The Irish population haemorrhage: mapping 160 years of data


Alerted by tweets from @IrishWattle @CaroleRiley and @QueenslandFHS, I investigated the link they’d provided for 160 years of Irish population data. The National Centre for Geocomputation’s (NCG) Online Atlas Portal is an absolute goldmine for family historians with ancestry in Ireland. There are two options: mapping and data relating to 2002 together with a timeline chart for population changes across the decades, and the other relating specifically to the impact of the Famine comparing census data from 1841 to 1851. Both are invaluable tools for your background research.

Kilseily parish % population loss 1841 to 1851 from NCG website listed. Kilseily is in orange and the bar on the bottom right indicates it had a severe loss of people.

The population loss from Kilseily parish 1841-1851 from the NCG website listed.

Over the years I’ve read widely on the Famine, and crunched raw census numbers for my parishes of interest, primarily Kilseily and Killokennedy in East Clare. In my paper at Shamrock in the Bush 2009 I referred to the haemorrhaging of the people, a description which seems melodramatic but which is reaffirmed by the census data. Despite knowing the my ancestor’s townland suffered a massive 47.24% loss of population between 1841 and 1851, seeing the long-term impact on the 2002 graphs  is still heart-wrenching. In 2002, Kilseily had only just (by 14 people) regained the population it had in 1926, with a very long way to go to reach earlier population numbers.

When you’re reviewing the maps etc, don’t forget to use the “select indicator” button near the top left of the page as this lets you change the parameters which are being mapped to review such things as 1841 and 1851 population as well as the changes, acreage under potatoes and housing. For example it reveals that in 1841 Kilseily had 475 inhabited houses and 9 uninhabited. By 1851 there were only 258 inhabited houses and 13 uninhabited: the parish had lost 44% of its housing, presumably “thrown down” with the departure and death of the inhabitants.

It is easy to regard all this as simply mind-boggling numbers, but imagine for a minute you are in a large meeting hall with some 3000 odd people, many of whom are kin or close neighbours, people well known to you. Then in a magic-wand moment, every second person leaves the room, never to be seen again. Bewildered, you leave the meeting hall, only to discover that virtually every other building had also disappeared and the built landscape is changed forever. Your mind and emotions would be reeling I imagine. How the Irish who remained, and those who fled the country in desperation, ever coped with this sense of grievous loss is a mystery. My father had a saying which he repeated regularly over the years: “they left their country for their country’s good”. I confess I would mentally eye-roll and think it was not only melodramatic but irrelevant. It was only last night that it occurred to me that this sentiment may have been passed down as an historical “memory” of the need to leave Ireland because of the post-Famine impact on families: three of his great-grandparents left Ireland for Australia in the early 1850s.[i] In my mother’s Irish ancestry, less can be found on their pre-Famine origins but these great-grandparents of hers also survived the Famine though they did not emigrate until the 1880s.

In my JSTOR reading yesterday I came across a journal article by Sharon O’Brien called “Remembering Skibbereen”, based on her memoir “ The Family Silver”.  Her belief is that these silenced memories of Famine deprivation, hunger, family loss, and the precariousness of housing and land, remain sub-consciously with descendants to this day, sometimes manifesting in depression or bewildering family behaviour patterns.  If there is any validity to this hypothesis imagine the impact of this experience on Biddy Gollagher, Irish Famine Orphan, about whom I recently posted a story.

"Mapping the Great Irish Famine" is an excellent reference book.

I’ve rather diverted from abstract data into the human impact but it does highlight that these are not mere numbers we’re looking at. If you are interested there is another brilliant source of information and mapping on the Famine which includes more wide-ranging data taken from the census. It is a book called “Mapping the Great Irish Famine[ii] and is well worth buying or borrowing if you have an interest in these topics.  This online article provides some background on it.

The census information for Ireland is also available online through the University of Southampton. It’s a little more convoluted to get there than I remember it from previously as you need to search their library catalogue for, say, EPPI Ireland 1851 census and you will then select whichever county you’re interested in. However as yet I’ve been unable to locate the raw data online that I had previously been able to download. Lucky I’ve saved Clare data already!


[i] Although his maternal line were Scottish, they didn’t fare a great deal better in the difficult 1840s and 1850s though theirs was a fairly typical Scottish story of displacement from their home place to an urban environment prior to emigration. His German ancestry was more well-off but perhaps pushed out by the revolutions in Europe in the late 1840s as well as compulsory military service.

[ii] Authors: Liam Kennedy, Paul S Ell, E M Crawford and L A Clarkson. Published by Four Courts Press, Dublin in 1999.

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6 thoughts on “The Irish population haemorrhage: mapping 160 years of data

  1. An extraordinary find Pauleen! Also, Sharon O’Brien’s thesis about about the sub-conscious inheritance, if you will, of the very real suffering of our Irish ancestors is absolutely fascinating. It would certainly go a long way in explaining many Irish ‘habits’, some of which I have witnessed in my own family, not the least of which is a sort of self-hatred. A wonderful post; thank you for sharing it.

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  2. Thanks for the wonderful post! It’s heart-wrenching to think about the reasons that some people crossed the oceans to reach new homelands. Your post makes me want to start researching the reasons why my ancestors may have left central Europe.

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    • hi Sheryl, It is indeed heart wrenching. And yes, finding out the social circumstances at the times of our ancestors’ emigration is so pivotal to our family stories. We may never know the precise reason but we’ll have a good idea of the possible causes. Pauleen

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