Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland
Gold Seam

1766 Religious Census
Delving Deeper

These pages provide detailed descriptions of the documents in the 1766 Religious Census Gold Seam, together with historical background and archival context. The information here is aimed at all researchers who want to delve deeper into this fascinating collection of originals, transcripts and abstracts.

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Historical Background

On 5 March 1766 the Irish House of Lords resolved that:

The several archbishops and bishops of this Kingdom shall be, and are hereby, desired to direct the parish-ministers, in their respective dioceses, to return a list of the several families in their parishes to this House, on the first Monday after the Recess, distinguishing which are Protestants, and which are Papists, as also a List of the several reputed Popish priests and friars residing in their parishes.

This instruction followed on from an earlier initiative originating with the House of Commons Grand Committee for Religion in 1764, which had required the hearth-tax [insert popout definition: The hearth-tax was a tax on each fireplace (hearth) in a residence.] collectors to inquire into the religion of their taxpayers during the course of the 1764 collection cycle. Some hearth-tax collectors did conduct the religious survey during 1764, those failing to do so were again prompted to undertake it during their 1765 collection. A number of returns were made as late as 1767. The returns from these 1764-5 religious censuses, 101 in total, were contained in Bundle 74 of the Parliamentary Returns, and were numbered 545 – 643 in the Parliamentary Returns collection. 

Bundle 75 of the Parliamentary Returns contained lists of householders from an earlier survey, the 1740 return of Protestant Householders (four items, numbered 644 – 647). Bundle 74 was located at 5O-208-13 and Bundle 75 on the same shelf, at sub-number 14.

Between 1764 and 1767 religious population submissions were received from hearth-tax collectors in most areas of the country, but not from all. In 1764 there were 118 hearth-tax collectors operating throughout Ireland. Although 101 abstracts were received, six were either duplicates or double returns, meaning that returns were only received from 95 unique locations (80 percent of the total number of hearth-tax districts, or ‘Walks’ as they were known). It may have been dissatisfaction with the quality or coverage of the data from the 1764-5 census which prompted Parliament to revisit the issue in 1766, by way of the resolution shown above.

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Bundle 75 of the Parliamentary Returns contained lists of householders from an earlier survey, the 1740 return of Protestant Householders (four items, numbered 644 - 647). Bundle 74 was located at 5O-208-13 and Bundle 75 on the same shelf, at sub-number 14.
Dean Benjamin Barrington’s census of Armagh parish reported numbers only. Credit: NAI, IHP/1/649.
Catholic households in Clonpriest parish, Cloyne diocese. Credit: NAI, PRIV/M/5036A.
Abstract data for Cork and Ross parishes. Credit: NAI, PRIV/M/4921. Column headings: Parishes, Prot[estant] Fam[ilies], Pop[ish] Fam[ilies], Priests & Friars, No of Protestants, No. of Papists.

The 1766 religious census was a remarkable, ambitious survey of eighteenth-century Ireland, and by good fortune, fifty-nine original items survive from it, including fifty-seven original census returns.1 Unlike the 1764-5 census, which had only reported numerical data to parish level, the Lords’ aim for this census was to produce a list of each named householder in every parish throughout Ireland. If the census had been successfully completed, about 1,000 returns would have been received at the House of Lords by 5 May 1766, ‘the first Monday after the Recess’, recording the names of perhaps 600,000 householders.

The returns were to be sent by the parish ministers directly to the House of Lords, but the instruction to take the census was communicated to the clergy by the individual diocesan offices, so ministers in different dioceses may have received different instructions depending on the interpretation of the Lords’ resolution by their particular diocesan office. During March, April, and May 1766, hundreds of parish census returns poured into the House of Lords, representing the most exhaustive and extensive survey of Ireland since the land confiscation surveys of the 1650s. However the final result of the census was not as favourable as the Lords hoped. Although the resolution had specified that lists of names were to be compiled (‘a list of the several families’), many ministers simply returned the number of Protestant and Catholic households in their parish, and others ignored the instruction completely. By way of example, of the fifty-seven original surviving census returns, thirty-three returned lists of parishioners’ names, as required by the resolution, one returned the number of Protestant and Catholic households, by townland, and twenty-three reported parish-wide religious numbers only.

In spite of the wide variation in the character of the returns submitted, however, it remains notable that more than 780 censuses were received in response to the Lords’ call.2 The return from Newchapel, County Tipperary, is the most impressive of the fifty-seven surviving original returns, while the response from Lucan parish, destroyed in 1922, was described by the historian Francis Elrington Ball as ‘the most elaborate he had seen’3 Benjamin Barrington’s return for Armagh parish, by contrast, provided mere numbers, although he notes that he ‘made the exactest list I could’.

