Category Archives: Diaspora

Where Were You in 1911?

The massive success of the digitization of the 1911 census records of Ireland is testament to the endeavour of the critically underfunded National Archives of Ireland.

The project has seen the full Census of 1911 made available free of charge on the National Archives website. ( The documents include A Form, which was the basic household return, filled in and signed by the head of the household. There is one for each household in the country. The information sought was: name, age, sex, relationship to head of the household, religion, occupation, marital status, county or country of birth.

The census also records an individual’s ability to read or write and ability to speak the Irish language, and whether deaf, dumb, blind, and before the age of political correctness or even understanding of mental health, idiot, imbecile or lunatic.

The B1 form contained details of the buildings and their class and inhabitants in an area or townland. The B2 form was a register of out offices, farm steadings and other buildings in possession by the family.The form (Enumerator’s Abstract) and other institutional reports (hospital population, asylum and mental home populations, shipping returns etc.) complete the survey of the Irish population and demography.

The 1901 census is  in the process of being digitized and will be available in 2010. These are the only two surviving complete census returns for Ireland. Following the shelling and destruction of the Four Courts, Ireland’s previous public record office, by Pro-Treaty forces in 1922 during the Civil War, which basically equates to a war crime, the entire census records for Ireland from 1821, 1831,  1844 , 1851 were destroyed and with it the archival evidence of the Irish population and its evolution.

Census records of 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891 were destroyed by the British authorities — apparently in the belief that copies had been made.  These actions and deliberate onslaught on the culture and identity of the Irish people have served to horrendously limit what we know of Irish life, demographics, industry, customs, language and memory. Thankfully today, with the aid of digital surrogates, and with the efforts of the National Archives, a loss such as was suffered should never happen again.

The last few years has seen a huge surge in people in Ireland and the U.K. in particular seeking to trace their familial past and discover how they came to be in their particular place in life, owing from the actions of their ancestors. The popularity of programs Who Do You Think You Are by R.T.E. and B.B.C. has helped bring genealogical history into the mainstream. When I delved into this practice, I, like thousands of other Irish people, found my great-grandfather travelled to New York at the turn of the twentieth century. has an incredible online database of those far-flung immigrants who crossed the treshold in New York seeking a new life.

From the Ship Manifest of my great grandfather’s ship I know he was a farm labourer in Limerick, he boarded at Cobh (Queenstown) he had $3 in his pocket, he could read and write and was travelling to meet his sister in the States. While I can’t confirm his literacy levels I can confirm there was no sister! So, theat lie enabled his passage through customs, out of Ellis Island and into a new life in America.

On a visit to the Ellis Island museum a few years ago, I read some testimonies of those who travelled to America seeking a new life but who instead  were met with a very different reality and eventually returned to Ireland, like my great-grandfather.

One such story was from an immigrant from Kerry who returned home after travelling to New York. He said, “Before we left we were promised the American streets were paved with gold. Having been there I can tell you three things: 1) The streets are not paved with gold. 2) The streets are not paved at all and 3) they want the Irish to pave them.”

Have a look and see where your family past can bring you.

RMS Lucania, the ship my great-grandfather emigrated aboard.

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Posted by on January 12, 2010 in Culture, Diaspora, History


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