Historic Notes on the Irish Census

November 1851

Pages 552-566, edited for length)

The mass of the people are little aware of the practical value of a Census. Some consider it a useless waste of money; others look upon it in the nature of an inquisitorial proceeding, inconsistent with the principles of British freedom; while the more thoughtless turn it into ridicule, and throw obstacles in the way of its inquiries, in their ignorance of the object for which it has been instituted. . . .

We imagined, when we commenced to consider this subject, that we might have been enabled to find some parallel to that which has taken place in Ireland within the last four years -- such, for instance, as the effect produced by the great war in North-Western Europe. The means of comparison are not of that nature to enable us to speak with accuracy; but there can be little doubt that the destruction of human life during the continuance of that eventful conflict fell short of the loss the Irish people sustained from the year 1846 to the present. . . .

The total population returned in the Census for 1841 was 8,175,124, being an increase of but 5 1/4 percent, as compared with 1831; while the addition to the numbers from 1821 to 1831 was 14 1/2 percent. This small amount of increase in the decade, from 1831 to 1841, is attributed by the Commissioners to various local as well general causes -- emigration, decrease in the annual addition to the resident population, recruits raised, and also the ommission of the enumeration of the army serving in Ireland. . . .

Having now attempted to trace and describe all that has been, from the earliest accounts, done to compute the number of the people of Ireland, down to their actual enumeration, in 1841, it may be well to look synoptically at the results, before we proceed further: --

Years How ascertained Number Increase per cent Decrease per cent
1603 Fynes Morrison 700,000 --- ---
1652 Sir William Petty 850,000 219
1672 Sir William Petty 1,100,00 30
1695 Captain South 1, 034,102 7
1712 Mr. Dobbs 2,099,094 103
1718 Ditto 2,169,043 10
1725 Ditto 2,317,374 --- ---
1726 Ditto 2,309,106 --- 7/20
1731 Established Clergy 2,010,221 --- 13
1736 Anonymous Pamphlet 2,000,000 --- ---
1754 De Burgho 2,372,034 18 ---
1760 Hearth-Money Collectors 2,317,384 --- ---
1767 Ditto 2,554,276 9 ---
1777 Ditto 2,690,556 5 ---
1785 Ditto 2,845,932 5 ---
1788 Mr. G. P. Bushe 4,040,000 42 --
1791 Hearth-Money Collectors <4,206,612 4 ---
1792 Dr. Beaufort 3,850,000 --- 8
1792 Dr. Beaufort 4,088,226 --- 2
1805 Mr. Newenham 5,935,456 45 ---
1811 Incomplete 5,977,856 1/10 ---
1812 returns,6,801,827 13 ---
1813 under Act of Parliament,
1821 Census Act of 1815 6,801,827 14 ---
1831 Census Act of 1831 7,943,940 2 ---
1841Census of 1841 8,747,588 10 ---
1851 Census of 1851 6,515,794 -- 20

We are now in 1851; another decade has passed; another periodical enumeration has taken place; the returns have been received by the authorities; and the world has learned the appalling fact, that Ireland has lost, in actual numbers, in somewhat less than five years, 1,649,340 of her inhabitants. Up to the year 1845 nothing had occurred to justify a doubt but that the ordinary rate of increase would have been maintained. In the latter end of that year, the island, then in a state of comparative prosperity, was visited with a famine, which, in its direct devastationg effect, and in the consequences which followed from it, has no parallel in history. To that famine, thousands upon thousands yielded their lives; to the pestilence that followed it, thousands more; while, to avoid the horrors of both, myriads of panic-struck inhabitants sailed from our shores. Up to 1845, the emigration to the United States and our colonies, from the United Kingdom, was comparatively speaking trifling in amount. In 1843 it was 57,212; in 1845, 70,086; in 1846, the numbers mounted to 129,851; and in 1847 they reached 258,089; in 1848 and 1849 they were 248,089 and 299,498. In 1850 the numbers were 280,849, of which 208,000 were Irish; and there can be little doubt that the next Report of the Emigration Commissioners will show in the year 1851, a considerable increase in Irish emigration. Thus, as it is admirably put in Thom's Almanac for 1851: --

"The emigration of the last three years gives an annual average of 268,469 persons, being not very short of the whole annual increase of the United Kingdom. If this emigration be analysed, the results as regards Ireland will be much more striking. For assuming nine-tenths of the emigration from Liverpool to be Irish (which is a low estimate), and even omitting altogether those who proceed from the Clyde, it will appear that the Irish emigration during the last three years has been 601,448; giving an average of 200,482 a year. Now the increase of population in Ireland between 1831 and 1841 as appears from the census return, was 407,723, in spite of an emigration amounting during the same years to 455,239, thus making the real increase to be 802,959, or 86,295 a yea. Assuming the increase to have been at the same rate since 1841, when the population was returned at 8,175,238, it would give for the eight years to the close of 1849, 707,480 souls, or 88,435 per annum. At this rate, therefore, the population would be decreased in about in about eight years in about eight years by 1,000,000 souls by emigration alone; when it is also taken into account that the emigration comprises a large proportion of those who are in the vigour of life, and on whom the increase of our population chiefly depends, it may be assumed that its influence in checking such increase is even greater than the mere figures imply." . . .

So far then as regards the enumeration of persons, we believe these to be the leadings features of the census of 1851, as expressed in the abstract of the returns, in figures contained in one sheet of paper. They tell us, alas!, of a deceline of human life, of which there is no such record in the page of history. Revolutions, wars, famines, plagues, and fires have done their worst elsewhere, but where, in so small a a geographical space, is there to be found an example of so vast and so rapid a decrease in a population which at the common rate of progress, should have amounted to nearly nine millions? The Census Commissioners of 1851 have yet much to tell us. We can ascertain, as we have already stated, with accuracy, the amount of annual emigration; and so far we shall be enable to account for a portion of the great decrease; but will the authorities be enabled to show what became of the rest of the population?

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