The scarcity of 19th century census returns for Ireland means that we genealogists place a huge emphasis on census substitutes. What is a census substitute ? My colleague, John Grenham explains it very well when he states, "Almost any document which records more than a single name can be called a census substitute, at least for genealogical purposes!"

So, next question you might ask is, "Where would I get a census substitute?" Sometimes, we need look no further than our house for such a document. Most of us hoard old family documents, letters, newspaper cutting etc. Over a lifetime, such material can take up a considerable amount of space in our attics, closets and boxes in the spare rooms. Even if we personally don’t have the hoarding instinct, we can be certain that a family member had that talent, and may have left us a hidden legacy in the attic or a hidden treasure box in the basement or cellar.

But of course if we get into imaginative mode, as distinct from creative mode, when we start our journey, we can tap into the makings of vast numbers of census substitutes from the recesses of our minds – nuggets of gold that have lain in our subconscious for decades!

The first step we should all take as we journey into the family history research trail, is to sit down and create some census substitutes from the vast amount of information that we know about ourselves, our parents, siblings and grandparents. In a very short time, you will be delighted to see that you can easily write down dates of birth of family members and dates of significant events in your life, such as your wedding day or the wedding of a close relative. You can then extend the process to siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and other close relatives.

Similarly, you may recall when a very dear relative passed away. Usually, such events are etched in memory along with some other event that happened at the same time. For example, some of us may have lost a parent or grandparent within months or a year of the birth of our first child. Perhaps a dear grandparent passed away just before our graduation from high-school

In relation to our immigrant ancestors, we may unearth some precious old letters that have been stored in grandma’s treasure box for years. That box may have lain unopened since she passed away, and is more than ready to be reopened in order to reveal its treasures. Old dog-eared letters that were written fifty or a hundred years ago by a relative in Ireland bearing all the news from home may lie there.

In recent years, I received a copy of one such letter written in the 1930s by a cousin of my grandfather. The writer had emigrated from the Midlands of Ireland in the 1880s, and had carried a great deal of genealogical information in her head. Towards the end of her life, when urged by her U.S.-born daughter to commit the family history to paper, she penned a number of pages, with names and dates of birth of her immediate family members and then moved on to wider family members, including my grandfather.

With so much information now available for research on the internet, I was then able to verify the accuracy of much of the information that she had written about. However, when it came to wider family members, accuracy was slightly skewed. She was very correct in stating that my grandfather had two children, a boy and a girl. However, when she further stated that they had both entered religious life, I had to draw a deep breath, because in doing so, she had wiped his grandchildren (including myself) and all of his 100 descendants entirely out of history!

The moral of the story is of course, that we should always endeavour to verify the accuracy of information written down from memory, or imparted orally to us, while bearing in mind that every snippet of information has more than a grain of truth ... but sometimes includes embellishment. It’s not that anybody has tried to mislead us. We should just remind ourselves that memories sometimes fade!

Inevitably, our family history research takes us on the paper trail in the public arena. There are a wealth of census substitutes available to us on the internet, in our National Archives, and in national and local libraries. We should also stretch the boundaries of our research, and follow, not just the history of our own immediate family members, but extend the research to members of the wider ethnic communities that they belonged to. After all, we are not just the products of our immediate families, but also members of the wider community where we lived. Remember also, that our immigrant ancestor may not have arrived in his/her new country alone, but may have immigrated with family and friends from home, or to family members and friends from home. So, if we cannot get the information we are seeking on our own immigrant ancestors, others who settled along with them in their new country may provide documents recording their precise Irish place of birth.

Many Irish family history websites now include a great range of census substitutes. For example, the National Archives of Ireland website ( now includes:

* Calendars of Wills and Administration from 1858 to 1920

* Tithe Applotment books (1823 – 1837) for the 26 counties

* Census search forms from the 1841 and 1851 census (see the website for details)

* Soldiers' Wills (1914 – 1918)

You can also search for fragments of 19th century census returns in addition to the 1901 and 1911 census returns on

One of the most wonderful Irish census substitutes is Griffith’s Primary Valuation of Tenements which records tenants (occupiers) as well as Immediate Lessors of Property. If you ancestor emigrated from Ireland during famine times, his or her father or a sibling may be documented as a tenant in Griffith’s Valuation. This source which was published for the entire island of Ireland between 1847 and 1864 (at a different date for each location) is available for research (free-of-charge) on

The website of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast ( also includes a large number of interesting census substitutes including:

* Will Calendars from 1858 for Belfast, Armagh and Londonderry.  Valuation Revision books for Northern Ireland, which document changes of occupancy of holdings that were recorded in the land/property record known as Griffith’s Primary Valuation of Tenements of the mid-19th century

* Freeholders Records

* Ulster Covenant - the archive of the Ulster Unionist Council, held by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). This source contains just under half a million original signatures and addresses of the men who, on 28 September 1912, signed the Ulster Covenant, and of the women who signed the parallel Declaration.

* Street Directories for Belfast

The website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints also holds some extracts from birth and baptisms records for Ireland on their website The website also holds similar extracts.

So, in an effort to overcome the many challenges that Irish family history research poses, it is good to extend the boundaries of your research, and take note of the wonderful collection of census substitutes that are available to us in the most unlikely places.

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


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