The Irish Census: Finding my family online


It’s a strange thing to sit at my desk in New York City to look out the window and see Sixth Avenue stretched out far below and in the distance the Hudson River, and turn and look at my computer screen and see the signature of my great grandfather Patrick Harty on the 1901 census form.

(Most of the records were burned in a fire in the Four Courts during the Civil War. But the two saved census records, 1901 and 1911, are now online.)

Patrick is 73 in 1901 and his wife Mary is 68. Their son William, who would become my grandfather, is 35 and still living at home with his brothers John and James and his sister Johanna. English is listed as their spoken language. They can all read and write. Roman Cathilik [sp] is listed as their religion. I don’t know if the misspelling of "Cathilik" is my great grandfather’s or the census taker, Constable William James Hughes.

In the neighboring town land, Mary Seymour, who would become my grandmother, is 17. She is living with her mother, Mary, 41, her father Stephen, 53, her sister Fannie, 21, and five brothers. They can all read and wright [sp] and they too are Roman Catalick [sp]. Ten of the 12 residents in the household are listed -- one is a servant Michael Furley, 24.

The two missing names are my grandmother’s sister, my great Aunt Agnes who immigrated to Australia (I’m in touch with her descendants who still live there today), and her brother, great uncle Martin who immigrated to America. Martin never married. He returned to Ireland late in life, lived out his retirement in our house and was known to one and all as “The Yank.”

The information on the census forms is not a whole lot, but yet it is.

It’s like splashes of paint that form a picture of the people whose DNA I’ve inherited. Ancestors who are buried in the graveyard where my father and mother are now buried, just a field away from the house I grew up in – the same house that my grandparents lived in and my great grandparents would have visited.

I can tell from the census records and some mental arithmetic that my great grandfather Patrick was 17 in 1845 -- the year the blight first hit the potatoes.

I can picture Patrick as a young man, the way I can picture my brother Patrick at 17, checking the potato rows and reporting back to his father.

In 1847, the worst year of the Famine when the potato crop failed completely, 55 thousand families were evicted in Tipperary.

Patrick’s family was evicted from their 10-acre holding sometime during or after the Famine. I recall my mother telling me that fact.

In 1901, according to the census, Patrick and his family are living on a farm in Ballyanny, which is across the fields from the farm that I grew up on, a farm that was once owned by the Kingsley family.

I find, what I believe to be, their census records too.

William Kingsley, 65, and his wife Mary, 50, are Church of Ireland. He is a retired Infantry colonel who was born in Westmeath. His wife was born in London. They have two Catholic servants. Mary Egan, 35, is listed as “a personal maid” who can read and write. Norah McGrath, 40, “a domestic servant” cannot read and write. Both Mary and Norah are single.

Between the census of 1901 and 1911, my grandfather William came into the Kingsley estate -- 189 acres of prime farmland. He was probably the first Catholic to own the land in hundreds of years.

By the year 1911, William’s father Patrick is dead. His mother Mary, 75, is listed as head of the household. His brother James, 40 and single, is still living at home, as is his sister Johanna whose age is listed at 28 (she would have been 32).

The census records for 1911 show that my grandfather William Harty (45) had married Mary Seymour (26). They have two of what would later become a family of nine children. My father, Patrick, is one year old and his sister Mary is two months. (I grew up with a portrait of Mary “Maureen” over the fireplace. She died of a burst appendix when she was 10).

Two servants, Bridget Healy, 16, and John Quigley, 66, are also listed. Bridget is as yet unmarried. John is single. They can all read and write.

According to the 1911 census my grandmother Mary can read and write in both English and Irish. This fact gives me pause. Most of the Irish language died out with the Famine and emigration. Mary’s father would have been born in 1848; did she learn Irish from him or her mother who was born in 1860?

I stare at grandfather William’s signature on the census form -- the way he writes “Harty” looks like it’s been penned by my own hand.

I wish I knew more about how my ancestors managed to cling on to life and land when so many died and emigrated during and after the Famine or what is more aptly called the Great Starvation.

I can tell from these two census records that the men in my family married late in life.

My great grandfather and his brothers worked hard to buy up land -- driven by a determination, or so I imagine, never to go hungry again. Only when there was a farm for each of the brothers, did they then did look to marry. The women they married were much younger. It was a practical matter, not romantic. A “made match.” I have a photograph of my grandmother on her wedding day. She does not look very happy.