Census of Ireland (1821, 1831, and 1841 compared)

Dublin University Magazine
May, 1844
Volume 23, Number 137

THE census of Ireland was taken in 1821; after an interval of ten years it was again taken in 1831; and in 1841, after a second interval of ten years, it was again taken. The returns for those years show that the following increase has taken place in the number of the people.

The returns showed that the numbers were as follows:—


The proportion of females to males was nearly the same, viz. as 26 to 25 at each of those periods.

Thus it appears that within the latter period of ten years the population increased at the rate of about 5 per cent, while in the former decennial period it increased at the rate of 14 per cent, being a diminution of 9 per cent on the rate of increase.

This is the most remarkable fact which appears upon the returns, and has necessarily been made the subject of many observations.

The statement of the census commissioners is of course entitled to the first place:—

“From this it appears that while the addition to the population from 1821 to 1831 was about 14¼ per cent, the corresponding addition from 1831 to 1841 was but 5¼ per cent.

The accuracy of these per centages must, of course, depend upon the relative accuracy of the several censuses of 1821, 1831, and 1841.

We cannot take upon ourselves to pronounce with certainty the extent to which any of these may vary from the truth; but we may remark with respect to the census of 1841, that the strict mode of inquiry which we followed, carried out, as it was, by a highly disciplined body of men, and executed on the same day in every part of the country, together with the system of verification we adopted, affords ground to hope that it is not far from the truth.

It is, however, right to remark, as a cause for a small reduction in comparing the census of 1841 with those that preceded it, that in the latter the army serving in Ireland, together with their wives and families, have been omitted, as they do not strictly belong to the population of the country, and as their movements introduce changes in the apparent numbers which frequently prove fatal to an investigation into the increase and decrease of a town occupied as a military station.

With respect to the census of 1831, it was taken at different places, at different times, extending over a considerable period.

It is understood too that the enumerators considered that they would be paid, and in many cases they were paid, in proportion to the numbers they enumerated, the obvious tendency of which would be to augment the total numbers.

These and other considerations induce us to believe that the numbers returned in 1831 were greater than the real population, or at all events that any error was rather one of excess than of defect.

“With respect to the census of 1821, it is to be recollected that it was the first successful occasion of enumerating the people of Ireland, and that it was probably effected with a less perfect machinery. We may perhaps therefore assume, that it was rather below than above the truth.

“Upon the whole, however, it is not probable that the excess or defect in any case is so large as to disturb, to any material extent, the above per centages, as indicating the relative periodical additions to the population.

Certain it is that the addition during the last period has been far less in proportion to the whole, than during the former period.

But there have been a variety of causes in operation, some local, some general, which have led to that result.

Emigration has, no doubt, operated to a very great extent.

It is to be remembered that Ireland is an agricultural country, and devoid of the means of providing employment for its rapidly growing population, equally profitable with that afforded by manufacturing countries.

A valuable outlet for its excessive numbers is therefore found in the manufactories of England and Scotland, and is no doubt the leading circumstance which enables the population to increase so rapidly in their manufacturing districts.

“An illustration of the effects produced within the last ten years upon agricultural, compared with manufacturing districts, by the increasing demand for labour in the latter, is afforded by an abstract of the population of Scotland in 1841, published in a parliamentary paper of the session of 1842.

Scotland appears, upon the whole, to have increased between 1831 and 1841 about 10 8/10 per cent. But if we separate the counties into two classes, we find that in the manufacturing counties the increase has been 27 8/10 per cent, and in the agricultural only 4 7/10 per cent, the latter ratio nearly agreeing with the general increase in Ireland during the same period.”

The commissioners also give some calculations to show the effect which emigration has had in reducing the number of the population, and they intimated their opinion on the whole to be, that the population of 1831 has had an undiminished rate of increase.

This result of the census has been seized on with avidity by those who derive their livelihood from their exertions in maintaining a spirit of discontent in the populace, and on this point they have resorted to an audacity of falsehood, and a feebleness of argument beyond any thing we have ever noticed in them before, notwithstanding their habitual indifference to truth and reason.

They have represented the census of 1841 as showing a reduction in the total number of the population, and have stated that such a result proves that upwards of 700,000 persons have perished in Ireland within the last ten years, from the mis-government of Ireland; thus confounding a diminution in the rate of increase with a diminution in the actual numbers of the population.

The complaint is about as reasonable as if a mother, whose son within a certain period shot up from five to six feet high, and in the next period of equal duration grew to the height of six feet four inches, should complain of the treatment he received, and argue that eight inches had been cut off his height by bad or insufficient food.

We are inclined to agree with the census commissioners, that the rate of increase has in fact been undiminished, and we even think that they have not attributed sufficient weight to the circumstances to which they alluded, tending to show that the census of 1821 and that of 1831 were both inaccurate, the former by a deficiency, the latter by an excess.

The census of 1831 was taken at different times in different places, by persons who certainly felt an interest in making the returns as large as they could.

Even while we admit that this interest would not induce the enumerators to make false returns, it would yet lead them in many places to enumerate the visitors as well as the actual absent members of a family.

Thus John Doe is absent from his house at A, on a short visit to a friend at B. The enumerators would probably include him in their returns of the population both of A and B.

Indeed, unless they did so, they would perceive that he might be omitted altogether from the census, since the enumeration being made at different times, in different places, might be taken at each place during the period of his absence.

We may judge of the extent of the influence which this principle would exert upon the result of the census conducted by enumerators anxious by all fair means to swell the amount, when we reflect that the number of visitors appearing by the census of 1841 exceeded one million.

If we suppose one-fifth of that number to be counted twice in the census of 1831, it would make an error of 200,000 in excess.

A similar error in deficiency in the census of 1821 would lead to the result that the rate of increase varied very little, if at all, during the last twenty years.

Even when we make every allowance for the effect of the angry passions in perverting the reasoning powers, and making men blind to truth, we still cannot but be amazed at the boldness of the agitator, who appealed to the census of 1841 in support of his views.

What would it prove, even if he denied that there were any errors in the preceding enumeration?

Why, merely that the population did not increase so rapidly from 1831 to 1841 as it did from 1821 to 1831.

Then, granting what we expressly deny, that a rapid rate of increase is the test of the happiness and prosperity of the people as influenced by legislation and government, it would merely tend to prove that the laws or the administration from 1821 to 1831 ought to be preferred to those which existed during the last decennial period.

The argument against which we are contending at present is that drawn from a comparison of the two enumerations of Ireland taken at different periods.

There is in it no comparison of the census of Ireland with that of any other nation; and any conclusion drawn from such an argument must be merely relative, leading to a comparison of Ireland with itself at two different periods, but tending to prove nothing either about the absolute state of prosperity of Ireland, or even of its relative state compared to other countries.

The argument might be sound, and yet Ireland might still be the richest, the happiest, and the best governed country in the world, although not so rich, or so happy, or so well governed as it was in 1821.

If Mr. O'Connell thinks that the changes made in the laws have caused this fatal diminution in the rate of increase of the population, he must complain of the reform bill, of the destruction of the Protestant corporations, and the substitution of democratic assemblies in their place, of the abolition of parish cess, of the destruction of ten Protestant bishoprics, of the confiscation of one-fourth of the income of the Protestant clergy, and heavy taxation imposed upon the remainder; for those are the principal changes which have been made in the laws of Ireland during that period.

If he attributes the evil not to the laws, but to the manner in which they were administered, his purpose would not be much better served, as the chief difference was that from 1821 to 1831, the administration was conservative; but during the following ten years it was in the hands of the Whigs.

This obvious defect in his argument may account for his misrepresentations.

The truth would not answer his purpose; and he is not very scrupulous as to the means which he employs to make an impression upon the populace; and a very powerful argument would arise, if the census showed that an actual decrease had taken place in the numbers of the population.

A decreasing population is seldom found in a happy or well-governed country.

But if, instead of comparing the census of Ireland with itself as taken at different periods, we compare it with that of England, in the hope of discovering a grievance, we shall greatly fail.

He who asserts that the apparent low rate of increase from 1831 to 1841 is a proof of misgovernment, is called upon to account for the fact that the population of Ireland from 1821 to 1831 obtained a greater proportional increase than that of any other European country.

But the fact is, that a rapid increase of the population is by no means a proof of the prosperity of a country; and all the best writers on political economy lay it down as an incontrovertible position, that the population increases most slowly when the country is rich and prosperous.

The population increases rapidly among the poorest, who are engaged in a constant struggle to provide the necessaries of life. The richer classes could not maintain their numbers without frequent recruits from those below them.

The same difficulty of keeping up their numbers exists even amongst those who are not very far removed from actual want.

Among the old corporations there were many in which all the children of every freeman were entitled to their freedom; and in many of those it was found that the number of freemen by birth had a tendency to diminish, notwithstanding the constant accessions received from other sources. Nor is this to be attributed, as some imagine, to the prejudicial effects of luxury upon the upper classes.

A small proportion indeed of the wealth of England is expended in the purchase of anything injurious to health or life, and of that small proportion, the poorer classes consume, at least, their share.

Any one may readily convince himself of this, who will compare the expenditure of a comparatively poor man with the manner in which a princely fortune is spent.

The fashion of declaiming against luxury has come down to us from the ancients, who, by luxury, generally mean what we should term vice—and who, when they used the term in its more proper sense, attributed to it the most absurd consequences, supported by such ridiculous stories, as that Hannibal was checked in his career of victory in consequence of the effeminacy of his soldiers, caused by their comfortable and luxurious quarters at Capua.

Luxury is merely a relative term, what is considered a luxury in one generation, is often, in the next, deemed an indispensable article of decency.

Those who declaim against the luxury of the rich, are themselves often actuated solely by envy at beholding others in possession of what they themselves wish to enjoy.

This we say, although sincerely desiring that the wealthy should not be led so much by fashion to indulge in expenses which add nothing to enjoyment—that they should sacrifice less to vanity, and apply more of their income to purposes of public utility.

But, while the richer classes are unable to keep up their numbers, the poorer classes increase with great rapidity, and a certain degree of hopeless poverty is found to produce habits of reckless improvidence, in forming matrimonial connexions, and a consequent rapid increase of population, which aggravates the poverty that has occasioned it.

Men, once accustomed to extreme poverty, either do not fear it, or do not hope to escape from it.

Their situation cannot be made worse by an imprudent marriage—their children will be as well off as themselves, and they have no inducement to refrain from any enjoyment which is placed within their reach; and the poverty of one generation appears to be, in a great measure, caused by the improvident marriages of that preceding it.

Accordingly, many writers have attributed the poverty of the people to the reckless and early marriages of the labouring classes, which causes the population to increase faster than the means of finding employment for it; and some despair of any amelioration in the condition of the Irish peasantry, until they will learn to exercise some prudence and self-control, not to contract marriages precipitately, and in utter disregard of their means of providing for, or educating their children.

Others, again, as, for instance, Mr. Alison, in his very interesting and philosophical essay on population, attribute the rapid increase of the population of Ireland to the poverty and misery of the people, caused by misgovernment.

Thus, we have one set of men appealing to the calm and reflecting reader, to prove the mis-government of England—and for this, they refer to the rapid manner in which the population of Ireland has increased: while we have another set of men appealing to the ignorant and excited multitude to prove the same misgovernment—as shown by the fact, that, of late years, the population of Ireland has not increased with its former rapidity.

We believe that, of those two sets of reasoners, Mr. Alison and his followers are nearer to the truth—inasmuch as the false inference does not occur at so early a stage in their reasoning.

The rapid increase of the population, in the absence of any increased demand for labour, such as arises in the manufacturing districts of England, may be, not unfairly, deemed a sign of that poverty, of which it is at once the cause and the consequence. But, we deny the inference, that either the poverty or the increase is caused by misgovernment.

It may have, and in fact it has, its origin in various other causes. One of these has been alluded to by many writers, who are, certainly, not favourable to the Conservative government of England, viz., to the influence which the priests of the Roman Catholic persuasion exercise over the peasantry—and to the strong interests which those have in promoting early marriages—which, however improvidently formed, are profitable to the priests, who derive so much of their incomes from weddings, christenings, and funerals.

It may be said, that this is misgovernment, to permit the priests to be dependant upon such sources for their livelihood; but this reply assumes that the priests would agree, on any fair terms, to accept a provision from the state, coupled with the condition of surrendering the emoluments which they at present receive from the sources which we have mentioned.

They have repeatedly declared that they would not consent to such an arrangement—it may be doubtful whether the country would gain—but it is certain that the priests would lose much of their wealth and political influence by such a measure.

Nor is this dependance of the Roman Catholic priesthood upon the gifts of their flocks, the misgovernment of which the writers and speakers to whom we have alluded, are accustomed to complain, and yet it would be difficult to point out any other source of the poverty of the country, even remotely connected with its government.

It is not a fair inference to say the people are poor, therefore the people are misgoverned, without showing how that poverty was caused by misgovernment; and yet it is an inference in which the populace will generally acquiesce.

If we were to say John Doe is very poor, therefore he must have suffered from tyranny or oppression, or have met with unfair treatment from some body; however palpably unjust the inference would be, it is highly probable that John Doe himself would yield a ready assent to it.

