Trace your ancestors in the Irish Census Records

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The census records are one of the most valuable resources for anyone starting to research their family history. They are available free online at www.census.nationalarchives.ie

Unfortunately only two complete census for Ireland survive:

  • the 1901 Census taken 31st March 1901
  • the 1911 Census taken 2nd April 1911

The majority of Irish written government records dating to Norman timeswere destroyed when the Four Courts in Dublin, which stored state documents from Norman times, was shelled and set alight in 1922 during the Irish Civil War. There are census fragments from 1821-1851. You can access these fragments on the site.

Image of National Archives website
Irish-National-Archives website

Using the Census records online

You can search the census records by surname and then drill down by county and age. This site does not allow for variations in spelling, so try checking under every possible spelling combination e.g. Douglas, Doglas, Dooglass, Duglas.

The information provided will list everyone living in a certain property and their relationship to the Head of Family. It will also show each persons

  • religion
  • birthplace
  • occupation
  • literacy
  • if they speak Irish
  • their marital status
  • any significant illness or disability.

The 1911 Census also asks married women the details of how long they have been married, how many children have been born and how many are still living.

When reading the census records we must take into account the period in which they were written. Terms such as cripple, idiot, imbecile and lunatic, which we now find abhorrent were then considered as medical terms. Little differentiation was made between learning disabilities and mental illness.

Another thing to consider, is that occupants of certain institutions will only be identified by their initials. These include residents of police barracks, hospitals, workhouses, colleges, orphanages and industrial schools. It is possible to trace someone from their initials, birthplace and occupation but it is a lot trickier.

You can research the census records by year and location by clicking on Browse Census on the menu bar. By selecting a year the site will provide the counties which have available records for that period. This will show the names of baronies within the county or later DEDs, the District Electoral Divisions. In country areas the census lists Townlands in alphabetical order. In urban areas the census lists street names in alphabetical order. By clicking on these the house number and surname of the occupants will appear. This is a useful function if you cannot find a person via the Search Census option.

Form B1 House and Building Return

Something I have found extremely interesting from a social history point of view is the description provided of dwelling places contained in Form B1 House and Building Return. This shows if the building is made of stone or brick, slate or thatch roof, how many families are living in the house, how many rooms and how many front windows. Quite often in cities like Belfast, at least two families resided in the same property, one on the ground floor and one on the upper.

Form B2 Return of Out-Offices and Farm Steadings

Form B2 Return of Out-Offices and Farm Steadings is very useful in rural areas, as it will list the number of outbuildings and their uses e.g. stable, fowl house, turf house, piggery, dairy. This gives a good indication of how a family lived and worked and made their livelihoods.

The Census fragments

The surviving census details pre 1901 are very sparse indeed, which is a great loss to us all. You can search search them by:

  • year
  • name
  • county
  • barony

The 1841 and 1851 fragments differ from later census material as they list all family members – even those not actually present on the night the census was taken. They also record family who have died since 1831/1841, a poignant reminder of the devastation of the Great Famine and the fragility of life at that time.


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