Guide to National Archives of Ireland

Report on the National Archives of Ireland Census Online 

Project: Part 3, Aftermath

        This is the third and probably final one of a series of voluntary reports on the National Archives of Ireland census online project. Starting in 2005 and finishing in 2011, the National Archives of Ireland, working with Library and Archives Canada and later via subcontractors AEL Data of India, placed online searchable and digitised images first of the Irish Census of 1911 followed by that of 1901 (website This is work which assuredly needed to be done, but it is questionable if it was done in the right way by the right people and at minimum cost to the public purse. As observations on the numbers of errors and omissions in the online censuses grew, it was conceded by the National Archives that there were problems, but it was claimed that they were not severe and would be attended to in due course. Although the service was free to access online, Arts Minister Jimmy Deenihan, responding to a question from Deputy Catherine Murphy, informed the Dáil on 22 May 2012 that the total cost to the state of the online census project was €4.6 million, or €3.64 million net when the VAT tax at 21% paid back to the state was deducted. Clearly responding to concerns about errors, Minister Deenihan stated in relation to the 1911 Census that following 'independent statistical analysis, supplemented with scrutiny by a genealogist expert in Irish names', the 'average level of accuracy was found to be 99.21%' (Dáil Answers,, accessed 14 June 2013).

        Accuracy Levels
        The writer noted that this claimed accuracy level was at variance with the findings of the two previous reports in this series, with sample error rates of 3-14% discovered. However, my samples were admittedly small, so a larger sample was clearly needed and in due course was found. A Freedom of Information application for records relating to the online census project was made to the National Archives in 2009 but the response was slow and partial, so that an appeal was made to the Information Commissioner. Among the last batches of records released in May 2012 on foot of this expensive and time-consuming application and appeals process was a set of 54 Excel files listing thousands of corrections to the 1911 Census for areas of Dublin City and County only, which were commissioned from members of the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland. I freely admit that due to the voluntary nature of the present investigation and the demands of other work, it is only now possible to report on analysis of this substantial body of corrections, which be it noted would be publicly unknown had it not been for the FOI mechanism. The misreadings of surnames in this list were found to be of the usual variety, clearly indicating unfamiliarity with Irish names on the part of the transcribers, examples including Bennbotton for Ramsbottom, Senehaw for Lenehan, O’Longhlan for O’Loughlan, Meseal for Mescal, Haltin for Halpin, Tarker for Tasker, Carsen for Cassen, Don? for Donohue, Faunon for Hannon, Gorgory for Gregory, Tuile for Tuite, Bandergast for Prendergast, Pardon for Purdon, Land for Lane, Havanagh for Kavanagh, and - this one is a personal favourite obviously indicating a Canadian hunch that the famed native American leader had Irish relatives - Tecumseh for Tennant. Again, had the writer's advice been taken, transcribers of Irish census data would have been tutored in the forms of Irish surnames before they got to work, and he would have been available to do this at budget cost and at a distance via Internet connections rather than insisting on jetting out to Canada, for example. The following multiple misreadings of the surname Kavanagh as 'Havanagh' in the 1911 Census online could only have been perpetrated by individuals with little knowledge of or training in the forms of Irish surnames.

Kavanagh misread as Havanagh

        But what is most striking about the errors in these commissioned lists is their sheer volume, some 32,000 entries, the great bulk of them remaining uncorrected on the National Archives website. A number of errors relating to placenames are also included, which also require attention, but the writer is dealing mainly with surnames in the present series of reports. A large number of other uncorrected name errors submitted by users are stored in an area of the Archives website, and the excuse for failure to deal with this issue has been 'lack of funds', nothwithstanding the above mentioned millions of public money spent on the project. The National Archives has recently announced that it has started to correct these notified errors in the online censuses, claiming to have dealt with 12,600 submissions to date, but this is clearly only the tip of an iceberg (, accessed 14 June 2013). There follows a summary of the 1911 Dublin Census files analysed by the commissioned professional genealogists, giving approximate numbers of errors and indicating whether or not significant corrections have yet been made.

      Summary of Dublin 1911 Census errors compiled for National Archives of Ireland by APGI (FOI release on appeal)

        Nr Main DEDs, Approx total errors, Corrections made (Yes/No)   
        1 Clontarf, Drumondra 370 Yes
        2 Glasnevin 290 Yes
        3 Rathmines & Rathgar 360 Yes
        4 Blackrock, Glasnevin, Howth 490 No
        5 Rathmines & Rathgar 360 Yes
        6 Drumcondra 400 Yes
        7 Glasnevin 450 Yes
        8 Rathmines & Rathgar 1070 No
        9 Palmerstown, New Kilmainham 620 No
        10 Balbriggan, Kingstown 260 No
        11 Swords East 80 No
        12 Trinity Ward 870 No
        13 [Kingstown] 280 No
        14 Inn’s Quay 660 No
        15 Holywood 10 No
        16 Ballybrack, Blackrock, Blanchardstown, Clondalkin, Clonsilla, Donnybrook 300 No
        17 Dalkey 260 No
        18 Dundrum 280 No
        19 Finglas 100 No
        20 Holmpatrick 30 No
        21 Kingstown 1 200 No
        22 North City 640 No
        23 Pembroke East 710 No
        24 Inn’s Quay, Kinsaley, Mansion House 1050 No
        25 Coolock 100 No
        26 Clontarf West 170 No
        27 Coolock 60 No
        28 Killiney 180 No
        29 Castleknock 470 No
        30 Rathcoole, Rush, Terenure, North City 830 No
        31 Inns Quay, Newcastle 980 No
        32 Rotunda 1100 No
        33 Rathmines & Rathgar East 1210 No
        34 Usher’s Quay 1500 No
        35 Merchant’s Quay 1740 No
        36 Fitzwilliam 1190 No
        37 Kingstown 570 No
        38 Garristown 30 No
        39 Glencullen 80 No
        40 Lucan 190 No
        41 Lusk 100 No
        42 South City, Skerries, Swords 310 No
        43 Wood Quay 1760 No
        44 South Dock 1150 No
        45 Arran Quay 890 No
        46 Malahide, Rathmichael, Royal Exchange 2540 No
        47 Mountjoy 730 No
        48 Pembroke West 1500 No Hallormann Halloran
        49 Saggart, Tallagh (sic), Stillorgan 440 No
        50 Mountjoy 530 No
        51 Arran Quay 270 No
        52 Arran Quay 490 No
        53 Mountjoy 340 No
        54 Arran Quay 250 No

        Grand total of errors 32,000 approx

        On the basis of this particular commissioned survey alone, the statement that the accuracy rate of the National Archives online census project is 99.21% deserves little credence. The population of Ireland in 1911 was approximately 4.4 million, so an inaccuracy rate of 0.79% would give a total of approximately 35,000 errors for the thirty-two counties of Ireland, while the above figure of approximately 32,000 errors relates to Dublin City and County alone! Minister Deenihan undoubtedly passed on information on the accuracy rate of the census project to the Dáil in good faith, but it is clear that he has been provided with misinformation and the parliamentary record really should be corrected.

