Oscar Wilde's father, Sir William Wilde was, in his time, equally if not more accomplished than his famous son. He was best known for his extraordinary contribution to the 1851 census of Ireland, but the Roscommon-born statistician was also a pioneering ophthalmic surgeon with a passionate interest in Irish antiquities, archaeology, topography and folklore. 

Renowned for his boundless energy and hungry intellect, he published prolifically during his lifetime on topics ranging from Irish popular superstitions to an exculpatory biography of Johnathan Swift. 

Image - William Wilde. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

William Wilde. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

In 1863, he was appointed Surgeon Oculist to the Queen in Ireland – a post created in his honour – and his 'services to statistical science' were recognised a year later when he was knighted by the Earl of Carlisle. 

Chiasmic, mercurial and no stranger to scandal, having fathered three illegitimate children, Wilde lived an extraordinary life at the centre of Dublin society. He died in April 1876 aged sixty-one at his home in Merrion Square. 

William Wilde

William Wilde was just thirty years old in 1845 when the first signs of potato blight appeared in Ireland. Already enjoying a burgeoning reputation as one of Dublin's foremost surgeons, he accepted the position of editor of the prestigious Dublin Journal of Medical Science

Wilde was also responsible for running St. Mark's Ophthalmic Hospital, which he had opened at his own expense as a dispensary for the poor just twelve months earlier. 

1851 was another landmark year for the Dublin surgeon. He married Jane Francesca Elgee – the celebrated nationalist poet and regular contributor to The Nation newspaper under the penname 'Speranza' – the Italian word for hope.

Image - Jane Francesa Elgee, aka Speranza, married William Wilde and became the mother of Oscar. Photo: Getty Images

Jane Francesa Elgee, aka Speranza, married William Wilde and became the mother of Oscar. Photo: Getty Images

It was also the year in which the decennial census of population was taken. Having revealed the breadth of his medical knowledge as medical commissioner for the census of 1841, Wilde accepted the role of assistant census commissioner for 1851. By that time, the landscape of Ireland had been transformed by one of the greatest social catastrophes in modern European history. 

Rapid decline

The Famine years saw the rapid disappearance of almost 300,000 smallholdings of under five acres, while smallholdings of between five and fifteen acres declined by almost forty percent. Eviction during the Famine was not the only reason for such an enormous decline. 

Some families simply abandoned their homes in search of relief, others emigrated and, in some cases, particularly in the south and west of the country, entire families were wiped out by starvation or infectious disease. 

As historian Kirby A Miller observes in the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, 'only one out of every three Irishmen and Irishwomen born around 1831 died at home of old age – in Munster only one out of four.'

Collecting accurate statistics in a country decimated by famine and disrupted by mass emigration was not an easy task. Widespread illiteracy among Ireland's poor hampered the enumerators' efforts, as did an intense hostility towards the government, blamed for Ireland's suffering during the Famine. 

In an attempt to subdue the expected antagonism, the commissioners issued a controversial circular two weeks before the appointed census day of 30 March 1851:

[To] the Clergy of every religious denomination in Ireland, to the Magistracy, Medical Men of Public Institutions, and other persons likely to have influence in their respective spheres … to exert your influence among the peasantry and the less enlightened classes in your neighbourhood, so as to remove any prejudice that may exist, and to induce them willingly to afford the information asked for.

The census commissioners secured offices at 5 Henrietta Street and employed an army of clerks, to analyse the returns. Wilde found it more convenient to work from his own home at 21 Westland Row where, for five years, he poured over census returns and institutional records to compile his remarkable Tables of Death. 

Published in two volumes in 1856, they contain incredibly detailed cross-tabulations of mortality by cause, county, year, gender and season. 

Motivated by his own antiquarian interests, Wilde consulted ancient manuscripts, monastic annals and medical texts to construct tables which placed mortality during the Great Famine in the context of 'pestilences, cosmical phenomena, epizootics and famines' in Ireland from 'the pre-Christian period to the present time'.

