An Irishman's Diary

GIVEN the astounding success of the National Archives’ free online database to the 1901 and 1911 census returns, the potential…

GIVEN the astounding success of the National Archives’ free online database to the 1901 and 1911 census returns, the potential for roots tourism currently locked away in the 1926 census is incalculable.

When it comes to preservation of the written record, Ireland's reputation is poor. For a literary nation priding itself on such manuscript gems as the Book of Kellsand the Annals of the Four Masters, we should be appalled that our reputation internationally is one of a nation without records. It is difficult to argue against such a view when over the centuries through ignorance and carelessness we have destroyed and discarded the sources for the history of this island. Until the Victorians sensibly provided Ireland with a Public Record Office in Dublin's Four Courts complex in 1867 the records of parliament, government and courts were constantly in a state of flux, being brought from one temporary location to another. In this new repository records dating back as far as the 12th century were conserved and catalogued. Its holdings included parish registers, wills, census records, court files, and a whole array of records, minutes and files of government administration.

Imagine then the horror when in 1922, in an orgy of destructive violence, the combatants in the civil war brought about the virtual annihilation of the largest body of material on the history of this island ever gathered together. At this stage it hardly matters whose fault it was: the fact that it occurred at all is shame enough. In one catastrophic act of stupidity the people of Ireland were forever robbed of almost all of their national memory.

In the decades since 1922 Irish academics and genealogists have become adept at squeezing every last bit of information from the surviving records. We have learnt to recognise the value of secondary sources, of transcripts and abstracts and even surviving indexes to otherwise destroyed records. However, nothing has had a more immediate impact upon the value of Irish records than the new technologies which have been rolled out over the past decade. Sources of information once impenetrable are now easily and readily accessible. The most pertinent example of this is the online 1901 and 1911 census database created by the National Archives (the successor body to the Public Record Office of Ireland). Until these two sets of census records (which are complete, island-wide) were digitised and indexed, access was limited to knowing approximately where a family resided. Now, at the press of a button, one can establish how many butchers lived in Athlone in 1911 (18), the number of Jewish people residing in Cork city in 1901 (401) or even if anyone recorded in the 1901 census was born in Serbia (one).


It should come as no surprise to the reader to discover that the history of Irish census records is also a sad tale of incompetence. Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, it was Ireland which first compiled census returns naming individuals. This was in 1821, 20 years before England Wales and Scotland did likewise. The original census returns for 1821 to 1851 were eventually transferred to the Public Record Office where they were regularly consulted by academics and genealogists. Later, after the passing of the Old Age Pension Act in 1908, they were used to establish age for pension applicants, until their destruction in 1922. But what of the census returns compiled in 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891? In the 1880s Irish civil servants began to implement a policy of routinely destroying census records, based upon advice from the census authorities in London. After transcribing English, Welsh and Scottish data into census enumerator’s books for future preservation, the original household returns for those countries were destroyed. Unfortunately, no such policy had been followed in Ireland and the mandarins in Whitehall did not appear to know this. The fire in 1922 and this bureaucratic bungle has left Ireland with virtually no pre-1901 census records.

The 1901 and 1911 census returns were compiled under Westminster statute and no particular promise was given at the time about everlasting privacy. In the 1940s the returns were transferred to the Public Record Office as the Statistics Department had nowhere to house them. In 1961 Charles Haughey TD, parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Justice, was persuaded to sign a warrant to open the records to public scrutiny. Interestingly, this was only 50 years after the taking of the 1911 census, but there was no public outcry and the sky didn’t come crashing down!

Since the foundation of the state, all census campaigns have been conducted under the Statistics Act 1926, later replaced by the Statistics Act 1993. The earlier Act failed to make any provision for future public access to historic census data. At the time of the passing of the 1993 Act an amendment reduced the proposed embargo from 100 years to only 70, but this was later reversed.

Currently, the 1926 census is not due to be opened to public scrutiny until January 2027. But there are many, the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations (CIGO) among them, who feel that while a 100-year embargo for modern census data is warranted, it is excessive in the context of the meagre data recorded in the 1926 census. In 1926 the following information was noted for each person: name, age, sex, religion, ability to read and write, occupation, marital status, place of birth, relationship to head of household and infirmities. Also, statistics were noted about duration of marriage and children born.

The census returns of 1911 and 1926 could be described as family snapshots, capturing a picture of the Irish people before and after recent dramatic events: the first World War, the 1916 Rising, partition, and the Civil War. These were exciting times in the history of this island and the data locked away in the 1926 census would help answer the many questions that still remain.

The 1926 census could easily be opened within the next year or two, and with virtually no cost to the State given that genealogy companies such as Eneclann and would be queuing up to invest in such an opportunity. The Central Statistics Office is convinced that the Irish public cannot easily differentiate between a 100 year closure and a similar policy that closes data until 100 years after an individual’s birth. The obvious compromise is to redact! Recently, Fianna Fáil Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú published a Bill which aims to open the 1926 census returns to full public scrutiny. The Bill argues that there is a special case to be made for opening this census early and CIGO agrees. The strongest argument is that the 1926 census is brimming over with people born before civil registration commenced in 1864. Clearly, if the 1926 census were to be released in 2012 the authorities could disclose data for all people born before 1912. With such an amendment Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú’s Bill might have a good chance of succeeding.

Steven Smyrl is Executive Liaison Officer of the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations