The 1841 census

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The census for 1841 returned the population at 8,175,124. In parliament, when submitting the census report, Disraeli commented that Ireland was the most densely populated country in Europe and ‘that on arable land the population was denser than that of China’. This was the first occasion when people were asked questions about their educational attainments. Information on literacy and educational participation by pupils attending primary and ‘superior’ schools is provided in the census report. Twenty-eight per cent of the population over five years of age were able to read and write, 19% were able to read but not write, and 53% per cent were illiterate.

‘Houses’ were graded into four classes, with windowless mud cabins of a single room being in the fourth and lowest class. The census commissioners reported that ‘nearly half of the rural population . . . are living in the lowest state’. In 1839 Gustave de Beaumont, a French traveller, had written that he was appalled by Irish poverty and Irish misery, and that ‘he found in Ireland the extreme of human misery, worse than the Negro in his chains’.

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