Page last updated at 10:27 GMT, Thursday, 3 September 2009 11:27 UK

Last all-Ireland census goes online

A typical census form from 1911

Before the advent of the internet, knowledge of one's family tree usually consisted of inheriting a set of Chinese whispers passed from one generation to the next.

Occasionally a relative, sometimes an uncle with too much time on his hands, would spend hours and days in a library or archive, leafing through musty papers to establish the truth.

Mostly though the whispers prevailed, and as some forefathers were enlarged in death beyond what they were in life, others were diminished long after they could make their case.

Now with the ultimate electronic database available, the search for family and forebears has become much simpler.

The most recent addition to the multitude of online research tools is the 1911 census of Ireland, recently published by the National Archives in Dublin. It was the last all-Ireland census before partition and is, therefore, a comprehensive record of every household on the island at the time.

It is extremely easy to use and in its ease is addictive.

There are currently six fields to be filled in - surname, forename, county, townland/street, district electoral division and age.

The ability to look at a photographed microfiche of the original document provides a fascinating insight.

It's obviously a very important tool for genealogy but it's also very useful for scholars and people interested in social history
Catriona Crowe - National Archives of Ireland

Usually filled in with handwriting much neater than is normal now, it details basic information about each person living in the household.

Christian name, surname, relation to head of family, education, age, occupation, marital status and the person's ability to speak Irish.

Some of the language used is quaintly evocative.

Schoolchildren are ubiquitously described as "scholars" regardless of their level of achievement, while education is reduced to "read/write", "read only" or "none".

The documents are politically incorrect by the standards of 2009.

Available labels for those with special needs include "imbecile", "idiot" and "lunatic".

It's hoped that the search facility will be extended at the end of the month, to include more specific fields and thus, for example, the ability to search for a 34-year-old female teacher from Armagh.

Catriona Crowe, Director of Special Projects at the Irish National Archives in Dublin, says the facility is a precious resource.

"It's obviously a very important tool for genealogy but it's also very useful for scholars and people interested in social history," she explained.

The Four Courts, Dublin
Many of Ireland's census were destroyed in the Four Courts during the Civil War

"It is something that we expect to be used extensively in universities and secondary schools by researchers, teachers and students."

Its benefit is exemplified by a search for "Yeats". A quick trawl through the results returns John Butler Yeats, the distinguished painter and brother of the Noble decorated poet.

He lived in Greystones in County Wicklow with his wife Mary and a 24-year-old servant girl. His profession is described as "artist - painter of pictures."

The archive is also precious in its rarity. The first Irish national census was in 1821 and conducted every ten years afterwards.

Unhappily though, the records of the first four censuses were reduced to an ashen waste in the Four Courts in Dublin during the Civil War.

Those taken between 1861 and 1891 were destroyed by government order, possibly pulped because of a paper shortage caused by the First World War.

All that remains is 1901 and 1911, with the latter the first to go online because of the superior quality of its documents.

For Catriona Crowe, the wasted fate of much of the Irish National Archives makes the documents which survive even more special.

"In a way, because of the tragic history of our archives, it's important that as many people as possible have access to what remains, not least the 70 million people in the Irish Diaspora.

"It's also important that unlike in the UK, we continue to be able to offer this information for free, so that everyone can share in what is a unique national resource."

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