The earliest census available for all of Ireland is for the year 1901, earlier censuses having been destroyed in the fire of 1922 at the Public Record Office in Dublin. Thus, with the exception of a handful of surviving census fragments, Ireland is entirely lacking in this key genealogical building block (if we exclude Griffith’s famous mid-century Valuation of Ireland). But never let it be said that with a little ingenuity there isn’t some means of reconstructing the missing censuses, or at least portions of them, and indeed in this work we have the nearest thing there is to a partial reconstruction of the 1841 and 1851 censuses of Northern Ireland.
The story behind this reconstruction is not without interest. The Old Age Pension Act was introduced in 1908, but as the civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths was not begun in Ireland until 1864, birth certificates were not available for persons of eligible age (70 years). For persons applying to the local Pensions Office without proof of age, the Pensions Officer sent particulars of the claimant to be checked in the 1841 and 1851 censuses held at the Public Record Office in Dublin. Details were recorded by the Search Officer and returned to the Pensions Office. Significantly, this checking was completed before the Public Record Office fire of 1922!
The Old Age Pension search summaries for Northern Ireland, bound in books and held in Belfast, cover the counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, and Tyrone. In some cases a fairly complete family census record was written in the summary book, and it is from these summary books that this present series of census abstracts derives. (Most of the Old Age Pension records contain only brief notes recording whether or not a census record was found for the applicant and whether the age given by the applicant matched the census information.)
Only a fraction of the population is covered by these summary book abstracts, wherein altogether a total of 23,000 persons are identified. Admittedly, this is but a small part of the whole, but it is nonetheless an extremely important body of genealogical data–previously thought unavailable!
Generally speaking, the abstracts contain the following information: (1) the name of the head of household; (2) often his marriage date; (3) the wife’s name (and sometimes her maiden name); (4) the place of residence for that year; (5) names of children and their ages; (6) names of other members of the family living in the household; and (7) persons having died in the ten years previous to the census. Entries are in alphabetical order and are cross-indexed for relatives, lodgers, visitors, and servants. There are also cross-indexes for married and maiden names of daughters and wives.
In addition to the census abstracts taken from the summary books found in the Old Age Pension records, this work also contains census fragments and miscellaneous census data found in both the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (Belfast) and the National Archives in Dublin. So all is not lost after all, and thanks to the diligence of Mrs. Masterson, we have an unexpectedly powerful tool for filling in gaps in mid-19th-century Irish census records!