Ireland Population - History

Ireland Population - History

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The majority of the people of Ireland are Celtic. There is a small English minority. The overwhelming majority of the people of Ireland are Roman Catholic. There is a small Anglican minority. Ireland has traditionally had a large net migration, as thousands every year left Ireland for the new world. In recent years that trend has been reversed.
3,883,159 (July 2002 est.)
Age structure:
0-14 years: 21.3% (male 425,366; female 403,268)
15-64 years: 67.3% (male 1,307,469; female 1,305,038)
65 years and over: 11.4% (male 191,927; female 250,091) (2002 est.)
Population growth rate:
1.07% (2002 est.)
Birth rate:
14.62 births/1,000 population (2002 est.)
Death rate:
8.01 deaths/1,000 population (2002 est.)
Net migration rate:
4.12 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2002 est.)
Sex ratio:
at birth: 1.07 male(s)/female
under 15 years: 1.05 male(s)/female
15-64 years: 1 male(s)/female
65 years and over: 0.77 male(s)/female
total population: 0.98 male(s)/female (2002 est.)
Infant mortality rate:
5.43 deaths/1,000 live births (2002 est.)
Life expectancy at birth:
total population: 77.17 years
female: 80.12 years (2002 est.)
male: 74.41 years
Total fertility rate:
1.9 children born/woman (2002 est.)
HIV/AIDS - adult prevalence rate:
0.1% (1999 est.)
HIV/AIDS - people living with HIV/AIDS:
2,200 (1999 est.)
HIV/AIDS - deaths:
less than 100 (1999 est.)
noun: Irishman(men), Irishwoman(women), Irish (collective plural)
adjective: Irish
Ethnic groups:
Celtic, English
Roman Catholic 91.6%, Church of Ireland 2.5%, other 5.9% (1998)
English is the language generally used, Irish (Gaelic) spoken mainly in areas located along the western seaboard
definition: age 15 and over can read and write
total population: 98% (1981 est.)
male: NA%
female: NA%

Ancient Irish Population

Prior to St. Patrick there is no means of ascertaining what the population might be. After the advent of the Saint we can only offer conjectures, and, judging from the very small churches that were erected previous to the Norman Conquest, the population must have been small. The churches were small because the congregations were small. The first inhabitants settled about the seashore, where they could provide themselves with plenty of fish, and where there were facilities for trading by means of their boats. The inland parts of the country were covered with trees, and those had to be cleared off before people settled there, and this took a long time. It is conjectured that there were, in the time of St. Patrick, 800,000 inhabitants in the country. We think the figure excessive.

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Census through History

Censuses of population are taken by governments to determine the number of inhabitants in their country and various characteristics of the population.

Historical Examples

Censuses have been taking place for thousands of years all over the world, with the first known census undertaken nearly 6000 years ago by the Babylonians in 3800 BC. There are records to suggest that this census was undertaken every 6 or 7 years and counted the number of people and livestock, as well as quantities of butter, honey, milk, wool and vegetables.

The oldest existing census in the world comes from China during the Han Dynasty. This census was taken in the year 2 A.D. and is considered to be quite accurate. It recorded the population as 59.6 million, the world&rsquos largest population.

The census was a key element of the Roman system of administration and was carried out every five years and provided a register of citizens and their property. The word census originates in fact from ancient Rome, from the Latin word &lsquocensere&rsquo which means &lsquoestimate&rsquo.

The Bible also relates several census stories &ndash the Book of Numbers is named after the counting of the Israelite population during the Flight from Egypt, there are references to King David performing a census and of King Solomon having all foreigners in Israel, and of course the best known reference is to a Roman census when the birth of Jesus occurred in Bethlehem because Mary and Joseph had travelled there to be enumerated in the census.

The most famous historic census in Europe is the Domesday Book which was undertaken by William the Conqueror in 1086.

In the 15th century, the Inca Empire had a unique way to record census information as they did not have a written language. Census information was recorded on quipus which were strings from llama or alpaca hair or cotton cords with numeric and other values encoded by knots in a base-10 positional system.

The History of Census in Ireland

Population estimates have been made for Ireland since the time of Sir William Petty over 300 years ago in 1672 when the population was put at 1,100,000 and 1804 when it was estimated at 5,395,436.

After a largely unsuccessful attempt in undertaking a census in 1813, the first full census of Ireland was taken in 1821. The census was taken by enumerators who were supplied with notebooks to record the particulars of name, age and occupation and these details were subsequently copied into printed forms. The next census in 1831 was carried out in a similar manner.

The 1841 Census

The first major modern census, using a household form, was the so-called Great Census of 1841. This census was notable for the introduction of a number of significant changes to how a census was conducted:

  • Special Census Commissioners appointed to prepare the detailed forms and instructions.
  • Following the establishment of the Dublin metropolis and Constabulary Force police forces, these were employed as the field force for the Census.
  • The use, again for the first time, of detailed Ordnance Survey maps to plot in advance the districts of each of the Enumerators.
  • For the first time the &lsquofamily&rsquo schedule &lsquoForm A&rsquo was introduced. This was the first time that a separate census form was used for each family and delivered to the dwelling by the enumerator before Census Day (Sunday 6th June 1841) and subsequently collected.
  • The census was based on a de facto or snapshot coverage of the census &ndash i.e. everyone present in the household on census night was included on the census form where they spent the night. However details of persons who normally lived in the household but were absent on Census night were also recorded.
  • Questions were asked relating to name and surname, age, sex, relation to head of house, condition as to marriage and duration of marriage, occupation, education, birth-place, persons employed in agriculture, days labour and wages, members of the family alive but absent from home and particulars of the house including material of which built, nature of dwelling, number of rooms and the number of families living there.

The 1841 is census is also notable for enormous advances in the scope, presentation and technique of its published reports, including the first ever constructed anywhere &lsquoLife tables for the civic and rural districts of the country&rsquo. It is interesting to note that part of the report, the &lsquoReport upon the Tables of Death&rsquo which included 205 tables and a classification of disease equating standard English medical terminology with colloquial terms and Irish names, was compiled by William Wilde, the eminent surgeon and father of Oscar Wilde.