One of the most impressive returns that we know of arrived from the parishes of Ardagh and Clonpriest, in Cloyne diocese. It listed householders’ names, and provided details of household composition and relationships.

In addition to the fifty-nine original 1766 census items, transcripts, extracts, and parish numerical abstracts have survived for large parts of the island. For the diocese of Cork and Ross, abstracts survive for most of its parishes (figure 12). Nearly all Cork and Ross parishes reported religious household counts and denominational populations, suggesting that the diocese requested population numbers even though the Lords had not sought that information. Overall, more than 50,000 individual names survive from the religious census of 1766, making it one of the richest sources for historical and genealogical research into eighteenth-century Ireland.

Archival History

When all the census returns were received at the Parliament House, George Meares, the acting Clerk of the Parliaments, was ordered to

enter in a Book [Edward Wakefield terms this the ‘Book of Returns’], in an alphabetical Manner the names of the Parishes for which Returns are made by the Clergy of this Kingdom, of the Number of Protestant and Popish Families, and reputed Popish Priests and Friars; and do also, in Columns opposite to the Names of the said Parishes, enter the Number of Protestant and Popish Families, and the Number of reputed Popish Priests and Friars, returned to be contained in the said Parishes respectively, and also the Counties and Dioceses in which said Parishes are situated.4

It was probably while this ‘Book of Returns’ was being created that the returns were arranged into the seven discrete bundles available in the Public Record Office.

Diocesan summary sheets were also prepared, presumably as the ‘Book of Returns’ was being compiled. It is likely, too, that the census returns were grouped by diocese at that time. In January 1768 a committee was appointed to ‘inspect the list of the Protestant and Popish families, returned from the several dioceses in this kingdom’, but no further details are known about this committee or its decisions.5

Whether the returns were used extensively by the Lords is not known. When the Irish Parliament closed (1801), its records, including the 1766 census returns, were moved to the Record Office in Anglesea Street, and, following the establishment of the Record Commission, they were transferred to the Record Tower in Dublin Castle. There, they were processed by Theobald Richard O’Flaherty, who, between 1814 and 1826, produced a 10-volume handwritten index to the Parliamentary Records, running to 2,578 pages (a Nomenclature Index was also created). The returns remained in the Record Tower until they were transferred to the Public Record Office in 1870.<sup>6</sup>

1766 census, Killeeshil parish, County Tyrone, showing postage mark (April 2nd) and part of the wax seal. Credit: NAI, IHP/1/668.

System of Arrangement before 1922

When the Parliamentary Records were transferred to the Irish Record Commissioners, the 1766 census returns were individually numbered. [insert link to Brian’s Archive fever article: Numbering, re-numbering, then numbering once more: the archival history of the 1766 Religious Census returns in the House of Lords, the Record Office, the Record Tower, and the Public Record Office of Ireland.]  They were subsequently transferred to the Public Record Office in 1870, when the seven bundles (bundles 76 – 82 of the Parliamentary Returns) were lodged in Bay 5O, on shelves 208 and 209. By good fortune, the following original items from the 1766 religious census survive:

  • Bundle 76 – the entire bundle survives, consisting of 54 census returns, a separate return of priests for Tipperary Union, and the summary table for Cashel and Emly diocese.
  • the returns for two Cork and Ross parishes, Rathbarry and Ringrone (from bundle 77).
  • one return from a Waterford and Lismore parish, Killoteran (from bundle 81).

Table 1: The arrangement of the 1766 census returns in 7 bundles within the Parliamentary Returns collection. Original returns survive from bundles shown in bold type.

Bundle number Contents PROI Location
76 Armagh (32 items); Cashel and Emly (23). All of the items in this bundle have survived. 50-208-15
77 Clogher (37); Cork and Ross (49). Two original returns from Cork and Ross parishes survive. 5O-209-1
78 Dromore (18); Elphin (22); Kildare (23); Killala and Achonry (15); Killaloe and Kilfenora (20); Kilmore and Ardagh (42); Limerick and Ardfert (32).

Note that one parish in Cloyne diocese (Mallow) was incorrectly included in the Kilmore and Ardagh bundle and one parish in Killaloe (Castleconnell) was incorrectly included in the Limerick and Ardfert bundle.

79 ‘Sundry parishes’ (diocese not specified on the returns). 5O-209-3
80 Clonfert (14); Cloyne (38); Derry (32); Down and Connor (52); Dublin (63). 5O-209-4
81 Leighlin and Ferns (54); Ossory (39); Raphoe (29); Tuam (15); Waterford and Lismore (27). One original return from a Waterford and Lismore parish survives. 5O-209-5
82 Miscellaneous items, including the ‘Book of Returns’ (4). 5O-209-6
Total, 7 bundles 805 individually numbered items.  



