were more benign, the population decline was below 10 per cent.

In Mayo, Westport, which was a busy Famine port and had a large workhouse, experienced a 15 per cent growth in population, while neighbouring Killavalley (Killawalla) lost two-thirds of its population, the biggest decline in the country.

The map of population changes between 1841 and 1851 is speckled with places that actually increased in population.

Most of these are accounted for by the flight to cities such as Dublin, Cork, Cobh and Limerick, but isolated pockets of red also denoted places like Kanturk in Cork, Scariff in Clare, Belmullet in Co Mayo and Bahaghs (Caherciveen) in Co Kerry, where workhouses were located.

Skibbereen, the location for the Famine song of the same name, only experienced a 2.6 per cent decrease in population during the decade and it was not so lonely round the fields of Athenry, which escaped the worst ravages of the Famine with a 5.7 per cent decrease.

The second atlas uses all the census data since 1841 to show the changes in population throughout the country.

In 2002 Leitrim had only 17 per cent of the population it had in 1841, when 155,000 people lived in the county, making it the worst affected county for population loss. Garvagh in the north of the county only had 4 per cent of the population that it had before the Famine, going from 1,750 in 1841 to just 67 people in 2002.

Prof Fotheringham said they were lucky that Ireland has had a remarkable continuity in electoral districts which made like-for-like comparisons possible.

He hoped to use the forthcoming census data for Northern Ireland to make it as up-to-date as possible.

The project has taken two years and it was jointly funded by the Irish Research Council for Humanities and Social Sciences and by NUI Maynooth.

Prof Fotheringham said that it put Ireland in the “forefront of demographic research”.

He said he hoped it would be a valuable tool for local historians to tease out the story behind the figures.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times