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The 1841 Census of Killeshandra

The information in this article is drawn from the return sheets of the 1841 census. The census was held on the night of 6 June of that year. Killeshandra is one of the few parishes for which the census return sheets have been preserved in good condition. From the information recorded on these return sheets it is possible to build an accurate picture on social conditions in the parish during those years immediately preceding the outbreak of the famine.

The return sheets for the census were distributed to the head of each household by the local constabulary. Each sheet contained a short explanation of the census and a short list of instructions on how to fill in the various sections and questions. Anybody refusing to fill in the return sheet or anybody giving false answers could be fined up to 10, which at that time amounted to a very heavy fine. The census consisted of three main sections, one dealing with those who were resident in the house on the night of 6 June, another dealing with those who had left home during the previous ten years and a final section dealing with those who had died during that same ten year period. In the first section questions had to answered concerning the age, sex, occupation, level of education and place of birth of every person. Further questions were added about those who had left home and about those who had died. For the latter, the most important question concerned the cause of death. The answers given to this question would provide a good indicator to the social and hygienic conditions in which the people had to live. At that time there was no General Registry of Deaths in Ireland.

When the census speaks of the parish of Killeshandra it refers to the civil parish of Killeshandra, which is larger than the present ecclesiastical parish. The civil parish covers a large part of Co. Cavan, amounting to an area of 22,341 acres. There are 98 townlands in the civil parish. The census is based on these townlands, giving names of every family in the townland as well as the names of each individual member of the family. The town of Killeshandra, however, is treated as a unit in its own right, separate from the townland of Portaliffe in which it is situated. The town is reported to cover an area of 48 acres, with four streets; Main Street, Castle Street, Church Street and Yewer Lane (modern Railway Road). The town of Arva is reported to cover an area of 25 acres. However, the returns for Arva are included in the returns for two townlands, Drumalt ( Main St., Pound St., and New St.) and Drumnawall (The Green and Broad Road).

The Population
The total population of the parish was 12,539. Killeshandra town alone had a population of 1,087. As one would expect, there was a very high proportion of young people in the parish. About 50% of the population was below the age of 20 years. Indeed, in the townland of Drumshinny those under 20 years amounted to 68% of the total. On the other hand, those who were 60 years of age or older formed 6% of the population. Among these were Phil Baxter, a tailor from Corr, who was 95, and Milly Sheridan from Corradownan who was 98. Sidney Wilson of Tycosker was stated to have been 104 when he died. However, it is important to note that the accuracy of some of the stated ages is open to question as some of the older people who were not too sure of their age would often settle for a round figure such as 50, 60 or 70.

The general picture emerging from these figures show us that a large proportion of the population fitted into that category which we today call 'dependent'. They had to be supported by 43% of the population and so they would've been very vulnerable to the hardships caused by the famine.

Another interesting feature is that of housing in the parish. Given that the returns show a total of 2,279 families in the parish but only a total of 2,019 inhabited houses, then it is clear that about 260 families (11.4%) had to share house with one or more families. Matters were even worse in the town of Killeshandra where 40 families had to share houses, representing 17.3% of all families. Compare this with a 3.8% for Co. Cavan or with 9.7% for the whole country. On the other hand the average number of people living in a house was 6.21 while the national average was 5.93.

Another item of interest is the average age of marriage. The population explosion that Ireland was experiencing in the years before the famine may have partially resulted from the early age of marriage. In the rural areas of the parish the average age of marriage for a man was almost 27 years while it was only 23 for a woman. There were a few cases where some girls had married at the age of 12 and a few boys were married at the age of 16. In the towns the tendency seems to have been to marry at a slightly younger age. The average number of children per family in the rural areas was 3.9 while in the towns it was only 3.2.

Family Names
The most common family names in the parish were Reilly, Brady, Smith, Sheridan, Masterson and Johnston. These names are generally found in most of the townlands, without a marked concentration in any. Reilly (including Reilly, Riley and O'Reilly) is the most common name, numbering 138 families. The heaviest concentrations of the name are in Drumalt (14 families) and Killeshandra town (10 families). Brady is the next most common name, numbering 66 families while Smith is third with 44 families. There are 41 families of Sheridan and 36 of Masterson. There are also a few examples of names that are very prominent on one townland but are hardly represented elsewhere in the parish. For example there are 7 Bleakly families in Portlongfield; 5 Story families in Ardra and 4 Kilkenny families in Coronae Glebe.

