The 1926 Irish Census – A look back in history

While searching TARA (Trinity’s Access to Research Archive) I came across a very interesting paper.

Under the History – Census topic is a paper written by Sir William J Thompson, Registrar General, entitled “The first census of the Irish Free State and its importance to the country” the issue date is 1927. This paper was read before the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland. He discusses the 1911 census and the upcoming 1926 census. The paper was read to the Society three weeks before the 1926 Irish census was taken.

He refers to the history of census taking going back to the Old Testament. He discusses the 1672 Irish census the “Down Survey” that was undertaken by Sir William Petty the founder of the Lansdowne family. Then Sir William discusses several other census takings in Ireland before the first census of the whole country which was taken in 1821. He then goes through the subsequent census takings and their statistics.

Sir William comments that in the 1861 census the question of religious denomination was asked for the first time and that neither England nor Scotland has ever asked this question.

When it came to the questions to be asked in the 1926 Irish census politicians, scholars and others were asked their opinions. The Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland was also asked to help with the process. The importance of this census was very great as it was the first census of the Irish Free State.

We find out that two questions from the 1911 census were eliminated from the 1926 census and they were “education and disability deaf, dumb and blind.” Sir William said that the question of education in the 1911 census was asked as whether a person could “write or read or read only or cannot read.” It was felt that the younger children went to school and it was mostly the older members of the family who answered in the negative. Since this population was declining it was decided that the question should not be asked in this census.

In 1926 there are new questions with regards to “widows and orphans” and “family wages” they also took great care with regards to the question of speaking Irish by giving it “much greater prominence.” Two columns have been left open for the question of rank, profession and occupation. They were hoping that those completing the census would fill it out in more detail. At the bottom of the form is a question about the amount of acreage a family holds.

Census night was Sunday 18 April 1926. To ensure that people understood the importance of the census a publicity campaign was started involving those of the professional trades, doctors, lawyers, magistrates, clergy and employers among others.

The schools were brought into the campaign by creating a series of lessons to promote the census the week before April 18th. The hope was that the children would become interested and bring the topic into the home in the form of discussion. This would help to educate their parents on the importance of the census. The press was notified to get the word out to the population.

The statistical work of the census was previously done by clerical labour. This is the first time they will be using machinery to help analyze the data. It appears that it was used in England and Scotland in 1911 and 1921 and had been used in the United States for several years.

Sir William comments on the huge upheavals that have occurred in Ireland since the last census was taken fifteen years ago. The result is a feeling of urgency for the completion of the 1926 census.

He also mentions how the United States has paid greater attention to the census process than any other country. Sir William quoted an unnamed American professor as saying: “the taking of the census is the most important and extensive of all State economic and political activities.”

Sir William Thompson ended his presentation with “In particular, I venture to ask each person here to-night to become a propagandist for the taking of the Census, which is of such vital importance to the country.”

While searching the TARA website this particular article caught my attention and imagination. I can almost see Sir William standing before the Society presenting his paper on the 1926 Irish census.

©2010 – Blair Archival Research

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