Further information on the history of Irish census records and the pre-1901 census fragments can be found at:

Censuses were subsequently taken at 10 year intervals up to 1911. Interestingly, in addition to his medical practice, Sir William Wilde went on to be a Census Commissioner for the 1851, 1861 and 1871 censuses and was responsible for a number of the published census volumes in these years including the 1851 reports on the &lsquoStatus of Disease&rsquo and the &lsquoTables of Death&rsquo.

No census was taken in 1921, because of the War of Independence and the Civil War.

All Irish censuses up to and including the 1911 census were undertaken under the British system of administration. This involved specific legislation for each census with a separate Act of Parliament providing for a census to be undertaken in Ireland passed in the year preceding the census.

A new Irish series of census started in 1926, taken under the general Statistics Act 1926, with the specific details of date, particulars to be collected etc. being specified by ministerial Order.

The 1926 census was the first undertaken following the formation of the State and censuses continued to be taken at ten year intervals up to 1946.

Commencing in 1951, censuses have generally been undertaken at five yearly intervals.

However, the census planned for 1976 was cancelled at a late stage as a Government economy measure. However, this proved to be somewhat of a false economy and the need for up-to-date population figures resulted in a census being specially undertaken in 1979 with a restricted number of questions. This was followed by a full census in 1981. This marked a return to the 5 yearly intervals for holding a census, which continued uninterrupted until 2001, when the census, originally due to take place in April, was postponed until 2002 due to the foot and mouth disease situation at that time.

The most recent census was carried out on Sunday 24th April 2016.

The next census will take place in 2021.

If you are interested in reading more about the history of the census in Ireland you might like to view an article by Thomas P. Linehan, former Director of the Central Statistics Office on the History and Development of Irish Population Censuses, which traces the history of census in Ireland.

What happened to the Irish census returns?

Unfortunately, practically all of the nineteenth century census returns for Ireland are no longer in existence. The returns for 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851 were, apart from a few survivals, destroyed in 1922 in the fire at the Public Record Office at the beginning of the Civil War. The 1861 and 1871 census returns were deliberately destroyed as authorised by the Government administration of the day to protect confidentiality and to ensure that &ldquoreturns should not be used for the gratification of curiosity&rdquo. The Government had first ascertained that householder&rsquos returns from the Census of Great Britain were destroyed. However in England and Wales the data had been transcribed into census enumerators&rsquo books for future preservation, before the original household returns for those countries were destroyed. Unfortunately, no such policy had been followed in Ireland. Staff at the Public Record Office of Ireland petitioned for the retention of the 1881 and 1891 census returns however they were pulped in 1918 possibly because of paper shortages during the First World War.

The returns for 1901 and 1911 are held in the National Archives and are available to view online at the National Archives website.

The returns for 1926 &ndash 1946 and part of those for 1951 are held in the National Archives, but remain under the control of the Central Statistics Office. The 1926 Census Returns will be released to public inspection, under the 100 year rule, in January 2027.

The more recent returns are still held by the Central Statistics Office.

When was the Census held?

Since the foundation of the State, the Irish census has traditionally been held on a Sunday in April of a year ending with the number 6 and, since 1951, years ending with the numbers 1 and 6. The few exceptions to this were a May census in 1946, the cancellation of the 1976 and postponement of the 2001 census. The actual dates for each census are as follows:

Year Census Day
1926 Sunday, 18 April 1926
1936 Sunday, 26 April 1936
1946 Sunday, 12 May 1946
1951 Sunday, 8 April 1951
1956 Sunday, 8 April 1956
1961 Sunday, 9 April 1961
1966 Sunday, 17 April 1966
1971 Sunday, 18 April 1971
1979 Sunday, 1 April 1979
1981 Sunday, 5 April 1981
1986 Sunday, 13 April 1986
1991 Sunday, 21 April 1991
1996 Sunday, 28 April 1996
2002 Sunday, 28 April 2002
2006 Sunday, 23 April 2006
2011 Sunday, 10 April 2011
2016 Sunday, 24 April 2016

What was the population in each census?

Year Total Population Males Females No. Of females per 100 males
1841 6,528,799 3,222,485 3,306,314 103
1851 5,111,557 2,494,478 2,617,079 105
1861 4,402,111 2,169,042 2,233,069 103
1871 4,053,187 1,992,468 2,060,719 103
1881 3,870,020 1,912,438 1,957,582 102
1891 3,468,694 1,728,601 1,740,093 101
1901 3,221,823 1,610,085 1,611,738 100
1911 3,139,688 1,589,509 1,550,179 98
1926 2,971,992 1,506,889 1,465,103 97
1936 2,968,420 1,520,454 1,447,966 95
1946 2,955,107 1,494,877 1,460,230 98
1951 2,960,593 1,506,597 1,453,996 97
1956 2,898,264 1,462,928 1,435,336 98
1961 2,818,341 1,416,549 1,401,792 99
1966 2,884,002 1,449,032 1,434,970 99
1971 2,978,248 1,495,760 1,482,488 99
1979 3,368,217 1,693,272 1,674,945 99
1981 3,443,405 1,729,354 1,714,051 99
1986 3,540,643 1,769,690 1,770,953 100
1991 3,525,719 1,753,418 1,772,301 101
1996 3,626,087 1,800,232 1,825,855 101
2002 3,917,203 1,946,164 1,971,039 101
2006 4,239,848 2,121,171 2,118,677 100
2011 4,588,252 2,272,699 2,315,553 102

Population by province (Thousands)

Year Total Population Leinster Munster Connacht Ulster (Part)
1841 6,528.8 1,973.7 2,396.2 1,418.9 740.0
1851 5,111.6 1,672.7 1,857.7 1,010.0 571.1
1861 4,402.1 1,457.6 1,513.6 913.1 517.8
1871 4,053.2 1,339.5 1,393.5 846.2 474.0
1881 3,870.0 1,279.0 1,331.1 821.7 438.3
1891 3,468.7 1,187.8 1,172.4 724.8 383.8
1901 3,221.8 1,152.8 1,076.2 646.9 345.9
1911 3,139.7 1,162.0 1,035.5 611.0 331.2
1926 2,972.0 1,149.1 969.9 552.9 300.1
1936 2,968.4 1,220.4 942.3 525.5 280.3
1946 2,955.1 1,281.1 917.3 492.8 263.9
1951 2,960.6 1,336.6 898.9 471.9 253.3
1956 2,893.3 1,338.9 877.2 446.2 235.9
1961 2,818.3 1,332.1 849.2 419.5 217.5
1966 2,884.0 1,414.4 859.3 402.2 208.3
1971 2,978.2 1,498.1 882.0 390.9 207.2
1979 3,368.2 1,743.9 979.8 418.5 226.0
1981 3,443.3 1,790.5 998.3 424.4 230.2
1986 3,540.6 1,852.6 1,020.6 431.4 236.0
1991 3,525.7 1,860.9 1,009.5 423.0 232.2
1996 3,626.1 1,924.7 1,033.9 433.2 234.3
2002 3,917.2 2,105.6 1,100.6 464.3 246.7
2006 4,239.8 2,295.1 1,173.3 504.1 267.3
2011 4,588.2 2,504.8 1,246.1 542.5 294.8

  • OFFICIAL NAME: Ireland
  • FORM OF GOVERNMENT: Constitutional Democracy
  • CAPITAL: Dublin
  • POPULATION: 5,068,050
  • MONEY: Euro
  • OFFICIAL LANGUAGES: English and Gaelic
  • AREA: 26,592 square miles (68,890 square kilometers)
  • MAJOR MOUNTAIN RANGES: Macgillycuddy's Reeks, Wicklow Mountains
  • MAJOR RIVERS: Shannon, Liffey, Boyne, Moy, Barrow


Ireland is an island nation on the westernmost edge of Europe. It is the continent's second largest island (after Great Britain). The Republic of Ireland occupies 80 percent of this landmass, while a large chunk of land in the north is part of the United Kingdom.

Ireland is known for its wide expanses of lush, green fields. In fact, its nickname is the Emerald Isle. But there are also large areas of rugged, rocky landscape. About 15,000 years ago, Ireland was completely covered by thick glaciers. The movement of these giant sheets of ice stripped the soil, leaving huge tracts of flat, limestone pavement.

The midlands and west coast of Ireland are dotted with damp peat bogs, the soggy remains of dried-up ancient lakes left by the glaciers. Ireland's highlands rise mainly in the southwest, often ending at sheer cliffs that plunge thousands of feet into the Atlantic Ocean.

Map created by National Geographic Maps


Ireland is a nation of storytellers. The tradition dates back to Celtic bards, who would record and recite the country's history. Many famed writers come from Ireland, including four winners of the Nobel Prize for literature. The Irish also excel in music and sports.


The Irish have a great affection for nature and rural life. The country's first coins even featured pictures of animals. Low levels of development and pollution in Ireland have left most of the nation's open spaces relatively undisturbed.

Did you know that there are no wild snakes in Ireland? The sea has stopped many animals common on mainland Europe from reaching the island. There are also only two wild mouse species, one type of lizard, and just three kinds of amphibians.

Irish wildlife is protected by government conservation programs. To preserve natural habitat, the government has established six national parks and hundreds of national heritage areas throughout the country.


The government of Ireland consists of an elected parliament, which makes the laws, and a president, who is head of state. The head of the government is the Taoiseach (pronounced tee-shuck), which means "chief." The Taoiseach is the leader of the political party with the most parliament members.

For most of its history, Ireland's economy has been based on farming and agriculture. But since the late 1950s, government efforts to attract business have turned the country from one of Europe's poorest nations to its second wealthiest. The amazing turnaround earned Ireland the nickname "Celtic Tiger."


Archaeologists think the first people to settle in Ireland arrived around 6000 B.C. By 3500 B.C., settlers were using stone tools to clear farmlands. Around 700 B.C., a diverse and technologically advanced culture from central Europe called the Celts began to settle the island. They would thrive there for nearly 2,000 years.

In the ninth century A.D., Viking invaders began raids into Ireland. They established settlements that later became some of the country's main cities, including the capital, Dublin. The Vikings and Celts fought often for 200 years until a battle in 1014 united the country. Peace broke down quickly though, and Ireland was divided into many kingdoms.

In 1170, Norman Vikings who had taken control of England invaded Ireland and made it an English territory. In the early 1600s, England's official religion became Protestant while most Irish remained Roman Catholic. This would create tensions that would eventually lead to revolution and Ireland's independence.

By the 1820s, British laws unfair to Catholics had sparked a mass movement for Irish sovereignty. In 1829, many of those laws were overturned, but Ireland still wanted freedom. In 1922, after violent uprisings, the Irish Free State was created within the British Empire.

In 1948, most of Ireland became an independent country, while six mainly Protestant counties in the northeast remained a British territory.

Irish census fragments, 1821-1851

Irish census fragments are exactly that: surviving pages or bits of pages from the original census returns completed in 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851. On this webpage you'll find out what survives from each of those census years. If you want information about later censuses in Ireland, see the Related Pages menu.

Irish census fragments are exactly that: surviving pages or bits of pages from the original census returns completed in 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851. On this webpage you'll find out what survives from each of those census years. If you want information about later censuses in Ireland, see the Related Pages menu.

The first full population census of Ireland was taken in 1821 and set a trend for a series of ten-yearly censuses that continued until 1911.

The first four Irish censuses were arranged by county, barony, civil parish and townland.

1821 Irish census fragments

Who was recorded: Every member of the household was included together with their name, age, occupation and relationship to the head of household.

What was recorded: The acreage held by the head of household and the number of storeys the dwelling had.

What has survived: Some fragments for small parts of counties Armagh, Cavan, Fermanagh, Galway, Meath and Offaly (then called King's County) are available on the National Archives of Ireland's Genealogy website.

1831 Irish census fragments

"In taking the Census in May Street, Limerick, the Enumerator reports that in one house there are 22 families, comprising 91 persons."

Limerick Chronicle, 29 July 1831

Who was recorded: Every member of the household was included together with their name, age, occupation, religion and relationship to the head of household.

What was recorded: The acreage held by the head of household.

What has survived: Most of the returns (or copies made in 1834) survive for Co. Derry. These are available at the National Archives of Ireland's Genealogy website, and (not online) at PRONI in Belfast and the Genealogical Centre in Derry. See Resources below.

"In taking the Census in May Street, Limerick, the Enumerator reports that in one house there are 22 families, comprising 91 persons."

Limerick Chronicle, 29 July 1831

1841 Irish census fragments

Who was recorded: Every member of the household was included in the 1841 Irish census, together with their name, age, sex, relationship to the head of household, occupation, literacy, birthplace and marital status (including date of marriage). This population census also recorded members of the family who were not at home that night – including those who had died since 1831.

What the statistics showed: A total island population of 8,175,124, of which only 15% lived in towns.

What has survived: The only original returns to survive are those for parts of Killeshandra, Co. Cavan. These are in the National Archives in Dublin. There are also a number of transcripts of the originals, mostly for locations in the south of Counties Kilkenny and Monaghan, but also for a few isolated households in Counties Cork, Fermanagh and Waterford. All are available at the National Archives of Ireland's Genealogy website (see Resources below).

1851 Irish census fragments

A labourer's 1851 household return

Click on the image above to view an 1851 census return for a labourer's family in Ballinderry, Co. Antrim.

As you can see, Robin and Margaret Hull have four children. Aged 12, the youngest, Harry, is working as a servant in Scotland. The elder boy, William, aged 14, is a linen weaver while sisters Debby and Jane are servants.

Although the parents claim to be literate, they don't seem to have entirely understood all the specified criteria, eg ages and year of marriage.

(Image reproduced with the kind permission of the National Archives of Ireland.)

Who was recorded: Every member of the household was included, together with their name, age, sex, relationship to the head of household, occupation, literacy, birthplace and marital status (including date of marriage). Like the 1841 census of Ireland, absent and deceased members of the family had to be accounted for.

What was recorded: Landholding acreage and a grading system for the standard of houses.

What has survived: Most of the surviving fragments are for Co. Antrim and the single townland of Clonee, Co. Fermanagh. All can be accessed free of charge at the National Archives of Ireland's Genealogy website. They can also be viewed at PRONI in Belfast.

In addition, the NAI website site holds extracts ie transcriptions from some parts of Co. Monaghan as well as lists of heads of households for Dublin City and one ward in Belfast. The Genealogical Office also holds extracts of this population census for some Co. Kilkenny parishes they're not online.

See Resources below for details of all these repositories.

A labourer's 1851 household return

Click on the image above to view an 1851 census return for a labourer's family in Ballinderry, Co. Antrim.

As you can see, Robin and Margaret Hull have four children. Aged 12, the youngest, Harry, is working as a servant in Scotland. The elder boy, William, aged 14, is a linen weaver while sisters Debby and Jane are servants.

Although the parents claim to be literate, they don't seem to have entirely understood all the specified criteria, eg ages and year of marriage.

(Image reproduced with the kind permission of the National Archives of Ireland.)

What the 1851 Irish census statistics showed: A total island population in the aftermath of the Irish potato famine of 6,552,385 – a fall of 1,622,739 in ten years.

The Irish census of 1851 recorded a total of 3,190,630 men and 3,361,755 women. Of the men, 20% were farmers (290,000 with over 15 acres of land 192,000 of 5-15 acres) while 46% were labourers or herdsmen. Shopkeepers accounted for 3% while there were slightly more (3.3%) employed as cobblers or tailors, and more again (3.9%) were weavers.

Of the women, just under 20,000 (2%) were farmers, 15% were labourers or herdsmen. A similar number to men were shopkeepers, and just under 10% were seamstresses. The biggest groups were the 230,802 domestic servants (24%) and spinners and weavers (15.6%). These figures clearly show the size of the Irish linen and cotton industries in Ireland at this mid-point of the 19th century. (Find out more about the work involved in transforming the flax plant into Irish linen.)

To access the surviving Irish census fragments and transcriptions of the 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851 returns:

The National Archives of Ireland's Genealogy website gives you free access to all surviving pre-1901 census fragments and transcriptions. Just be sure to choose the correct year at the top of the search box.

The exact same collection of fragments and transcriptions is available free of charge on FindMyPast (IE) and FamilySearch.

While you can consult some of these records at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, there is no online access via the PRONI website

To access the surviving Irish census fragments and transcriptions of the 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851 returns:

The National Archives of Ireland's Genealogy website gives you free access to all surviving pre-1901 census fragments and transcriptions. Just be sure to choose the correct year at the top of the search box.

The exact same collection of fragments and transcriptions is available free of charge on FindMyPast (IE) and FamilySearch.

While you can consult some of these records at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, there is no online access via the PRONI website.

Assorted References

Ireland, lying to the west of Britain, has always been to some extent cut off by it from direct contact with other European countries, especially those from Sweden to the Rhine River. Readier access has been through France, Spain, and Portugal and even

…that gave the government of Ireland an official consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland. Considered one of the most significant developments in British-Irish relations since the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, the agreement provided for regular meetings between ministers in the Irish and British governments…

The ties to Britain and Ireland were scarcely affected by immigration from other sources until then. The complex demographic textures in Australia at the beginning of the 21st century contrasted quite sharply with the homogeneity of the country during the first half of the 20th century. Although some nine-tenths of…

When Irish republican agitation intensified after World War I, a large proportion of the Irish police resigned. They were replaced by these temporary English recruits—mostly jobless former soldiers—who were paid 10 shillings a day.

…from the organization, as did Ireland (1949), South Africa (1961), and Pakistan (1972), though both South Africa and Pakistan eventually rejoined (the former in 1994 and the latter in 1989). Commonwealth membership grew dramatically in the second half of the 20th century as former dependencies attained sovereignty. Most of the…

…the Union of South Africa, Eire, and Newfoundland. Although there was no formal definition of dominion status, a pronouncement by the Imperial Conference of 1926 described Great Britain and the dominions as “autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any…

New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, and Newfoundland.

…in the remote land of Ireland, introduced there initially by the patron saints of Ireland—Patrick, Bridget, and Columba—who established schools at Armagh, Kildare, and Iona. They were followed by a number of other native scholars, who also founded colleges—the most famous and greatest university being the one at Clonmacnois, on…

…1998, and ratified in both Ireland and Northern Ireland by popular vote on May 22 that called for devolved government in Northern Ireland.

>Ireland in 1845–49 when the potato crop failed in successive years. The crop failures were caused by late blight, a disease that destroys both the leaves and the edible roots, or tubers, of the potato plant. The causative agent of late blight is the

…Ireland, and the reunification of Ireland.

…2008, but a referendum in Ireland—the only country that put the Lisbon agreement to a public vote—rejected it on June 12, 2008, thus jeopardizing the entire treaty. More than a year later, on October 2, 2009, Ireland held a second referendum, which passed. Poland’s government also had expressed reservations, but…

…5th century the conversion of Ireland, the first Christianized territory that had never been part of the Roman Empire, brought the particularly Irish ascetic practice of self-exile to bear on missionary work. In the 6th century the Irish monk Columba (c. 521–597) exiled himself to the island of Iona, from…

…Cork became a centre of Irish nationalist resistance to British military and police repression, and parts of the city were burned by British forces in retaliation for an ambush on a convoy carrying members of the elite Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Two of the city’s lord…

In Britain and Ireland, forest clearance as early as 4700 bce may represent the beginnings of agriculture, but there is little evidence for settlements or monuments before 4000 bce , and hunting-and-gathering economies survived in places. The construction of large communal tombs and defended enclosures from 4000 bce may…

Orange Society, byname Orangemen, an Irish Protestant and political society, named for the Protestant William of Orange, who, as King William III of Great Britain, had defeated the Roman Catholic king James II.

Hundreds of thousands of Irish emigrants went to Scotland in the 19th century, beginning prior to but increasing in number during the Irish Potato Famine of 1845–49. In some country regions there was a population decrease as people moved to the towns, to England, or overseas. Part of the…

Scandinavian invasions of Ireland are recorded from 795, when Rechru, an island not identified, was ravaged. Thenceforth fighting was incessant, and, although the natives often more than held their own, Scandinavian kingdoms arose at Dublin, Limerick, and Waterford. The kings of Dublin for a time felt strong enough…

…conversion of the peoples of Ireland, Wales, and England to Christianity, the recording of their regal traditions began. It was natural for the first chroniclers, who were mostly monks, to write down the oral pedigrees of the kings in whose realms they lived. Students of the Irish regal pedigrees are…

Policy of

Ireland was a special problem in imperial regulation. It was in strict political dependency on England and internally subject to the ascendancy of an Anglo-Irish Protestant minority that owned the bulk of the agricultural land. Roman Catholics were excluded by a penal code from political…

As viceroy of Ireland (1798–1801), Cornwallis won the confidence of both militant Protestants (Orangemen) and Roman Catholics. After suppressing a serious Irish rebellion in 1798 and defeating a French invasion force on September 9 of that year, he wisely insisted that only the revolutionary leaders be punished. As…

…national self-sufficiency in an Irish-speaking Ireland while building up industries behind protective tariffs. In a new constitution ratified by referendum in 1937, the Irish Free State became Ireland (in Irish, Éire), a sovereign, independent democracy tenuously linked with the British Commonwealth (under the External Relations Act of 1936) only for…

Essex returned from Ireland against the queen’s orders, insulted her in her presence, and then made a desperate, foolhardy attempt to raise an insurrection. He was tried for treason and executed on February 25, 1601.

In 1171 he annexed Ireland and obtained direct control of the eastern part of the island and nominal control of the remainder. Finally, from 1174 to 1189, William I the Lion, king of Scotland, captured in a skirmish in 1174, was obliged to accept Henry as his overlord.

…a policy of concession in Ireland, with reference to which he originated the phrase “a union of hearts,” which long afterward became famous when his use of it had been forgotten. In 1780 Richmond embodied in a bill his proposals for parliamentary reform, which included manhood suffrage, annual parliaments, and…

), English lord deputy of Ireland from 1540 to 1548, 1550 to 1551, and 1553 to 1556. Considered by many historians to be the most able 16th-century English viceroy of Ireland, he maintained peace in that country by upholding the feudal privileges of the powerful native chieftains.

…the new lord deputy of Ireland, Arthur Lord Grey, who was a friend of the Sidney family.