A total of 7,109 are said to have had some kind of occupation, representing about 57% of the population. However, those attending school were included as having an occupation. In all, seven occupations dominate, making up almost 90% of all occupations.

(a) Labourer: This is the largest grouping of the seven (12% of the population). There is no concrete account of what kind of work the labourer had to do but there is no doubt that it was closely related to farmwork . Most labourers were either sons of farmers or were helpers on the farm. In general they were paid between 10 old pence and 1/- (shilling) per day.

(b) Spinning: This is the principle pastime or occupation for the womenfolk of the parish, numbering 958 in all. It is the occupation of most wives and of many daughters who are not attending school. However, there is a question mark over the exact usage of the term 'spinster'. Is it used to indicate that a girl was not yet married? Furthermore, there is no reference as to what fabric was actually spun.

(c) Farmer: Farmers number 867 (7% of the population). This seems to be a rather small number considering that it's a rural and agricultural parish. The small number may be the result of larger farms or due to the large number of labourers.

(d) Servants: About 680 people are servants. Many of these are teenage boys who reside with, but are not members of the household in which they live. Again, we have no formal description as to what kind of work the servant was expected to do. However, a few returns give us some idea. Rev. Charles Martin, a clergyman from Co. Cork, now living in Killeshandra gave details of the kind of work he had allocated to his servants. His eight servants consisted of a butler, a coachman, a nurse, a cook, a house-servant, a children's maid and another maid. In all, 19 people lived in his house. Robert Allen, a teacher from England who also lived in Killeshandra town, had five servants: a cook, a nurse, a parlour maid, a caretaker and a pantry boy.

(e) House-keeper: Apart from spinning, this is the only other major occupation for women. They number only 462 (3.6%).

(f) Weaver: 238 men are weavers, but again we have no indication as to what fabric was actually woven. There are a few references to both flax and wool but not enough to build up a general picture of the weaving industry in the area.

(g) At school: This, in fact, is the second largest grouping, numbering 1,542 (12.3%).

(h) Other skills and professions: Another 850 people were involved in other skills or professions. It is amusing to note that even beggars and tinkers (who numbered 53 in all) considered their way of life as an official occupation or profession. However, because of the fact that there were two towns in the parish and because the majority of skilled people lived in the towns, Killeshandra parish has a higher proportion of shoemakers, tailors, carpenters and blacksmiths than Co. Cavan as a whole. Dressmakers were the largest individual group among the skilled and professional people, numbering 81. There were 69 shoemakers, 54 tailors, 43 carpenters, 31 teachers and 27 blacksmiths. Other occupations included stone-masons, cartwrights, hat and bonnet makers, butchers, thatchers, coopers, car-men, innkeepers and shopkeepers.

(i) Constabulary: There is a total of 14 constables resident in the parish. The Head-constable was John Dogherty and he lived in Killeshandra, as did sub-inspector James Bailey. Sub-inspector Samuel Keek lived in Arva. Most members of the constabulary came from outside the county, from counties such as Fermanagh, Antrim, Roscommon, Sligo and Donegal.

(j) Clergy: The number of clergy in the parish is 9, and another two call themselves 'scripture readers'. They were Edward Doonan (Drumkilroosk) and John White, from Co. Tyrone, who resided with the Morton family in Corran. Rev. John Carmichael (Drumkilroosk) and Rev. William Sweeney (Killeshandra) were Presbyterian ministers; Rev. John Foster (Killeshandra) was a Wesleyan minister; and Rev. John Taylor (Tycosker) belonged to the Established Church. The other ministers were Rev. James Rodney (Killeshandra) and Rev. Dawson Massey (Corraneary). There were two Catholic priests in the parish. The parish priest, Fr. Thomas Reilly lived in Drumroosk and the curate, Rev Thomas McCann lived with Patrick McCabe in Coragh Glebe.

(k) Finally, 10 people describe themselves as doctors or surgeons and there were 6 nurses. The doctors in Killeshandra were Patrick Donoghoe and J. A. Finlay. In Arva the doctors were Dr. Wiley, Dr. T. Boyde and Dr. J. O'Reilly.

