On Monday morning, 7 June 1841, members of the Irish Constabulary in garrisons across Ireland prepared for the mammoth task of collecting the millions of census forms completed the previous day. It was the first time that the police force had taken on the role of census enumerators, a task which, in previous decades, had been given to literate local people hired to carry out the project. 

A prime example of Britain's nineteenth-century centralising mission, Ireland's police force was fully established by 1836. The wide distribution of the rigidly disciplined force would allow for the census to be taken at townland level in one night, thereby reducing omissions and double counting. 

It was also believed that the Irish constabulary's returns would be more impartial than those of 1831 when the mistaken belief among some of the enumerators that payment was proportional to the number of forms collected, led to the swelling of numbers.

Augmented by the coastguard and a few civilians, the constabulary faced a difficult task in 1841 when only fifteen percent of Ireland's 8.2 million people lived in what the census dubbed 'civil' districts, i.e. towns with the population of more than 2,000 people. 

Within enumeration districts, plotted in advance using recently-completed Ordnance Survey maps, the intrepid corps of enumerators negotiated Ireland's mountains and glens to track down evicted and unemployed labourers who often subsisted little more than mud cabins. 

To mark National Famine commemoration day which was hosted by UCC in 2018, staff in the university re-created An Bothán, a mud cabin, a replica of a 4th class dwelling (categorised in the 1841 census as 'a single room cabin built of organic material'), reflecting the all too common conditions in which the landless labourers and cottiers lived. An Bothán is a tangible invitation to contemplate the real human sufferings that lay at the heart of the Famine. It is located on the north side of the clock tower of the main quadrangle. 

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The challenges did not end there. In many rural homes, the constable's questions were met with suspicion and sometimes outright hostility. Given the high rates of illiteracy, the enumerators were often required to provide assistance in completing the census forms.

Even so, dates were recalled vaguely, age was underreported, locations were imprecise, and numbers were rounded-off.

While the accuracy of the 1841 census has often been called into question, and its tally of population a likely underestimation, there is no doubt that this sweeping set of social statistics is one of the most valuable sources of information about Ireland on the eve of the Great Famine.

'A Social Survey'

The assignment of new enumerators was not the only innovation in 1841. For Ireland's three census commissioners, William Tighe Hamilton, Henry Brownrigg and Thomas Aiskew Larcom, 'a Census ought to be a Social Survey, not a bare Enumeration.' It should count the people but also to answer questions on the social and economic conditions in which they lived. 

To this end, Larcom, Hamilton and Brownrigg introduced the 'family' schedule (Form A), which, for the first time, included the names of every individual in the household. The commissioners also expanded the definition of family to be 'persons residing in the same house, and supported by the same head' - a wording that embraced servants and apprentices. 

In a series of tables on Form A, information was supplied on the age, sex and occupation of everyone in the 'family' and their relationship to the head of the household. They also provided information on place of birth, marital status and date of marriage; literacy; absent family members and family members who had died in the ten years since the last census. 

A second survey, (Form B), completed by the constabulary, provided particulars of the houses in their enumeration districts, including the nature of the dwelling, building material, number of rooms and the number of families living there.

The collected forms were returned to the local Superintendent who, in turn, sent them to the Census Commissioners. The next task was to make sense of the data. 


This map measures the percentage distribution of fourth-class houses, defined in the census of 1841 as 'single room mud walled cabins'. It is clear that many Irish families subsisted in these wretched living conditions and that eastern and western Ireland were very different places and societies. 

Much of east Ulster, most of Leinster (apart from its Ulster/Connacht borderlands) and the eastern rim of Munster contain housing stock where less than one-third was fourth-class in 1841. In contrast, much of Donegal, practically all of Connacht, Clare and the rest of west and mid-Munster contain parishes where at least one-half and in many cases over two-thirds of the houses were one-roomed, mud-cabins. 

Not surprisingly, population decline between 1841 and 1851 is powerfully correlated with this critical index of poor living conditions

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The types of housing identified in Form B ranged from stately homes to mud cabins. Faced with such diversity of accommodation, Census Commissioner and future under-secretary for Ireland Thomas Larcom devised a system for classifying housing. 

Fourth class houses were 'single room mud walled cabins', third class houses were 'mud walled cottages with two to four rooms and windows', second class houses were 'farm or town house with five to nine rooms of stone or brick construction', and first class housing was classified as 'all houses of a better description than the preceding classes'. 

The mud cabins were the preserve of the most vulnerable classes in society – the landless labourers and cottiers - that would suffer huge losses during the Famine. The commissioners reported that in 1841 'nearly half of the families of the rural population … are living in the lowest state'.

Snapshot of society

The results of this census, published in two parts, presented a snapshot of a largely agricultural society in an era of poor housing and low incomes. In the two decades since the first official decennial census of population in 1821, the census commissioners found that Ireland's population had increased from 6.8 million to 8.2 million. 

Patterns of population growth varied, with the highest increases along the west coast and in southwest Munster. This significant demographic change occurred thanks to a better diet, a decline in incidences of fever, and more frequent and younger marriages. 

With an average of about 700 people per square mile, Ireland was second only to Belgium in terms of population density in Europe. Overall, however, the rate of population growth was beginning to decline. Emigration, said Larcom, was the principal cause:

'Ireland being solely an agricultural country has not the means of employing an increasing population.'

Image - The percentage of the population over five years of age who could read and write in 1841. Map from the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine

The percentage of the population over five years of age who could read and write in 1841. Map from the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine

In 1841, two-thirds of Irish families were classified as 'chiefly employed in agriculture', such dependence making them very vulnerable to the failure of a harvest. Literacy levels were another crucial factor in the survival of a family in the 1840s. Being able to read government notices or avail of an opportunity to emigrate could mean the difference between life and death. 

Twenty-eight per cent of the population over five years of age were able to read and write, nineteen per cent were able to read but not write, and fifty-three per cent were illiterate. Like population growth, levels of education varied according to location. Most of the province of Connacht was Irish-speaking and illiterate in English.

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

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

Roscommon-born surgeon William Wilde (father of Oscar Wilde) examined the record of family members who had died since 1831 in conjunction with hospital returns, cemetery returns and even meteorological observations. 

He calculated mortality rates, the names and prevalence of various diseases in Ireland and the relative lifespans of people in living in rural and urban districts. Wilde's conclusion that, on average, people in towns lived longer than those in the countryside surprised the commissioners who expected that those in rural Ireland would be similar to 'the healthy rustics of the English and Scotch agricultural counties.' 

They concluded that the 'very low state as to food and accommodation' in rural Ireland was the reason for the disparity. Wilde's 288-page analysis is invaluable considering the absence of a general civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in Ireland in 1841.

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The remains of the Fourt Courts immediately after the explosion during the Civil War in 1922. The incident destroyed the Public Records Office - including the original 1841 census returns

The Public Records Office in Dublin, which housed the original nineteenth-century census returns for Ireland, was destroyed during the opening foray of the Irish Civil War. Fragments survive and are housed in the National Archives of Ireland. There are also a number of transcripts of the originals, mostly for counties Kilkenny and Monaghan, but also for a few isolated households in Counties Cork, Fermanagh and Waterford. 

This piece is based on the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine edited by John Crowley, William J. Smyth, Mike Murphy and its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.