Tell him that he is poor because he has squandered his inheritance in riot and excess, or, if he is an operative, point out to him how he lost one employment by drunkenness, and another by inattention—how, in a third case, when his employer obtained a large contract, he was forced to surrender it at a heavy loss, because John Doe and his fellow-workmen refused to work, except at exorbitant wages;—show him that our manufactures are driven to England by the absurd, and illegal, and tyrannical regulations of the operatives, which render it in many cases impossible for the master manufacturer here to compete with those in England, who are not hampered by such regulations;—remind him of these, and such other causes of his poverty, and if he does not view you as an enemy, he will at least be very slow to listen to you again.

But tell him that his distress is caused by the unfeeling conduct of his relatives, or by the intrusion of improper or too numerous persons into his trade, or by the unworthy conduct of the masters in intrusting parts of the work to apprentices, or boys, when they are able to perform it, and that you will give him revenge upon his enemies—do this, and your false arguments will find a responsive echo in his heart—you may manage him as you please, and gain a livelihood by subscriptions extorted from him, and from other similar victims of the same delusion.

It is a trite observation, that men will attribute their misfortunes to any thing except their own misconduct, although the blame in general ought to rest solely with themselves.

But the people are merely a collection of individuals, and the same causes which make individuals poor, will create distress among the people.

All that a free government can do is to protect to every man the earnings of his industry, and the savings of his economy; but it cannot make men prudent, industrious, frugal; and without prudence, industry, and frugality, they must remain poor.

The nature of the government, if it permits any approach to freedom, has very little, if any, direct influence upon the character of the nation, or of the men who compose it.

And this seems to be admitted by those who harangue the populace, and daily praise them for their virtues.

When they extol their courage, their ardent feelings of devotion, their dutiful affection to their parents, their generous anxiety to relieve poverty and distress, they never dream of attributing these virtues to the government under which they live.

But if, while we gladly give credit to them for many virtues, we feel it also to be our painful duty to notice some vices which deform their character, and are peculiarly adverse to their prosperity, then it is said that those vices and their consequences are owing to our connexion with the English, although they are those vices from which, of all the world, the English people are most exempt.

Or the man is looked upon as an enemy who ventures to remark those vices; and the speeches of the demagogues consist of little except the most fulsome panegyrics on themselves and their auditors, and the most violent abuse of their political adversaries.

Now, on this head of praise and censure there is an obvious distinction between an individual and a nation.

He who publicly exposes the faults or the vices of an individual, may be fairly counted among his enemies, as he is pursuing a course of conduct which is likely to injure him, and cannot by possibility do him service.

His conduct, in making the exposure, may be justifiable, it may be in the highest degree praiseworthy; but it can never be considered as a friendly act by the persons whose faults and vices are thus publicly exposed.

If the object was to reclaim him, it would be attempted by a private, friendly admonition, urging him, and pressing upon his attention every motive which might induce him to reform his conduct.

But with a nation the case is different. Here there is no room for private, friendly admonition. Every word addressed to a nation must go forth to the whole world; and such public admonitions can in this case do no harm.

No person or society can punish, or distrust, or withdraw confidence from the nation; and the individuals who compose it will still be judged of each by his own private character.

Such admonitions are particularly to be desired, as the general disposition of all those who address the public either in print or by speeches will ever be to flatter the people at large, and the body which they address.

They have always some particular object—and that most frequently a selfish one—more at heart than the general good; and that particular object may be best attained by such flattery as will make the readers and the audience pleased with themselves, and pleased in consequence with those who address them.

The public will ever find numbers to flatter, few to instruct them.

If the poverty be fairly attributed to the character and conduct of its inhabitants, they cannot put forth that poverty as a proof of misgovernment, or as an argument in favour of any alteration in the law.

Let us not be mistaken. The people have a clear right to the best laws, and to the best system of government which the wisdom of the age can provide for them, and every abuse and imperfection ought to be carefully removed; we merely assert that no argument in favour of any particular alteration shall be drawn from the existence of that poverty which is the natural and necessary consequence of idleness and improvidence.

We are convinced that on the whole the condition of Ireland is improving, and that nothing but a civil war, or a ferocity of agitation approaching nearly to a civil war, can prevent her improvement, as her connection with England is daily becoming more close; still poverty and its attendant evils exist to a deplorable extent, and must continue to prevail until the people are taught that the fault rests with themselves, not with their rulers, and that the remedy must be sought in their own energy, perseverance, and frugality; and that their condition can never be improved by a neglect of their proper business, in a vain pursuit of organic changes in the constitution.