…London), English lord lieutenant of Ireland who suppressed a rebellion of the Roman Catholics in the far north of England in 1569. He was the first governor of Ireland to attempt, to any considerable extent, enforcement of English authority beyond the Pale (comprising parts of the modern counties of Dublin,…

As lord lieutenant of Ireland, Wellesley disappointed the anti-Catholic George IV, and he was about to be removed when his brother, Wellington, was appointed prime minister (January 1828). Wellesley then resigned because his brother was opposed to Roman Catholic emancipation, although the duke was constrained to accept (1829) that…

Ireland’s problem, formulating it as a basic dilemma: political violence would end only after the Catholics’ claim to sit in Parliament, known as Catholic Emancipation, had been granted yet the Protestant Ascendancy, or establishment, must be preserved. He worked privately at a solution, by which…

United Kingdom

…Britain (England and Scotland) and Ireland under the name of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

The Irish question loomed ominously as soon as Parliament assembled in 1880, for there was now an Irish nationalist group of more than 60 members led by Charles Stewart Parnell, most of them committed to Irish Home Rule in Ireland itself, the Land…

…that the French would invade Ireland as a prelude to invading the British mainland led ministers to encourage the creation of an Irish volunteer force some 40,000 strong. The Irish Protestant elite, led by Henry Grattan, used this force and the French threat to extract concessions from London. In 1783…

When the Irish Free State was created in 1922, a further advance was made, for the governor-general was chosen by the Free State government and approved only by the crown. The representative of the crown in Ireland had previously held the rank of viceroy, but the Government…

…Lloyd George finally bowed to Irish demands for independence. After much negotiation and a threatened revolt in the northern counties, the compromise of December 1921 established the Irish Free State as a British dominion in the south while predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland remained in the United Kingdom. (The Sinn Féin…

In 1919 revolutionary disorder broke out in the south of Ireland when the provisional government of Ireland, organized by the Sinn Féin party, began guerrilla military operations against the British administration. Through 1920 the British government attempted to…

The Vanishing Irish: Ireland’s population from the Great Famine to the Great War

Many countries today face, or will soon face, one of two population problems. Some countries’ populations are growing so rapidly that sheer numbers will endanger their ability to provide schooling, employment, and basic social amenities to their people. Other countries face a situation nearly the opposite. Their population growth is very slow, or in some cases, numbers are declining. Ireland faced both of these problems during the nineteenth century: in the decades prior to the Great Famine of the 1840s, Ireland’s population grew at then-unprecedented rates, while for over a century after, the population shrank continuously. By 1911 there were in Ireland about half as many people as in 1841. Less than half of the total depopulation can be attributed to the Famine itself. The rest reflects low birth-rates and high emigration rates.
Depopulation was not confined to Ireland in the late nineteenth century. Agricultural transformation at home and the pull of higher wages in cities and abroad reduced the rural population in several regions of Britain and other European countries. Ireland’s depopulation caused considerable comment, as observers saw in the loss of people the loss of national vitality. The anguish caused by declining numbers was aptly summarised in a collection of essays edited by John A. O’Brien some forty years ago. In The Vanishing Irish: The Enigma of the Modern World, O’Brien and many of his contributors argued that Ireland’s depopulation was unprecedented, inexplicable, and certain to result in disaster. Underlying many essays in this collection is the strong if usually unstated assumption that there was something unique about Ireland’s population history, including the depopulation. This kind of thinking has recently been challenged by Ireland’s economic and demographic historians. Using new sources and methods, and by comparing Ireland carefully to other, similar European countries and regions, historians have come to view this depopulation as fascinating and unusual, but reflecting quite general forces at work across Europe at the time.

Causes of depopulation

Depopulation in Ireland was primarily a rural affair, as it was elsewhere in Europe. Ireland’s depopulation reflects a demographic regime that combined three elements, each of which was unusual but not unique in western Europe at the time: the decline of marriage, continued very large families for those who did marry, and heavy emigration. Post-Famine Irish marriage patterns were an extreme example of a long European tradition. For centuries young people in western Europe had delayed their marriages more than elsewhere, with women rarely marrying before their early twenties, and in most populations some 10 to 20 per cent of adults never married at all. (Demographers call never-married adults ‘celibates’, but the term does not necessarily imply sexual chastity. Religious celibates were only a small portion of never-married adults in Europe—Ireland included.) Marriage in post-Famine Ireland declined in popularity to the point where, in 1911, about one-quarter of all adults in their forties had never married. A second feature of Ireland’s distinctive demographic conditions reflects not change but a pace of change that was, relative to other European countries, very slow. Elsewhere in western Europe in the late nineteenth century, couples began the widespread adoption of contraception. By 1900, couples in countries like England or Germany were having only half as many children as those in their parents’ generation. Ireland’s fertility decline was by comparison late, and many Irish couples continued to have large families long after this practice was uncommon elsewhere in western Europe. (Another common element of demographic systems elsewhere, children borne to unwed mothers, was comparatively rare in Ireland.) Finally, emigration from Ireland increased during the Famine and remained extensive afterwards. The rate of emigration from Ireland was often higher than for any other European country during the second half of the nineteenth century. In sum, the fewer and fewer marriages in Ireland did not produce enough children to offset the numbers who chose to spend their lives overseas, resulting in an ever-smaller Irish population.
These trends sound exotic today, and by the standards of some of western Europe at the time they were odd indeed. But no individual element of this system was unique to the Irish. Ireland might have had more bachelors and spinsters than any other European country in 1900, but several countries were close behind, and in several European regions marriage was nearly as unpopular as it had become in Ireland. Ireland’s fertility transition was relatively late and half-hearted by the standards of England or Germany, but once again Ireland had company in its high fertility levels early in the twentieth century. Emigration was not restricted to Ireland, either. Millions left Germany during the middle of the nineteenth century, and later on Scandinavia and southern and eastern Europe experienced mass emigration.
Yet Ireland’s depopulation remains interesting even if not unique. First and most importantly, the decline of Irish population from over eight million to just over four million made for a very different country. Second, even if Ireland shared a particular population pattern with, say, Scotland, we still want to know why this trend emerged in Ireland. Finally, the combination of marriage, fertility, and emigration that characterised post-Famine Ireland was unique, or nearly so other places had elements of the Irish demographic regime, but only the Irish combined those elements in just this way. Why Ireland’s depopulation took this form tells us much about Irish society and the rural economy in the period between the Great Famine and the Great War.