'More than once', wrote Wilde in November 1856, I 'impaired my health by the incessant daily and nightly labour devoted to this voluminous work'.

Image - Departure by Pádraic Reaney
b. 1952 (1995). Image copyright Pádraic Reaney. Image courtesy of Ireland's Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University

Departure by Pádraic Reaney b. 1952 (1995). Image copyright Pádraic Reaney. Image courtesy of Ireland's Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University

Ireland did not have a civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in 1851 and the Catholic Church had not yet regulated the preservation of its mortuary registers. Nonetheless, Wilde had access to a wide variety of sources, including the census returns, hospitals and workhouse records and accounts from prisons and sanitary institutions. 

Not all of these, however, were reliable. The census returns depended on the honesty of families and on their memory over a ten year period. In some cases, whole families had died or emigrated leaving no one to answer the enumerator's questions. 

Hospital and workhouse records, particularly those compiled during the height of the Famine, were sometimes incomplete. As historical geographer S.H. Cousens found, the returns for the number of the dead in the fever hospitals in Athlone, Castleblaney, Lismore, Listowel, Cahersiveen, Clones, Cootehill, Fermoy and Mallow had been lost by 1851. 

Despite these limitations, Wilde's final analysis is one of the most comprehensive records of disease and mortality produced anywhere in the nineteenth century, and, according to the Dublin University Magazine on 16 May 1875, 'the subject of commendation in the medical journals throughout the world'. 

Percentage number of deaths recorded for each county 1846-51 as a proportion of total deaths recorded 1841-51

The Census of 1851 provides figures for the number who died in each county in each year from 1841 to 1851. While generally recognised as underestimated, they do give a very good indication of the relative distribution of excess deaths – and therefore the intensity of the famine catastrophe – across the island.

Of the total number of dead recorded for the 1840s decade, the county average for deaths during the Famine years (1846 - 1851) is 77.3%. But the returns range from 70.7% for Dublin city to over 86% for Galway city. 

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A man of his time

In the General Report on the census, published in 1856, Wilde estimated that 1,361,051 deaths occurred in Ireland between the two censuses (1841 and 1851), 73 percent of which took place during the five years of famine. 

In contrast to his wife Jane, who was a scathing critic of British policy during the Famine years, Wilde was very much a man of his time, sharing the providentialist beliefs and Liberal ideology of Trevelyan and Russell. 

The losses were clearly catastrophic, but his final analysis was that the Famine served to break Ireland's crippling dependency on the potato, which would have long-term benefits for Irish society. 

Vulnerability and mortality

It is impossible to know exactly how many people died during the Famine, but the 1851 census provides an important reference point. The population in 1851 was returned at 6.55 million, a reduction of 1.62 million from the 1841 figure. Recent studies, however, suggest that the 1841 census return of 8,175,124 people was a serious underestimation and it is more likely to have been 8.4 million, rising to 8.7 million by 1846. 

About a quarter of Ireland's population 'disappeared' during the 1840s - victims of fever or starvation or passengers on emigrant ships bound for a better life.

Image - Emigrants leaving Ireland for the USA, 1855. Illustrated London News - pub 6th July 1850. (Photo by Illustrated London News/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Emigrants leaving Ireland for the USA, 1855. Illustrated London News - pub 6th July 1850. (Photo by Illustrated London News/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Born more than a century after William Wilde, S.H. Cousens conducted pioneering work in the area of famine demography. In the 1960s, he calculated the number of excess deaths – [deaths that would not have happened naturally] for the years 1846-50 at just over 800,000. 

This figure was generally accepted until the 1980s, when economic historian Joel Mokyr challenged Cousens' reliance on the imperfect census returns. Through an elaborate series of calculations using myriad sources, Mokyr provided new upper and lower-bound estimates for annual excess death rates during the Famine, exposing Cousens' figure as an underestimation by about 200,000 people. 