        Library and Archives Canada
        The choice of Library and Archives Canada as the National Archives of Ireland's digitisation partner might seem on the face of it to be a good one, given its resources and experience. However, for some time Library and Archives Canada has been the subject of criticism concerning the way it has been managed, culminating in the resignation of its head Daniel Caron in May 2013 following an expenses scandal (Ottawa Citizen, 15 May 2013,, accessed 23 May 2013). Controversy has continued following the revelation that Library and Archives Canada 'has entered a hush-hush deal with a private high-tech consortium that would hand over exclusive rights to publicly owned books and artifacts for 10 years' (Ottawa Citizen, 12 June 2013,, accessed 15 June 2013). It has long puzzled the present writer that the 'considerable amount of digitised and contextual material from their collections' which Library and Archives Canada was supposed to provide as part of the census project (draft agreement December 2005, FOI release) is not in evidence on the National Archives site, which contains only a small amount of such background material provided by the Archives itself. It is also not clear why Library and Archives Canada was not contractually required to correct deficiencies in its work and how exactly the project was passed on for completion to AEL Data (who to be fair put more order on it). Before the census digitisation project was fully under way, in or about June 2005 the Comptroller and Auditor General asked a series of pertinent questions about the choice of Library and Archives Canada, to which the National Archives replied with assurances that this was the most cost-effective option and that alternatives had been considered (FOI release). The €3.64 million net cost of the census project, of which it is not clear what portion was paid to Library and Archives Canada, seems extraordinarily high to the present writer, who would have thought a figure in the region of €1 million and certainly not more than €2 million would have been more appropriate. It can now be revealed via another belated FOI release that a representative of a leading commercial genealogical service provider, whose name is withheld for reasons of commercial confidentialilty, furnished the National Archives with the following estimate of the costs of an Irish census project in March 2004:

Irish census estimate

At a US dollar-Euro exchange rate of 1.23 in March 2004, this would give a figure of €325,000-342,000 for the 1901 Census, while doubling these amounts to take account of the 1911 Census would produce an estimated grand total of €650,000-684,000. Add in a figure for compiling contextual material and creating an online infrastructure and you would be left with a total project cost in the region of €1-1.25 million. Remarkably, the particular firm just mentioned and, separately, the Mormon Church through the Genealogical Society of Utah both offered to digitise the censuses at no cost to the Irish state, but were aparently rebuffed. Finally, the actual images now online were scanned not from the original census returns but from microfilms prepared by the Mormons, which would have tended to reduce the cost of the exercise. How on earth could the National Archives of Ireland online census project have cost the state a massive €3.64 million net or nearly three times the above rational estimate?

        One correspondent writing recently to a newspaper on the subject of National Archives funding has asked pertinently, 'Should the National Archives strive to correct the records already released to the public, before embarking on further releases which may contain similar inaccurate detail, to the frustration of all concerned?' (Letters, Irish Times, 23 May 2013,, accessed 23 May 2013). To a large extent this debate has now become academic, in that the high expenditure days of the 'Celtic Tiger' have now gone, although there is still a hankering in certain quarters after expensive 'special projects' like the flawed online census one under examination. As the writer advised should be the case in earlier reports, and as others too have recommended, projects to digitise public records for genealogical and other purposes are now being led by commercial and voluntary organistations, such as Findmypast, Ancestry and FamilySearch, who interestingly sometimes now co-operate on such projects. Examples of major projects concluded in recent times under this model include Irish prison registers, petty sessions court records, tithe books, landed estates court catalogues and will calendars (see FamilySearch,,, Realistically, the 1901 and 1911 Censuses should be redatabased by the aforementioned groups, as it would be just too expensive to correct all the errors in the National Archives version, errors which if outside advice had been heeded, would have been avoided in most cases. The 1926 Census, whose release before the due date of 2027 is currently being called for but is by means guaranteed, should in the first instance be processed and catalogued by National Archives staff and then allowed to be digitised by one or a combination of the voluntary and commercial groups.
        Rather than seeking to waste more scarce public funds on projects beyond its capabililties and indeed remit, the National Archives should concentrate on using available resources to maintain services to the public and to tend to the records in its care as best it can. The Archives should bring cataloguing of records up to date and adapt to the new era of digital archives, concentrating on licencing and overseeing as opposed to directly managing digitisation projects, ensuring that users have ready and free access to online digitised records on its premises, eschewing exclusive or nontransparent deals and extracting the maximum royalty payments from commercial groups. It is now eight years since the writer endeavoured to contribute positively to the National Archives census online project, but at all stages he has been treated with frank disregard and indeed contempt by senior personnel, on which unfortunate note the present series of reports is brought to a close.

        Sean J Murphy MA
Centre for Irish Genealogical and Historical Studies
14 June 2013