Ireland’s marriage patterns have invited considerable comment but less systematic research. Two kinds of explanations enjoy some currency among scholars. The first argues that marriage declined in the decades after the Famine because people felt their incomes were less and less able to support the expense of marriage and children. This Malthusian interpretation owes much to the research of Professor Kenneth H. Connell, late of the Queens University in Belfast, who was an early and influential historian of Irish population. He argued that Irish farming families became increasingly unwilling to subdivide their farms or to provide dowries for more than one daughter, leaving many of their children to choose between emigration and a life of permanent celibacy in Ireland. There is a basic problem with this reasoning: average incomes in Ireland increased considerably in the decades after the Famine, until by 1914 the average rural person was much better-off than his grandparents had ever dreamed of. According to the Malthusian logic, this increase in incomes should have produced an increase in marriage rates.

A second style of explanation stresses a combination of cultural and psychological barriers to marriage. There are many styles to this explanation, and some doubtless contain a germ of truth. One version says that dutiful sons and daughters who delayed their own marriages to care for aged parents might have found themselves too old to make a comfortable marriage once their own filial obligations were past. This is a central theme in literary works such as Patrick Kavanagh’s poem The Great Hunger, where the farmer’s son Maguire remains ‘faithful’ to his mother until he is sixty-five years old. However fair as a characterisation of some individual cases, this kind of explanation begs the question of why such decisions were made more by Irish than by English people, and why they became more common in the late nineteenth century. Others have claimed that the Catholic Church discouraged marriage through various overt and subtle means. This claim is harder to credit. The Church encourages lay marriage, and the one-quarter of Irish people who were Protestant had very similar marriage patterns. In any case, Irish historians have usually stressed the Church’s role in providing solace for those left alone because of Irish marriage patterns, rather than seeing the Church as a cause of those marriage patterns. Another style of psychological explanation of Irish marriage patterns claims to find in Irish families and culture a pathological attitude towards sex and sexual intimacy, leading to a fear of the opposite sex and of marriage. These arguments are not just insulting to Irish people, they overlook important historical facts: every bachelor or spinster in Ireland had a counterpart in other European countries, both in the nineteenth century and earlier, and a great number of counterparts in the other peasant regions of Europe. If Irish people were emotionally diseased, they had a great deal of company elsewhere. More importantly, we are trying to explain a change in marriage patterns, and nobody has put for a convincing story about changes in filial piety or sexual repression.

So why did so many Irish people live out their days without marrying? My own view starts by looking more closely at those who did not marry. Emigration’s effects show up in many subtle ways in Irish history, and they play an unappreciated role in this context. People who lived out their days without marrying in Ireland had chosen not only to remain single, but to remain in Ireland. In fact, Ireland’s bachelors and spinsters in 1911 were a small minority of the total cohort into which they were born. To understand why Ireland had so many bachelors and spinsters, we have to explain not just why many Irish people decided not to marry, but why so many people remained in rural Ireland even knowing they were unlikely ever to marry there. (If we believe Malthusian accounts, that is, we are left wondering why a man who felt too poor to marry and to raise a family in Ireland did not simply join his compatriots in the richer economies abroad.) Remaining in rural Ireland, even as a permanent bachelor or spinster, held both economic and non-economic attractions missing in earlier accounts. Letters and other accounts of emigrant life often stress the harshness and insecurity of life in an industrial city abroad, in contrast to the comforts of familiar life and kinship networks for those who remained. Just having land, even if it meant remaining alone, was a source of security in uncertain economic times. The decline in marriage also reflects changes in what it meant for young people to marry. Rural marriages by all accounts were primarily partnerships to raise children and to run households, instead of the sources of emotional intimacy we think of today. Changes in the rural economy in the post-Famine decades made it easier for country people to run their farms and to provide for their comforts in old age without marrying or having their own children. People became not poorer, as the Malthusian view would suggest, or afraid of the opposite sex, as psychological theories imply, but simply less willing to accept the burdens of marriage and a family because it was less important to satisfying the economic goals marriage had once served. Thus emigration became a less attractive alternative for those unlikely to marry in Ireland, and marriage became a less attractive alternative for those unwilling to emigrate. Put somewhat differently, most people who remained in Ireland probably did want to marry, under the right circumstances, but their notions of ‘the right circumstances’ became more narrowly defined, and they were increasingly willing to risk a situation—such as the fictional Maguire’s, who could not marry while his mother was alive—that would prevent them from marrying at all.


Ireland’s late fertility decline has always had an obvious explanation—the Catholic Church’s opposition to contraception. This argument once again overlooks the behaviour of Ireland’s Protestants. Careful comparison of the fertility of Catholic and Protestant couples in the early twentieth century has shown that while Catholic families were larger than Protestant, they were not much larger. In other words, even Ireland’s Protestants were, by European standards, reluctant to use contraception. (And to make a different comparison, in some other Catholic regions of Europe family sizes declined long before they did in Ireland.) Whatever the role of moral and cultural opposition to contraception among both Catholic and Protestant Irish people, it is worth noting that the economic forces encouraging smaller families elsewhere in Europe were not at work to the same degree in Ireland. Elsewhere, the increasing participation of women in the paid labour force encouraged smaller families. In Ireland paid work opportunities for rural women actually declined in the late nineteenth century. And elsewhere in Europe concerns over the cost of educating and establishing children led parents to have fewer of them. For Irish parents, especially those in poor rural areas, setting up a child cost little more than a ticket to America or Australia.
Historians have often pointed to the emotional cost and sense of cultural dislocation experienced by Ireland’s emigrants, but few have doubted that the vast majority left Ireland looking for better incomes elsewhere. Recently scholars have come to appreciate just how keenly young people in Ireland monitored the character of economic life abroad. Ireland’s post-Famine young people were, compared to other Europeans, unusually willing to pick up and leave home. Among major countries of emigration to the United States for example, a given difference between Irish and US wages would bring forth proportionally many more Irish emigrants than people from any other European country. Ireland had become a country where any improvement abroad or any economic crisis at home would quickly lead to a haemorrhage of her people.

Why Ireland’s population patterns?