Most historians now agree that the number of excess deaths was at least one million and if averted births are taken into account, the figure climbs to approximately 1.4 million. 

Precise mortality figures at local level remain elusive, but the work of Cousens, Mokyr, Cormac Ó Gráda and, more recently, Willie Smyth, allows for a birds-eye view of the regional variations in mortality rates. The severity of the Famine-related devastation intensifies as one moves from east to west. 

Leinster accounted for 8.6 percent of the total excess deaths as calculated by Mokyr, while Connacht accounted for an enormous 40.4 per cent or almost 437,000 people.

Average lower-bound estimates by Joel Mokyr for annual excess death rates per 1000 population, 1846-51

Joel Mokyr's pioneering book Why Ireland Starved calculates both upper-bound estimates and lower-bound estimates (this map) for annual excess death rates per 1,000 population during the years 1846–51. 

His table of upper-bound estimates per county includes averted births while his lower-bound estimates do not. Mokyr locates the highest incidence of famine-induced deaths in the counties of Connacht and in Counties Cavan, Clare and Cork. 

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Who was most at risk?

The mortality figures in 1851 census are consistent with a striking universal feature of famines - that males are more likely to succumb to disease and starvation than females. Of the total recorded dead over the Famine decade, 53 percent were male and 47 percent female. A phenomenon which, according to Ó Gráda was the result of 'physiological rather than cultural causes'. 

The cohorts most vulnerable to the effects of famine were children under five and adults over forty. One of the most poignant maps in the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine shows the percentage change in the distribution of children under five years of age between 1841 and 1851. 

It demonstrates not only the particular vulnerability of children to famine conditions, but also the regional variations in child mortalities during the 1840s and the unrealised potential for births in the same decade.  

Percentage change in the distribution of children under five years of age, 1841-1851

Young children were major victims of famine conditions, both in their homes and in institutions such as the workhouses. This map provides not only a picture of the uneven distribution of child mortalities during the Famine but also indirectly suggests regional variations in birth-rates because of the relative severity of famine conditions.

Apart from some parishes in the Dublin and Cork hinterlands, south Wexford and pockets elsewhere which saw population increases, all other parishes lost populations – north Ulster and parts of east Leinster the least. 

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Nowhere left unscathed

While the cost of the Famine in terms of human lives was greater in the west and south of the country, no part of Ireland emerged unscathed. Mokyr's research demonstrated that the factors that correlated most significantly with excess mortality were levels of income, literacy rates and the size of smallholdings.

 Put simply, vulnerability to disease and starvation was directly related to poverty – no matter where in the country you lived. 

Image - An Bothán in UCC, a reproduction of a Famine-era cottier's cottage

An Bothán in UCC, a reproduction of a Famine-era cottier's cottage

As the census of 1841 revealed, the one-roomed mud cabins of the cottier class proliferated in the west of Ireland, where the land was ruthlessly subdivided and the smallholders were entirely dependent on the potato. 

Illiteracy, as a consequence of poverty, made families even more vulnerable to the ravages of famine, as they were often oblivious to official notices announcing relief measures or opportunities for emigration. 

These indicators of poverty correlate directly with the devastating population losses in western countries such as Clare, which had an average excess mortality rate of 8.4 percent during the five years of famine. 

As William Wilde observed in the General Report of 1856, 

'the population removed from us by death and emigration, belonged principally to the lower classes - among whom famine and disease, in all such calamitous visitations, ever make the greatest ravages'.

The statistics offer a sweeping overview of the devastation of the Famine but conceal the shattering personal experiences of loss and leaving that are more difficult to quantify. 

Whole communities of Irish-speakers were decimated, entire family trees were uprooted and bitterness against the British administration and its agents festered among many who survived until the social, cultural and political revolutions of the late nineteenth century provided some catharsis. 

 This piece is part of the Great Irish Famine project coordinated by UCC and based on the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.