The census used a very basic means of assessing the educational level of the people. It simply asked people to state whether or not they could read or write. Judging by handwriting and spelling it would seem that many could just about write their names and no more. Nearly 50% cannot read or write -in other words, they are totally illiterate- , but this number includes many young children. (If one excludes children up to 5 years of age that percentage rises to 56%.) Another 23% state that they can read only while 27% say that they can both read and write.

In the parish as a whole, 1,542 attend school. There are 31 teachers. There is no way of knowing how many of these teachers were running official schools or how many were running 'pay schools'. There is only one reference to a school building. The following report was made for house No. 5 in the townland of Lahard: 'No person slept in this house on the above night, it being a school house. Without nightly occupants there is an attendance of about 28 scholars, 18 males and 10 females. The teacher is Peter Nesdale.'

Killeshandra town had the highest percentage of those under 19 years of age attending school at 36%. Arva had 28% and in the country areas of the parish that figure was as low as 23%. This may be due to the fact that many youngsters in the country areas had to work on the farm.

The census also gives some information on the movement of people. As the parish borders the counties of Leitrim and Longford, 755 people now living in Killeshandra parish state that they came from either of the two counties. Another 19 came from England and 10 from Scotland. House No. 21 in the townland of Dunaweal was inhabited by a Miss Anne Godley, from Dublin, and her two nieces. She had a visitor staying in the house whose name was Madelin Raymond from Switzerland. In general, then, about 6% of the parish were not natives of Co. Cavan, while, in the county as a whole, this figure drops to 2.8%.

It is reported that 1,229 people were absent from home. Almost half of them were reported to be elsewhere in Co. Cavan. Of those who had gone abroad, 18 went to Scotland, 41 to England, but the largest group, numbering 306 (24% of those absent), had gone to America. This rate is much lower than in the rest of Co. Cavan. There are a few quite interesting returns. William Gunn (Dunaweal) was reported to be in China. George Ellis (Rockfield) was reported to be in 'Van Dimon's Land'. About 2% of those absent were reported to be in the army and most of these were posted to India and the East Indies. Robert Hewitt (Clastlepoles) was reported to be a preacher in Co. Clare; Henry Fitzpatrick (Killeshandra) and William Young (Gartinadress) were reported to be attorneys in Dublin and William Richardson (Lacken) was in college in New York.

Sickness and Death
In the 10 years since 1831 a total of 1,530 people are reported to have died. The average age of those who died was almost 29 years, but in Killeshandra town the average age of death was much lower, at 24 years. This suggests that the social conditions in the town were much worse than out in the country areas. As one would expect, a large proportion of those who died were very young children. The infant mortality rate was quite high. About 37% of those who died were aged from 0 to 5 years. One big surprise comes at the other end of the scale where we discover that the number of women who survive beyond 60 years is smaller than the number of men. Normally women tend to have the longer life expectancy. So does this suggest that women in Killeshandra lived in conditions of greater hardship and difficulty than women elsewhere?

While the census asked for the cause of death to be filled in, we are unable to build up a fully scientific picture of the situation. It's doubtful in many instances if people knew what was the cause of death. Consumption or T.B is reported as the most common killer, accounting for 484 deaths (32%). This compares with only 11% for the rest of Co. Cavan. Among the epidemic diseases fever accounted for 7% of deaths, smallpox for 5%, measles for 5% and whooping cough for 3%. Measles and hives were among the biggest killers of infants. About 22 people died as a result of accidents, such as drowning, scalding and even being knocked down by a cow. There were two cases of murder reported. One was Mrs. Cumisky, a 53 year old widow from Behy and the other was 60 year old William Scott from Corlisprattan.


This concludes the survey of Killeshandra in 1841. A fuller account of this article was published in the 1976 edition of 'Breifne', (Vol V, No. 17) the journal of Cumann Seanchais Bhreifne (The Breifne Historical Society). As well as a more detailed report on the survey it also contains a full list of the townlands, the names of the families in those townlands, a full list of skilled artisans and professional people for both Arva and Killeshandra, a list of the schoolteachers and a list of the various illnesses and diseases.

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