1766 census return, Newchapel, County Tipperary. Credit: NAI, IHP/1/696.
1766 census return, Cullen Union, counties Limerick and Tipperary. Credit: NAI, IHP/1/688.
1766 census return, Killeeshil, County Tyrone. Credit: NAI, IHP/1/668. Be it observed - The rebellious insurrection, called Hearts of Oak, took its rise in this Parish nor is it to be wondered at when the Dissenters here shall be known to be, what they really are, the spawn of Scotish [sic] Covenanters, avowed enemies to all Civil and religious Establishment, and the most virulent and furious persecutors of the Established Clergy, during the late tumult in the north of Ireland. Quaeque ipse miserima vidi &c. [‘And those terrible things which I witnessed etc.’ (Virgil, Aeneid). In the original, Virgil continues: Et quorum pars magna fui (‘and of which I was a great part').]
1766 census return, Clonbeg, County Tipperary. Credit: NAI, IHP/1/685.

The Survivors: The Salved Census Returns from 1766

Highlights of the 1766 Gold Seam are undoubtedly the fifty-nine original items which survived the fire and are now in the collection of National Archives (Ireland). These paper records have been conserved for the centenary of the Four Courts blaze and are now available and fully-searchable in digital format below. 

The 1766 religious census consisted of three distinct categories of items, census returns, dioceasan summary sheets, and miscellaneous items. These were arranged in seven ‘Bundles’ within the Parliamentary Returns collection in the PROI. In total, 805 individually numbered items were available in the collection at location 5O-208 and 209 (floor 5, bay O, shelves 208-9). Separated from the main collection, the returns for Meath were stored three floors below, in the Meath Diocesan Collection, at location 2N-125-15.

  1. Census returns: The 1766 religious census returns (excluding the returns from Meath diocese) were stored in six bundles of Parliamentary Returns (numbers 76-81). The returns were grouped by diocese. In total 780 individually numbered census returns were available for consultation in the archive, not counting the returns from Meath diocese.
  2. Diocesan summary sheets: Diocesan summary sheets were compiled within the House of Lords after the census returns were received. Twenty-one summary sheets were available in the collection, covering all dioceses except two: Armagh and Meath. These summary sheets were included in the relevant bundles.
  3. Miscellaneous items: Bundle 82 of the Parliamentary Returns consisted of four individually numbered miscellaneous items (including the Book of Returns, a compilation of abstract information from all censuses received). These items were summaries of the entire set of census returns.

The jewel in the crown of the surviving items is undoubtedly Francis Stephen Thomas’ magnificent census of Newchapel parish, County Tipperary, which provides extensive information on the composition of the 101 households he counted in his parish.

Rickard Lloyd’s return for the union of Cullen Union in Cashel and Emly diocese, straddling the Limerick-Tipperary border, included a comment on the presence of Father Daniele Neal in the area. Despite his involvement in a forced marriage, arrest and mob violence, Neal remained as Catholic priest in the parish. The Henry Grady listed in the census numbered 319 may have been the groom at the marriage in question.

Daniele Neal the Popish Priest who was rescued by the mob from the Sheriff & Army at Longstone in the County of Tipperary when transmitting from Clonmel to Limerick there to stand his trial for forcibly marrying Henry Grady to Miss Susanna Grove: in this rescue many lives were lost, notwithstanding which s[ai]d Neal continues to officiate as Popish Priest in the same Parish.

On occasion, clergymen used the opportunity to communicate directly with the Lords of Parliament – an opportunity few would have had previously, or would enjoy subsequently – to raise concerns they had about social, political, or security issues. Charles Humble, rector of Killeeshil in Armagh diocese, spoke of his disdain for the Dissenting Protestants (Presbyterians) of his parish, who, he believed, had been instrumental in the Oakboy tumults of late years. In the early 1760s, under the banner of the ‘Hearts of Oak’, or ‘Oakboys’, Presbyterians in a number of Ulster counties had engaged in violent protest at local taxes, and at dues collected by the established Church of Ireland clergy. Notably, Humble’s Established Church community represented only about one in twelve of the parish’s population.

Some of the original returns even bear postal marks and stamps, and the remnants of the wax seals which secured the letters, providing insights into the means by which information was communicated in the mid-eighteenth century. This wonderful example is from the census of Clonbeg, County Tipperary, prepared by Reverend Henry Bunbury, rector. It was posted to Henry Baker Sterne, Clerk of the House of Lords, on 28 April 1766 (‘AP|28’ in the centre of the image), from Tipperary Town, and still bears a significant fragment of Bunbury’s seal. Also visible is its Parliamentary Return number (685).  This number, we believe, was applied to it by the Irish Record Commissioners between 1814 and 1826, when the Parliamentary Returns were being indexed. The stamp of the Public Record Office of Ireland is of more recent vintage.

