The 1749 Census of Elphin

Census of Elphin 1749
Extract from the 1749 Census of Elphin, overseen by Bishop Edward Synge.

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The Elphin Census of 1749 is one of the most remarkable and detailed genealogical resources of its time. It will prove particularly useful for anyone researching their 18th-century Roscommon, Sligo or Galway ancestors.

In 1749, Anglican Bishop Edward Synge set out to determine the number of Protestants and Catholics residing in his diocese. The Diocese of Elphin then encompassed most of County Roscommon, large parts of Counties Sligo and Galway, and a small part of County Mayo.

The undertaking of the Elphin Census was no mean feat. Forms had to be specially designed and printed, while local clergymen operated as enumerators under Synge’s direction. Using enumerators of solely Anglican persuasion raises the question of whether all Catholics and dissenters in the district willingly engaged with them.

>>> READ MORE: Bishop Edward Synge and his “dear giddy brat”

Nonetheless, nearly 20,000 households, of all denominations, were recorded and, indeed, Catholics appear overwhelmingly in the majority, as would be expected. Anglicans, Presbyterians and Quakers also feature in the census.

The Census of Elphin is one of the few pre-19th-century Irish censuses in existence and serves as one of the most detailed sources for a period largely deficient in genealogical data, especially relating to Catholics. Our current knowledge of the social structure of this region of mid-18th-century Ireland is significantly increased by its survival.

Details recorded in the Elphin Census

Each census entry names the head of the household along with their address, religion and profession/trade. Catholics are listed as “Pap.” (for “papist”), while “Prot.” refers to the Church of Ireland. Many are recorded as farmers, cottiers, labourers, weavers and tailors, as would be expected. Still, some more unusual occupations and descriptions are also included, such as horse rider, yeoman, feathermonger, beggar and poor woman.

We can obtain information about the marital status of the household heads as some are listed as widows, spinsters or bachelors, while many parishes also record the name of the wife of the head of the household. In addition, the number, religion and gender of all children (over or under 14) and servants in the household are supplied.

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The census is conveniently arranged by parish and townland. It includes 72 parishes in total. Of the 59 parishes in Co. Roscommon, 51 are included (Castlemore, Creagh, Drum, Kilcolman, Kilronan, Kiltullagh, Moore and Taghmaconnell are not covered); 13 parishes are included in southeast Sligo (Aghanagh, Ahamlish, Ballynakill, Ballysumaghan, Drumcliff, Drumcolumb, Killadoon, Kilmacallan, Kilmactranny, Kilross, St John’s, Shancough and Tawnagh), and eight parishes are included in northeast Galway (Ahascragh, Ballynakill, Dunamon, Kilbegnet, Kilcroan, Killeroran, Killian and Killosolan). Also covered in the census are the major towns of Sligo, Roscommon, Boyle and part of Athlone.

How to view the Elphin Census

The original Elphin Census is housed in the National Archives in Dublin under reference M2464. The information contained within the census can be searched online at FindMyPast.ie. Their database includes 19,820 households and contains transcripts and digitized images but these can only be viewed by subscribers. 

The information contained in the FindMyPast database has been taken from Dr Marie-Louise Legg’s edited volume titled The Census of Elphin 1749, which includes a statistical analysis by Brian Gurrin. The immense research undertaken by Dr Legg (1933–2015), a descendant of Bishop Edward Synge, cannot be overstated.

Legg’s Census of Elphin 1749 was published in 2004 by the Irish Manuscripts Commission and is now available to purchase on Amazon. Copies of this book can also be consulted in the National Library in Dublin.

If you don’t have a subscription to FindMyPast or can’t get your hands on a copy of Legg’s publication, there are several other options. One free searchable database can be found on the Leitrim-Roscommon Genealogy website, but this does not boast the entire database. In addition, the Irish Genealogical Research Society published indexes for the census in two volumes, which can be accessed via their website but the information contained in the indexes is limited to surnames.

Before starting your research

We must remember that the census was conducted in 1749, at a time when the spellings for placenames and surnames were not yet standardized. For example, “Murphy” appears as “Murphey”, and “Geraghty” appears in various forms such as “Gerrarty”, “Gerety” and “Gereinty”. You might have to try several alternative spellings when searching for your ancestor. It should also be noted that some townland and parish boundaries have changed since the time this census was carried out.

If you’re having difficulty locating your ancestor, be sure to keep the search as broad as possible. For example, using various spellings try searching just by surname or alternatively just by first name.

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