Nearly time to fill in Census... and no lying about your age!

As Census 2022 looms, John Arnold reflects on previous census carried out as far back as the 1800s
Nearly time to fill in Census... and no lying about your age!

COUNTDOWN: Mya and Zara Akinsowon, both aged 8, from Baldoyle, Co. Dublin, at the launch of Census 2022 last month

THERE’S one townland in this parish named Desert. It’s a place name that occurs in many areas in Ireland. I’ve seen it translated as ‘the sequestered place’ and ‘the hermitage’.

In this case, the latter is probably the closer to the origin as an ancient church once stood in Desert townland - the ruinous remains can still be seen today.

In the Middle Ages, Desert was a ‘parish’ in it’s own right. When united with the nearby parish of Gortroe, the pair came to form what we call the present day district of Bartlemy.

Back in 1813, the British government made a rather unsuccessful attempt to have a census taken in Ireland. Eight years later, in 1821, the first reliable record was taken. Thus began the practise of having a census every ten years.

So, from 1821 until 1921, we have figures showing national, county, parish and DED (District Electoral division) population figures. The method of collecting the data improved as the years went by.

The census taken in 1841 is widely regarded as being of great importance because of the nature of the questions asked. It was also the last one taken in Ireland before the disastrous Famine of the 1840s.

Though the actual returns and forms up until 1901 were destroyed during the Irish Civil War, we can still learn a lot from the overall figures. In the decade from 1841 to 1851, our population fell from over eight million to 6.5 million - a decline of one and a half million persons in ten years. By 1861, another three-quarters of a million were gone.

The aforementioned townland of Desert contains 269 acres, and in 1841 a total of 237 people lived there. It is probable many were employed in a local slate quarry. Just ten years later nearly 200 of these were gone. By 1851, Desert had a population of just 40. A combination of death and emigration wrought havoc and disaster for the area.

I am often asked where did all these hundreds of people live in our parish? No remains are to be seen of so many of the mud-walled, thatched bothans which were the homes of the 1800s. On the first Irish Ordinance Survey Map, published in the era of the Great Famine, one can still clearly see literally hundreds of ‘dots’ which denoted these little houses. 

The people died or emigrated, the thatch fell in, the rains came, and the cabins disintegrated - truly a case of ‘remember, house, thou art but dust and into dust thou shalt return’.

This coming Sunday is census day once more, when every man, woman and child in the State is to be counted and recorded. We got the form last week, it’s like a small book, but laid out very well and easy to follow.

The questions contained therein are an attempt to build up a complete picture of the population of Ireland on April 3, 2022. It’s like a ‘snapshot’ in time, but the census is a vital tool for planners and those formulating and implementing future policies which will affect us all.

Back in 1901, the first page of the census returns asked for a person’s names, age, religion, martial status, occupation, where they were born, and if Irish and English could be spoken. The last column offered other options, alternative descriptions which seem very cruel in today’s world.

The head of the household, whose duty it was to fill in the form, was asked if anyone present was ‘Deaf and Dumb, Deaf Only, Blind, Imbecile or Idiot or Lunatic’. It seems very insensitive, but such were the norms of those times.

Next Sunday, we’ll be asked a few very basic questions about our homes and dwelling places - when they were built, owned or rented. In the 1901 and 1911 census forms - the only one we have full access to - there were many more questions in regards to one’s abode: The number of windows and doors, and whether they had an iron, slate or thatched roof, were all used to calculate the ‘Class of House’.

Back then, our house was recorded as ‘2nd class’ - we’re still living in it a century later, so I suppose were still 2nd Class! A detailed inventory of out-offices and outbuildings was recorded. My great-grandfather had a stall, dairy, stables, pig houses, turf house, poultry house, shed and potato store.

We all know our age, sure there’s hardly a day passes but we have to write our date of birth on some form or another for bank, phone, credit card and a myriad of other uses. It wasn’t always so and I’d say that genuinely, in days of yore, many people simply did not know their own age.

Most were illiterate, they hadn’t big birthday parties at 18, 21, 31 or for any other age either, and no-one ever stopped them and demanded to know their date of birth.

Looking at the census forms of 1901 and 1911, one is struck by the many ‘discrepancies’ in the ‘Age’ column. You’d regularly come across people recording themselves as being 50 in 1901 and a decade later they might only be 55!

Now, I never came across a person who got ‘younger’ as the years passed but certainly ‘everlasting youth’ was a popular theme early in the last century. The Old Age Pension Act was passed in 1908 and the pension was doled out for the first time in 1909. Some say that people who didn’t have any birth certificate to prove their age often added a few years to their tally in order to reach the magic 70. However, the practise of not getting older between 1901 and 1911 seems contrary to this.

Civil Registration of Births began in Ireland in 1864. I’ve seen examples of persons with ‘multiple ages’. In 1901, they might have declared an age of 31 and in 1911 they had reached 35, but when one checks back, that very person might have been born in 1866, so ages meant nothing to our ancestors!

On perusing the returns of 1901, I often came across people of 70 years and more - imagine, these were born before the Famine - it seems a long, long time ago but in many cases we’re only four generations away from those dreadful times in the history of our country.

From a genealogical research point of view, the census is a great boon. Allowing for the age difference - sure, what’s seven or eight years amongst friends - the information provided is wonderful. You might see a married couple and be wondering ‘what was her maiden name?’ Often the answer was provided further down the page where a ‘brother in law’ or ‘mother in law’ was listed, thus giving the required information. Reading on the 1901 Return Forms details about people born in the 1830s is just amazing.

On Sunday, it’s our pleasant civic duty to fill in the census form to the best of our ability. A blank space or time capsule is provided on each household form - it’s not compulsory to fill it in, remember, it won’t be read until 2122, so write what you want: The price of things, the war in Ukraine, your family tree, some dark hidden family secret - in truth, anything goes.

I’m not sure myself what I’ll write -if Cork win the Hurling League on Saturday night, it may be a description of the Trip to Tipp and the atmosphere in Liberty Square, Thurles.

No need to explain what hurling is all about, ’cause the game will still be played in a century’s time; years come and go, but some things will never change!

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