Making sense of a century and more of census data

Though his mum had beaten him to the forms, Noel Baker still learned a lot from the census forms filled out by his ancestors in 1901 and 1911

Making sense of a century and more of census data

As usual, my mum had beaten me to it. I’d been asked to have a root around the online censuses of 1901 and 1911 to see what elements of family history I could find. Instead, my mother had it already done.

Out came the box of documents and here it was, history at my fingertips. I had already looked into the census data for my father’s side of the family and now here, alongside that, were copies of the actual census forms on my mother’s side, as filled out more than a century ago.

There are the names, including John Wolfe, my grandad’s grandad and head of the house down in Courtmacsherry, aged 68 in 1911. One of the questions back then was “State here whether he or she can ‘Read and Write’, ‘Read’ only, or ‘Cannot Read’”. In John’s column he wrote ‘Can read and write’, as though the extra word ‘can’ more than proved it.

His son, Samuel — my great grandfather — is also listed alongside his siblings and that night in 1911 there was even a visitor to the family home listed — the exotically named Esther Wagner. Oddly, the census form for the same household in 1901 also shows that another Wagner, Kate, was visitor on census night, and like her namesake, described as a scholar.

On another page, written in a hand closer to calligraphy, are the names of my grandmother’s family from that time, including Thomas John Perrott, a farmer and my granny’s grandad, and lower down the page the name of his son, John Perrott, then 24, my granny’s father, all based in Ardgehane, not too far away from Courtmacsherry.

It’s fair to say that when we hunch over our census forms on April 24, things will be a little different. There will be more questions, for a start, but one aspect is likely to remain unchanged: Whatever you write down is likely to stay under lock and key for another 100 years.

Deirdre Cullen of the CSO’s census division is aware that genealogists, for one, would love that 100-year span to be cut, but states: “It’s a complete non-runner.”

Dierdre Cullen, who says the CSO does not own the census data, but rather manages it on behalf of users of the data. Picture: Conor McCabe
Dierdre Cullen, who says the CSO does not own the census data, but rather manages it on behalf of users of the data. Picture: Conor McCabe

She believes protections afforded to the actual paper census returns under the Statistics Act 1993 are there for a good reason; that if people thought someone might be able to see their census return while they were still alive, it could inhibit them in honestly and comprehensively filling in the forms. “So we have resisted it,” she says, despite a campaign and accompanying petition from the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations for the 1926 Census records to be opened ahead of time.

Speaking to Deirdre is fascinating. I had never appreciated that, in various warehouses, all the census returns from all the censuses since 1926 are carefully stored and maintained. When you consider the CSO expects 45m separate pages from Census 2016, this is eye-popping stuff.

The older records are under the control of the National Archives whereas those from the mid-1950s are the responsibility of the CSO. The National Archives still plays a key role. For example, while Census 2002 — delayed by a year due to the Foot and Mouth crisis — has already been scanned in its entirety and retained in a digital master file, the National Archives has insisted the paper returns be maintained.

This is just one part of the preparation and bartering process surrounding a census. According to Deirdre, the CSO does not own the census data, it manages it on behalf of users of the data. And so alongside a public consultation prior to any census taking, different government departments and agencies offer their views as to possible questions for inclusion.

One example is a suggestion from the Revenue Commissioners that a question about a second or holiday home be included. The CSO said no.

The Humanist Association and others took issue with the way the religion question was phrased. “What is your religion?” implies you have one, but Deirdre admits that while that question may change in future, for 2016 it will remain the same, adding: “It’s not the only question that says ‘what is your ...?’”

It is proof that you can never please all the people all the time, and in the case of the census, you are literally talking about ‘all the people’. It’s also interesting to note that after the last census in 2011, five people were successfully prosecuted for not filling in their forms. Deirdre says: “In our experience we get very little nonsense on the forms. We know when we analyse it that it’s not nonsense.”

Noel Baker examines his family’s census forms from the turn of the last century
Noel Baker examines his family’s census forms from the turn of the last century

And that’s the key: The census provides the key data that should inform policy and planning for the foreseeable future. Deirdre’s colleague, Helen Cahill, helped put together a 1916 snapshot for the commemorative year that’s in it, blending census data from 1911 with other official sources of information. You can check out Arthur Griffith’s census return, or the amount of servants of various titles working in the Vice-Regal Lodge in Dublin. It paints a vivid picture of Ireland at the time, and not least for Dublin, which was the epicentre of the Easter Rising.

What will our successors think of Ireland 2016 when they delve back into the information we’ll detail on April 24? One thing is certain: we should cherish those bits of paper a little more as, according to Deirdre, by the next census in 2021, many of us might be sending in an electronic return. More likely it will be ‘mixed mode’, with paper for those who still want to scribble the information by hand, and an online census for those for whom a pen might as well be as novel as a chopstick.

The CSO is closely monitoring the Australian census due in September, when PINs and access codes will be issued via the post to households, opening up an online census which might set the path for us in five years.

I can only wonder what my great-great-grandparents, carefully filling in their forms by candlelight, would make of it all.

An exhibition featuring the CSO’s ‘Life in 1916 Ireland’ data will be held in Cork in April. The data can be accessed at

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