A moment's cool reflection would teach them how little they could hope to gain by the removal of what the demagogues who prey upon them urge as their chief grievances.

They complain that Dublin has not so many burgesses as a town of equal extent and population in England would possess, and therefore that England has an advantage over Ireland in the constitution of her municipal corporations.

But Dublin elected Daniel O'Connell for her first lord mayor, and is governed by as noisy a set of agitators as the most disaffected repealer could desire.

What evil do they say has arisen from what they term the defects in the municipal corporation bill? It would have a greater number of burgesses, but the majority of the town council would be composed of the same men, and pursue the same course as at present.

The chief change would be, that the Conservative minority would not be so respectable and influential.

The elections would give trouble to and would distract from their proper business, a greater number of men than at present; but no man can say that the business of the corporation would be done better, or at less expense than at present.

Indeed the borough rate, paid without any return for it made to the citizens, is the only effect produced upon the citizens at large by the Municipal Reform Bill; and even if any improvement should be made in our municipal institutions, it would have exceedingly little effect upon the condition of the people, or even upon the inhabitants of our corporate towns.

In the same manner, any change in the elective franchise, which might increase the number of electors in Ireland, if it did not do positive mischief, could do good only by leading to some alteration in our laws or government, and it still remains to be shown, how any such alteration could relieve or remove the poverty of Ireland.

Only one practical measure of importance has been suggested by the party which clamours for repeal.

That measure is the one now called fixity of tenure, which, we shall on a proper occasion prove, would not produce any of the beneficial effects expected from it.

But this measure, from its importance, requires to be made the subject of a separate article, and we refer to it now only because it is connected with the only attempt made to point out any practical measure of improvement by those who are incessantly clamouring for revolutionary measures.

Although the rate of increase on the population cannot lead us to form any reasonable conjecture as to the improving or declining state of the country—and in fact in one decennial period we find men asserting that Ireland must be in a very wretched state or its population would not so rapidly increase; in the next decennial period we have men drawing an inference as to the wretched state of Ireland, from the fact that its population does not now continue to increase with the same rapidity—yet a census well taken, and not confined to the mere numbering of the people, will lead to many important inferences respecting the condition of the people, and the measures necessary to ameliorate it.

We sincerely wish that certain politicians would speak more of our improvement, and less of our misery.

The habit of making complaints is a bad one; complainers seldom thrive; a complaint of their condition is their substitute for every useful exertion.

When a politician obtains a large revenue, dependent on his power of misleading the populace, while their wretched state is his staple argument, and their discontent the chief source of his influence, men will not be very ready to believe that he is anxious to alleviate that poverty, or remove that discontent, on which the continuance of his income and his influence depends.

Among the circumstances noted by the census commissioners, as indicating an improvement in the condition of Ireland, is the increased number of domestic servants:—

“The column ‘SERVANTS’ is not only valuable as an important element in the condition of a people, but also as an explanation of some circumstances in the respective numbers, for which, without this division, it would be difficult to account.

Thus the excess of the female over the male population in large towns, will appear, from an examination of the tables, to be due to the preponderance of the female servants.

The proportion of servants to the general community is also a consideration of much interest; and it will be seen that the greater proportion of this class is usually to be found in those districts which exhibit the highest state of wealth, of house accommodation, and of education.

As the census of 1831 affords the means of comparing the number of servants at that period, with the number found under the present census, the relative numbers, with the proportion they bear to the rest of the community, are exhibited in the following table;—

Male servantsFemale servantsTotal
Male servantsFemale servantsTotal

The proportion of servants to the entire population was in 1831, Males 1 to 78, Females 1 to 30; in 1841, Males 1 to 36, Females 1 to 29.”

The return of servants in 1831 must have been imperfectly made. It cannot have been by the omission of the agricultural servants from the census of 1831, for that omission would have led to a much greater discrepancy.

It is probable, that in the census of 1831 agricultural servants were included in some returns, and omitted from others.

We do not think that agricultural servants and domestic servants ought to be classified together.

The distinction between them is of more importance than their similitude.

The one are kept for the sake of profit, the other are a mere source of expense.

We should much rather see an increase in the former than in the latter.

An increase in the number of agricultural servants residing with the farmer's family would indicate and produce an improvement in the social condition of the agricultural population; but an increase in the number of male domestic servants proves little more than the increase of expensive habits among those whose increased means of expense can add little to their happiness.

Perhaps the truest criterion of a people's prosperity will be found in their vital statistics—but this branch of the subject we must reserve for our next article.