Why were Irish demographic adjustments so unlike the adjustments underway in the major industrial countries of Europe? Some aspects of Irish demographic adjustment reflect historical facts that pre-date the Famine, and in some cases predate the nineteenth century. One was the nature of land-holding. Irish historians long stressed supposed defects in Ireland’s tenurial system as a reason for Irish poverty. The more important feature of Irish land tenure for demographic purposes was not the existence of landlords or the lack of leases, but the fact that most agriculturists in Ireland were peasants or relatively small farmers. The prevalence of these people among Ireland’s agrarian classes was only strengthened by the Famine and subsequent developments, as the cottiers and labourers who had been so important prior to the Famine virtually disappeared from the countryside. This is very different from England’s agrarian structure, where most agriculturists were landless labourers working for farmer-entrepreneurs. For those holding land or related to those holding land, virtually every demographic decision in Ireland reflected ties to land. Leaving Ireland meant settling claims to land, or cashing in one’s potential claim to the land. Marrying meant acquiring land, by inheritance or dowry.
A second historical fact that led to Ireland’s distinctive demographic adjustment was the Famine. By driving so many from Ireland in a short time, the Famine solidified an already-strong emigrant tradition. Young people growing up after the Famine could easily leave to join friends or relatives overseas. Thriving overseas Irish communities could finance emigration to a degree otherwise impossible in such a poor society. Once started, this emigration process meant that Ireland would remain a country of emigrants, as it has, and that virtually any economic crisis would lead to a heightened outflow. And that emigration would have profound effects on marriage and fertility, as we have already noted.
Is there no room in this view of post-Famine demographic adjustment for a distinctive Irish culture? My focus on economic change and on the institutions of land-holding and rural households does take the focus off some supposedly unique Hibernian attitudes and customs. This is only right Ireland was not the only European country to have large numbers of bachelors and spinsters, or for that matter strong mother-son bonds, strong religious traditions, or any of the myriad other proposed explanations for Irish demographic patterns. But neither does clarifying the role of economic change necessarily leave us with a nineteenth-century Irish society identical to all others. Looking back at demographic change in the decades after the Famine suggests a more complicated process in which rural people adapted their behaviour in the face of economic pressures, and the new demographic patterns led to changes in attitudes that informed larger cultural changes. For example, children who grow up in a society where there are many single adults will think nothing ill of bachelors and spinsters, and perhaps be more likely to remain unmarried themselves. The demographic changes that swept Ireland between the Great Famine and the Great War reflected economic changes and specifically Irish responses to those changes. The result, over time, was a change in behaviours and attitudes that left lasting marks on Irish society.

Timothy W. Guinnane lectures in economics at Yale University.

T. Guinnane, The Vanishing Irish: Households, Migration, and the Rural Economy in Ireland, 1850-1914 (Princeton 1997).

D. Fitzpatrick, Irish Emigration, 1820-1921 (Dundalk 1984)

C. Ó Gráda, Ireland: A New Economic History 1780-1939 (Oxford 1994).


Protestantism is the second largest religion in Ireland and third most significant religious grouping, behind Catholicism and those who identify as nonreligious. Though Protestants were present in Ireland prior to the 16th century, their numbers were insignificant until Henry VIII established himself as the king and head of the Church of Ireland, banning Catholicism and dissolving the country’s monasteries. Elizabeth I subsequently removed Catholic farmers from ancestral lands, replacing them with Protestants from Great Britain.

After Irish independence, many Protestants fled Ireland for the United Kingdom, though the Church of Ireland was recognized by the 1937 Constitution. The population of Irish Protestants, specifically Anglicans (Church of Ireland), Methodists, and Presbyterians.

Protestantism in Ireland is focused heavily on self-reliance and responsibility for oneself. Members of Protestant denominations are able to communicate directly with God without first interacting with a spiritual leader, placing the responsibility of spiritual learning on the individual.

Though most Irish Protestants are members of the Church of Ireland, there is a rising population of African Methodist immigrants. Though the animosity between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland has declined over the centuries, many Irish Protestants report feeling less Irish as a result of their religious identities.

Northern Ireland History

Beginning in the 19th century, the people of Ireland wanted to gain self-rule from Britain. The Irish Nationalist Party held power in the House of Commons but wanted to gain Home Rule for autonomy in internal affairs. The Parliament Act of 1911 put Ireland on the path to Home Rule.

There were people that were opposed to the idea. Irish unionists were against Home Rule. In 1912, an additional Home Run bill was introduced. However, there was some sympathy for the unionists. In 1914, four Ulster countries voted themselves out of provisions for a period of six years.

When World War I began, Ireland was becoming more divided. The general election of 1918 further divided the people and guerilla warfare led to the Anglo-Irish war. In 1920, the fourth Home Rule bill was introduced, splitting Ireland into Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. Unionists continued to oppose this plan, seeing it as a betrayal. In 1922, the Irish Free State Constitution Act was passed.

In the years that followed, Ireland had seen its ups and downs. This includes boycotts, violence, and political discourse. Northern Ireland went through a period known as the troubles, which resulted in many deaths. However, an agreement in 1998 kicked off progress toward a more peaceful region. Today, Northern Ireland is very industrialized, and its economy has been on the upswing since the late 1990s, and unemployment has decreased significantly since the 1980s.

Population projection (2020-2100)

YearPopulationGrowth Rate
20204,887,990N/A %
20255,063,8793.60 %
20305,219,9463.08 %
20355,374,3372.96 %
20405,530,5552.91 %
20455,677,6612.66 %
20505,801,4032.18 %
20555,892,2151.57 %
20605,955,7061.08 %
20656,004,9490.83 %
20706,052,1550.79 %
20756,107,2300.91 %
20806,173,3491.08 %
20856,245,2471.16 %
20906,311,3911.06 %
20956,360,5330.78 %
21006,388,7940.44 %

The data is given as of 1st of July of an year (medium fertility variant).

Source : United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs: Population Division