Transcribers and Copyists

We owe a great debt to the many genealogists and historians who used the Public Record Office of Ireland before 1922. Their papers contain several complete transcripts and copies of returns from the 1766 religious census, while extracts and numerical abstracts are available for many other parishes and regions across the island. 

Notable copyists include: 

  • Tenison Groves (primarily focused on Ulster parishes)
  • Bartholomew O’Keeffe (Cloyne diocese)
  • William Carrigan (Ossory diocese)
  • William Renehan (Waterford and Lismore diocese)
  • Philip Crosslé (Elphin, Killala and Achonry and Killaloe and Kilfenora dioceses)
  • James O’Laverty (Down  and Connor diocese) 
  • Michael Comerford (Kildare and Leighlin dioceses). 

Groves was particularly active in compiling transcripts and extracts from the census returns, copying vast quantities of information for parishes primarily in the archbishopric of Armagh, while Bartholomew O’Keeffe transcribed the entire set of census returns for the parishes submitted from Cloyne diocese, along with the diocesan summary table for Cork and Ross. 

Carrigan, Comerford, O’Laverty, and Renehan typically recorded abstract parish information, while Crosslé’s notes (nominal information and basic parish data) provide us with extensive information on the scale of the census in the west of Ireland. 

Research by the Beyond 2022 team also uncovered the index to the Parliamentary Records, compiled by the Record Commissioners over thirteen years, between 1814 and 1826, which lists all of the parishes and unions that submitted 1766 census returns (excluding parishes submitting from Meath diocese). This Index allows us, for the first time, to show the extent of the coverage of the 1766 census. 

What information do the returns contain? 

In some cases researchers will have access to a complete list of householders living in a parish in 1766. It is important to examine the surviving census data carefully, as ministers may have provided guidance as to how accurate their census was. Some ministers noted that their census was accurate, whilst others indicated the extent of omissions . Marmaduke Philips’ census of Inishcarra and Matehy parishes, in Cloyne diocese, for example, which provided not just a list of householders’ names, but also the number of people in the individual households, was ‘ye exactest return yt could be possibly made’, while Jeremiah Pratt’s census of Carrigrohanebeg, also in Cloyne, was the ‘total population – no stayaways’. 

Other ministers to claim accuracy in their returns were Benjamin Barrington (Armagh parish; ‘the exactest list I could of the number of Protestant & Popish families’); the unsigned return for Killinchy parish, in Down and Connor (‘I had the number collected with the greatest care’); Edward Trotter’s census of Inch parish, County Down, which he describes as a ‘true return’, and William Chichester’s submission for Skerry and Racavan parishes (Down and Connor diocese) which was ‘as exact as could be possibly obtained’.7

By contrast, John Cleffe noted that his numbers for Castlecomer and Dysart parishes (Ossory diocese), were ‘exclusive of 200 poor of the Popish profession’ and William Henderson’s census of Termonfeckin (Armagh diocese) omitted ‘about forty or fifty poor cottiers and labourers, who are all Papists’.8 It is unlikely to be coincidental that both Cleffe and Henderson note that it was their Catholic numbers which were deficient, as parish ministers should have been more familiar with members of Protestant denominations.

Team and Partners
  • Dr Brian Gurrin, editor
  • Zoȅ Reid and Jessica Baldwin (National Archives), conservation


Further Reading

Brian Gurrin, Kerby A. Miller and Liam Kennedy (compiled and edited by), The Irish religious censuses of the 1760s; Catholics and Protestants in eighteenth-century Ireland (Dublin, 2022).


  1. The 59 original items are: 57 census returns, 1 diocesan summary sheet, and 1 return of priests.
  2. A total of  780 returns were received, excluding those submitted from Meath diocese. The Meath returns were not stored in the Parliamentary Returns collection in the Public Record Office, with all of the other returns, but in the Meath Diocesan collection, at PRO location 2N-125-15. Based on data from other dioceses, it is estimated that the 104 Meath Diocese parishes enumerated may have produced between 30 and 40 individual returns, all of which were lost in 1922.
  3. Thomas Sadleir, ‘Forgotten sources of genealogy’ in The Irish Genealogist, i, no. 4 (1938), p. 101.
  4. Lords’ jn, iv, p. 398 (5 June 1766).
  5. Lords’ jn, iv, p. 436 (27 January 1768).
  6. DKPRI, iii, p. 31.
  7. Brian Gurrin, Kerby Miller and Liam Kennedy (compiled and edited), The Irish religious censuses of the 1760s, Catholics and Protestants in eighteenth-century Ireland (Dublin, 2022), p. 118 (footnote).
  8. Gurrin et al, Religious censuses of 1760s, pp 173, 205.
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