Researching Your Irish Family History: Census Search Forms

Those of us who are involved in long term genealogical research note that ages recorded on census returns and, indeed, on death records are frequently found to be quite inaccurate. There may be many reasons for such inaccuracies, not least because some individuals may not have known their true age, particularly if they were born prior to civil/vital recording of births. Some of our Irish ancestors who were born before 1864 in Ireland, may not have been able to locate their baptism record. Perhaps the relevant church register was destroyed, or maybe their record of baptism was inadvertently omitted from the parish register.

The only complete census returns available for research in Ireland are those of 1901 and 1911. It is indeed interesting, and sometime rather amusing to note the age discrepancies that arise between these two census returns. In particular, such discrepancies arise in relation to older family members. Sometimes one will note that the Head of Family aged considerably between March 1901 and April 1911. One such example was recently noted in relation to a County Tipperary man who aged 28 years between those two dates! The real reason for this discrepancy may never be known. However, it is worth noting that a pension act was introduced in Ireland in 1908.

The Old Age Pensions Act of 1908 resulted in the availability of a non-contributory means-tested pension of five shillings per week for individuals who could prove that they were at least 70 years old and who were of good character. The claimants also had to satisfy the pension authorities that for at least 20 years, they had been a British subject, and their yearly means calculated under this Act do not exceed thirty-one pounds ten shillings.

If the claimant could not produce evidence of age by means of a certificate of baptism, they were allowed to request an extract from the 1841 or 1851 census return. To this end, the claimant filled out a search form, supplying parents’ names and their address at the time of the 1841 or 1851 census return. The claimant also stated the age he or she believed themselves to have been.

The search forms were then forwarded to the Public Record Office where relevant searches were carried out to prove eligibility to pension. In cases where the 1841 or 1851 census return could not be found, the form was returned with ‘not found’ or ‘no trace’ written on it.

Census search forms have survived and are available for research at the National Archives of Ireland. Recently, they have also become available for research on the National Archives website.

They can be searched by full name of the claimant, census year, names of claimant’s parents, claimant’s address at the time of the claim, and by townland/street, parish, barony and county where the family lived in 1841 or 1851.

As a professional genealogist, I am often asked to perform the impossible! One such request was made to me some years ago, whereby a researcher in the United States had failed to locate a baptism record for her Irish born ancestor, despite the fact that she had confirmed the age of the ancestor, names of the parents and county of birth, from her U.S. records. Unfortunately, the baptism records for the County Mayo parish where this woman was born post-dated the 1850s.

As luck would have it, one of her siblings who remained in County Mayo filled out an application for an old-age pension in 1914. His census search form was located at the National Archives of Ireland, and it recorded the names of his parents which were an exact match for the names of the parents recorded on his sister’s U.S. marriage record. Additionally, it provided the name of the townland where the family lived in 1841.

The arrival of these Census search forms on the web-site of the National Archives of Ireland is to be celebrated, as they may offer some further hope to members of the Irish diaspora who have failed to locate a baptism record for their Irish born immigrant ancestor.

Helen Kelly is a consultant genealogist for the Irish Ancestry Group at The Wild Geese.  She runs her own genealogy firm, Helen Kelly Genealogy.  Helen is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland (the accrediting body for Irish genealogists.  She has been involved in genealogical research since the late 1980s.  Since 2007, Helen has been genealogist-in-residence at Dublin’s historical Shelbourne Hotel, where she holds the unique title of Genealogy Butler and in that capacity has broadcast on the subject of Irish genealogy research and consultancy on international radio and television, including stations in New York, New Zealand, Australia, Dublin, London, Birmingham, Manchester and Paris.

Helen encourages the descendants of Irish emigrants to reconnect with their Irish heritage. Read more about Helen.

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Tags: Ancestry, Genealogy, Heritage

Comment by Jean Sullivan Cardinal on September 5, 2014 at 4:51pm

Thank you!

Comment by Gerry Regan on September 6, 2014 at 2:58pm

"One such example was recently noted in relation to a County Tipperary man who aged 28 years between those two dates! The real reason for this discrepancy may never be known. However, it is worth noting that a pension act was introduced in Ireland in 1908." --- LOL, our ancestors were nothing if not practical.

Comment by Lynn Howard on September 7, 2014 at 11:50pm
Does anyone know where this photo was taken? The gentleman looks amazingly like my Dad, so I'm wondering if they are relatives.
Comment by Ryan O'Rourke on September 13, 2014 at 11:59am

Lynn ... I believe this photograph was taken in the 1930s in Killaghtee, County Donegal.

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