Belfast Telegraph

Census reveals Dec's Irish ancestry

A lost era of Irish census records could yield treasures for one half of Geordie double act Ant and Dec.

The ancestry of Declan Donnelly, whose parents moved to England from Londonderry in the 1960s, has been traced back 180 years to his great-great-grandfather James Donnelly, who was living in a parish in the county with three women.

It was among 629,753 pre-1901 records released free to the public, and had survived a bomb attack and fire at the onset of the Irish Civil War in 1922.

Researchers examined census returns for Derry in 1831 and identified James Donnelly as the head of household 49 in the townland of Stramore in the parish of Ballynascreen.

Three unnamed women, most likely his relatives, were living in the house at the time and the religion of all four was recorded as Catholic.

Records also show in 1839 James Donnelly married one of his neighbours, Ellen Hagan, and the ancestry continues in the parish until Dec's mother Annie Henry married his father Alphonsus Donnelly in 1960.

There was no record of the professions of anyone in the homes or information on those who might have died or emigrated in the previous 10 years, as happened in 1841 and 1851.

The documents are part of a massive tranche being made available by family history website findmypast.com, Ireland's National Archives and the website familysearch.org.

Brian Donovan, of findmypast, which has 20 million registered users, said the 1831 census could yield treasures for the Donnelly family tree and hundreds of others.

"We would need to know these people are in the locality before we try and go looking for them, and we knew about Dec so we went looking for his past and this is what we discovered," he said.

"The key thing is that this is one of the most unique insights into pre-famine Ireland - a world that was changed fundamentally."

Despite the limited resistance to census recording in Ireland, unlike in England where there was popular dissent, Irish family histories are notoriously difficult to trace because of the destruction of the Public Record Office in Dublin on June 30, 1922.

Two huge explosions sparked a fire that ripped through the Four Courts, destroying millions of records and hundreds of years of Irish history.

Surviving records from 1821-51 include census returns for all of Derry from 1831, Antrim from 1851, Cavan from 1821 and partial records for other counties.

The records show the top six jobs from 1821-51, with labourer and spinner making up more than a third, farmer 14%, servant 10%, weaver 6% and pupil 5%.

The style of the census also changed as decades passed.

The records for 1841 and 1851 show family members living elsewhere and information on deaths and emigration in the previous 10 years which covered the Great Famine.

Catriona Crowe, head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland, said: "The National Archives is delighted to be involved in this partnership, which allows us to make many of our important genealogical records available free online at a time of scarce government resources. We look forward to rolling out many more records in the coming years."

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