Complete census returns for Ireland have been compiled every ten years from 1821 until 1911. The Irish war of independence interupted this pattern and after partition (in 1922) the next census undertaken in both jurisdictions was in 1926. The Northern Ireland returns for 1926 have not survived. Those for the Republic have, but are not currently open to public inspection, although plans are in place to allow access by 2016.
Nineteenth Century Returns
Those for the years 1821 to 1851 were almost entirely destroyed in the fire which consumed the Publc Record Office of Ireland in 1922. Lists of the few volumes which survived are listed in Tracing Your Irish Ancestors by John Grenham (Dublin, 2012). Those originals that survive can be searched online here. The returns for 1861 to 1891 were routinely destroyed through a bureaucratic bungle which saw civil servants in London advising those in Dublin to destroy the original forms in the mistaken belief that they had been transcribed into enumeration books, as was the case in England & Wales and Scotland!
Other ‘census substitutes’ exist which can be surprisingly helpful. One of the main resources are what have become known as the Census Search Forms. Now reorganised by street/townland, town/parish and county, these were originally administrative records compiled by the staff of the Public Record Office of Ireland in the course of searching the original census returns for enquirers. This was almost always on foot of the enquirer seeking evidence of their age to qualify for a pension under the Old Age Pension Act 1908.
The printed forms were pro forma, requiring standard information about the person for whom a census return was being sought. The subject’s name, year of birth, parents’ names and home address were entered in addition to the applicant’s name and address. The subject of the search and the applicant were usually one and the same person. Generally, the searches were made in the returns for the 1841 and 1851 census. These Census Search Forms exist for the period 1909-1922, though largely they survive only for the years 1915-1922 (most of the forms for the earlier years having been pulped during the Great War because of paper shortage!).
The result of the search is noted, which might include the fact that while a positive search has located the correct family, it might not necessarily have located the applicant. In addition, in most successful cases a note of the census return was marked up on the rear of the form. This might include, amongst other information, the father, mother and children’s names, ages, occupations. The Census Search Forms held at the National Archives of Ireland can now be searched online here.
Twentieth Century Returns
More happily, the returns for the 1901 and 1911 census have survived and can now be accessed online, free of charge, via the National Archives of Ireland. Currently, there are plans to release the 1926 census of Ireland (which does not include Northern Ireland) by 2016, though before this happens, the Statistics Act 1993 will have to be amended. Unfortunately, the census for 1926 for Northern Ireland has not survived.
You can also watch a video about the census records given by Claire Bradley. the Ireland Branch Chairperson below.