History of the Census

The History of Census around the World

Did you know that censuses have been taking place for thousands of years all over the world? The first known census was undertaken by the Babylonians in 3800 BC -nearly 6000 years ago! The oldest existing census in the world was taken in China in the year 2 A.D. and is considered to be quite accurate. It recorded the population as 59.6 million, then the world’s largest population, a status China still holds today.

The word census comes from ancient Rome, and from the Latin word ‘censere’ which means ‘estimate’. The census was a key element of the Roman system of administration and was carried out every five years and provided a register of citizens and their property.

Today, the census is a regular feature in most countries around the world. Many countries have a census every 10 years. Others, such as Ireland, have a census every five years. 

European Union (EU) Member States carry out a census every 10 years, and the results are published by Eurostat, the EU statistical office. The United Nations publishes an Annual Statistical Yearbook, which provides population data for more than 230 countries or areas throughout the world. 

The History of Census in Ireland

After an unsuccessful attempt to hold a census in 1813, the first full census of Ireland was held in 1821, with the results being presented in 1823. Organisational issues also affected the 1831 census, and the results are not considered satisfactory.

A number of improvements were introduced for the 1841 census, including Ordnance Survey maps, enumerators drawn from the Constabulary, and a standard form to be filled by the head of the family/household. This census is also notable for enormous advances in the scope, presentation and technique of its published reports, including the first ever constructed anywhere ‘Life tables for the civic and rural districts of the country’. 

Censuses were subsequently taken at 10-year intervals up to 1911.  There was no census in 1921, because of the War of Independence. The 1926 census was the first under the Irish Free State, and censuses continued to be taken at 10-year intervals up to 1946. Since 1951, censuses have generally been undertaken at five yearly intervals.

Unfortunately, very few of the pre-1901 census returns are available today. The returns for 1821 to 1851 were largely destroyed in a fire in 1922. The 1861 and 1871 census returns were deliberately destroyed (without the data being transcribed into census enumerators’ books as happened in England and Wales). The 1881 and 1891 census returns were pulped in 1918, possibly because of paper shortages during the First World War.

The census forms from 1901 and 1911, together with the surviving records from the previous censuses, are available on the National Archives website.  These census records are a fundamental and fascinating part of our individual and national history and heritage. Work is underway to put the 1926 census forms online so that they are available 100 years after the census, as provided for in the Statistics Act. In time, the census forms we fill in on 3 April will allow future generations, including our grandchildren and great grandchildren, to see how we lived in 2022!  

Further information on the census in history is available on the census page of the CSO website.

View some famous Irish returns from 1901 and 1911 censuses

Historical census reports 1821 to 2006