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The judge, the dog, and the census

Industrious readers of the Leader will have completed their Census forms by now, Sunday night last being the designated time for completing the return of domestic details and personal circumstances. The Census of 2011 takes its place in a long sequence of census collections which have remained remarkably consistent in their method despite the major changes in every other part of the governance of Ireland. The first reliable census exercise dates back to 1841 when the British flair for administration produced a model for taking a census of the population which has stood the test of decades. From that year on there was a national census carried out at ten year intervals unless war or disease intervened. The British model was taken up by the new Irish Free State and continued up to the present day, albeit with much modernisation in the way the statistics generated by the census are calculated and analysed.
While people in modern times are accustomed to filling in all sorts of forms this was not the case for bygone generations who often had little contact with the machinery of government. The taking of the census at ten-yearly intervals was therefore a remarkable enough event for it to get notice in the local press. Just one hundred years ago the census was regarded as a news worthy event qualifying for the following reference in the Leinster Leader of 8 April 2011: ‘The census enumerators were of course busy in the Naas urban district during the week but the carrying out of this work was not marked by any unusual incident.’ The conduct of the 1911 census in Naas might have been a routine affair but there was an amusing sequel to the census in Newbridge. Under an intriguing heading of the ‘The census and a dog licence’ the Leader of 29 April 1911 reported a case in from Newbridge District Court where a local woman applied for a dog licence. She told the court that she had been given the little puppy dog on 1st April. When asked why she had not applied earlier she said she had been waiting to ask the policeman who was coming to collect the census form. On hearing this explanation the judge -- Major Thackeray -- asked ‘And did you put the dog on the census form?’ – an example of judicial wit which drew laughter from the court. Fortunately the magistrate’s good humour extended to granting the lady the licence for her dog.
The census, generally taken at ten year intervals, provides a revealing insight into how the fortunes of the Co. Kildare population ebbed and flowed over time. The 1841 census recorded 114,000 people living in the county. Ten years later this had fallen to 95,000, the Famine of the late 1840s taking its toll even in the relatively prosperous lands of Kildare. The drain of emigration continued to haemorrhage people from the county so that by 1911 there was a population of just 66,000 souls in the county. The transition to the Irish Free State after 1922 did nothing to halt the drift and a low point was recorded by the census of 1936 when the Kildare population was numbered at just 57,000. Ten years later there was a recovery with an additional 7,000 recorded on the 1946 census. What had changed between 1936 and 1946 to bring about this significant jump? The influx of men to work on the Bord na Mona bogs and the labour force required by the new factories in Newbridge are likely explanations. However there was little further change until 1971 when the commuter driven growth of North Kildare town such as Leixlip and  Celbridge triggered a surge in the county’s population. Like the dials in a fast moving meter the census numbers surged: 71,000 in 1971, 104,000 in 1981; 122,000 in 1991. By then much of Kildare had become what geographers call an ‘edge city’ – an edgy sprawl of new estates, motorway junctions and shopping centres.  The years of the so-called Celtic Tiger accelerated the relentless population increase from 163,000 in 2002 to a dizzying 186,000 in 2006. The bare figures do not tell the whole story revealed by the detailed analysis published by the Central Statistics Office which showed that County Kildare had one of the youngest and most diverse populations in the country.  No doubt the growth in population will have calmed a little in the less frenetic years since the last census five years ago but there is no doubt that Census 2011 will make its mark on the records and give an exciting portrayal of the county in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Series no: 224.


Liam Kenny's comparisons of 100 years of census takings from his Looking Back series of 12 April 2011

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