The Census through History

Censuses of population are taken by governments to determine the number of inhabitants in their country and various characteristics of the population.

Historical Examples

Censuses have been taking place for thousands of years all over the world, with the first known census undertaken nearly 6000 years ago by the Babylonians in 3800 BC. There are records to suggest that this census was undertaken every 6 or 7 years and counted the number of people and livestock, as well as quantities of butter, honey, milk, wool and vegetables.

The oldest existing census in the world comes from China during the Han Dynasty. This census was taken in the year 2 A.D. and is considered to be quite accurate. It recorded the population as 59.6 million, the world’s largest population.

The census was a key element of the Roman system of administration and was carried out every five years and provided a register of citizens and their property. The word census originates in fact from ancient Rome, from the Latin word ‘censere’ which means ‘estimate’.

The Bible also relates several census stories – the Book of Numbers is named after the counting of the Israelite population during the Flight from Egypt, there are references to King David performing a census and of King Solomon having all foreigners in Israel, and of course the best known reference is to a Roman census when the birth of Jesus occurred in Bethlehem because Mary and Joseph had travelled there to be enumerated in the census.

The most famous historic census in Europe is the Domesday Book which was undertaken by William the Conqueror in 1086.

In the 15th century, the Inca Empire had a unique way to record census information as they did not have a written language. Census information was recorded on quipus which were strings from llama or alpaca hair or cotton cords with numeric and other values encoded by knots in a base-10 positional system.

The History of Census in Ireland

Population estimates have been made for Ireland since the time of Sir William Petty over 300 years ago in 1672 when the population was put at 1,100,000 and 1804 when it was estimated at 5,395,436.

1813 – 1831

After a largely unsuccessful attempt in undertaking a census in 1813, the first full census of Ireland was taken in 1821. The census was taken by enumerators who were supplied with notebooks to record the particulars of name, age and occupation and these details were subsequently copied into printed forms. The next census in 1831 was carried out in a similar manner.

The 1841 Census

The first major modern census, using a household form, was the so-called Great Census of 1841. This census was notable for the introduction of a number of significant changes to how a census was conducted:

  • Special Census Commissioners appointed to prepare the detailed forms and instructions.
  • Following the establishment of the Dublin metropolis and Constabulary Force police forces, these were employed as the field force for the Census.
  • The use, again for the first time, of detailed Ordnance Survey maps to plot in advance the districts of each of the Enumerators.
  • For the first time the ‘family’ schedule ‘Form A’ was introduced. This was the first time that a separate census form was used for each family and delivered to the dwelling by the enumerator before Census Day (Sunday 6th June 1841) and subsequently collected.
  • The census was based on a de facto or snapshot coverage of the census – i.e. everyone present in the household on census night was included on the census form where they spent the night. However details of persons who normally lived in the household but were absent on Census night were also recorded.
  • Questions were asked relating to name and surname, age, sex, relation to head of house, condition as to marriage and duration of marriage, occupation, education, birth-place, persons employed in agriculture, days labour and wages, members of the family alive but absent from home and particulars of the house including material of which built, nature of dwelling, number of rooms and the number of families living there.

The 1841 is census is also notable for enormous advances in the scope, presentation and technique of its published reports, including the first ever constructed anywhere ‘Life tables for the civic and rural districts of the country’. It is interesting to note that part of the report, the ‘Report upon the Tables of Death’ which included 205 tables and a classification of disease equating standard English medical terminology with colloquial terms and Irish names, was compiled by William Wilde, the eminent surgeon and father of Oscar Wilde.

Further information on the history of Irish census records and the pre-1901 census fragments can be found at:



Censuses were subsequently taken at 10 year intervals up to 1911.  Interestingly, in addition to his medical practice, Sir William Wilde went on to be a Census Commissioner for the 1851, 1861 and 1871 censuses and was responsible for a number of the published census volumes in these years  including the 1851 reports on the ‘Status of Disease’ and the ‘Tables of Death’.

No census was taken in 1921, because of the War of Independence and the Civil War.

All Irish censuses up to and including the 1911 census were undertaken under the British system of administration. This involved specific legislation for each census with a separate Act of Parliament providing for a census to be undertaken in Ireland passed in the year preceding the census.

For more information on the 1901 and 1911 censuses, please visit

1926 – 1946

A new Irish series of census started in 1926, taken under the general Statistics Act 1926, with the specific details of date, particulars to be collected etc. being specified by ministerial Order.

The 1926 census was the first undertaken following the formation of the State and censuses continued to be taken at ten year intervals up to 1946. 

1951 – 2011

Commencing in 1951, censuses have generally been undertaken at five yearly intervals.

However, the census planned for 1976 was cancelled at a late stage as a Government economy measure. However, this proved to be somewhat of a false economy and the need for up-to-date population figures resulted in a census being specially undertaken in 1979 with a restricted number of questions. This was followed by a full census in 1981. This marked a return to the 5 yearly intervals for holding a census, which continued uninterrupted until 2001, when the census, originally due to take place in April, was postponed until 2002 due to the foot and mouth disease situation at that time.

The most recent census was carried out on Sunday 10 April 2011.

The 2016 census will take place on 24 April 2016.

If you are interested in reading more about the history of the census in Ireland you might like to view an article by Thomas P. Linehan, former Director of the Central Statistics Office on the History and Development of Irish Population Censuses, which traces the history of census in Ireland.

What happened to the Irish census returns?

Unfortunately, practically all of the nineteenth century census returns for Ireland are no longer in existence. The returns for 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851 were, apart from a few survivals, destroyed in 1922 in the fire at the Public Record Office at the beginning of the Civil War. The 1861 and 1871 census returns were deliberately destroyed as authorised by the Irish Government to protect confidentiality and to ensure that “returns should not be used for the gratification of curiosity”. The Irish Government had first ascertained that householder’s returns from the Census of Great Britain were destroyed. However in England and Wales the data had been transcribed into census enumerators’ books for future preservation, before the original household returns for those countries were destroyed. Unfortunately, no such policy had been followed in Ireland. Staff at the Public Record Office of Ireland petitioned for the retention of the 1881 and 1891 census returns however they were pulped in 1918 possibly because of paper shortages during the First World War.

The returns for 1901 and 1911 are held in the National Archives and are available to view online at the National Archives website.

The returns for 1926 – 1946 and part of those for 1951 are held in the National Archives, but remain under the control of the Central Statistics Office. The 1926 Census Returns will be released to public inspection, under the 100 year rule, in January 2027.

The more recent returns are still held by the Central Statistics Office.