October 8th, 2012

Searching Irish Surnames from the 17th Century – Sir William Petty’s Census of 1659

There are over 30 million Americans claiming Irish ancestry; more than seven times the population ofIreland. It is no wonder that so much attention is given to finding Irish surnames. I have found an exceptionally useful source for pinpointing the original location of your ancestors to be Sir William Petty’s Irish Census of 1659. It is not a census form in the official sense as it gives only the names of those who held deeds to parcels of land and the number of people residing on each plot. It can help however to find out exactly where your family was centered in seventeenth centuryIreland.

Sir William was an English economist loyal to Oliver Cromwell. He conducted this particular survey in order to establish what land could be rewarded to those private individuals who had funded Cromwell’s campaign to re-occupyIrelandfollowing the Irish Rebellion in 1641. Its value lies in the fact that it records the concentration of every surname that existed inIrelandat the time by county. The surnames are recorded in their original spelling, and as such can also help you to track down spelling variations of your family name.

If you haven’t yet found your family name, it can direct you as to where inIreland you should begin your search. Besides Irish surnames, the 1659 census also includes those of English and Scottish settlers living inIreland at the time. Once you find the general location of your family name, you can begin a more refined search within that county, sourcing local records found in county clerks offices, parish registers, and local genealogical and heritage centers.

What You’ll Find in the 1659 Irish Census

The 1659 census provides clues as to where your family may have been during the 1600’s, and consequently provides a starting point to begin your research. Keep in mind though, that your surname may have been spelt differently in the seventeenth century, so you will need to factor in possible spelling variations. For example; the name Quinn is spelt in the survey as Quine,Clarkis spelt Cleark, and O’Reilly as O’Rely. There are also many lesser known Irish surnames such as Arberry, Hamptin (possibly Hampton), Freind, Keygin (possibly Keagan) and Sime.

The genealogical and historical of this census is self-evident, especially when it comes to finding rare spellings of more common names. It is not only a primary source for Irish surnames, but an asset that can help you get past a dead end if you’re having trouble finding your surname after the eighteenth century. Be aware that the census only recorded the surnames, there are no given or first names included, but because it narrows down your search, can save you measurable time and resources.

Bonus of English and Scottish Names

The 1659 census also documented the number of English and Scottish residents of |Ireland at the time along with their respective surnames. The majority of Scottish names can be found in Northern Ireland except for Counties Monaghan and Antrim. Though the differentiation between English and Scottish names is vague, a closer study will reveal subtle differences. Sometimes the name is designated as that of a person who only spoke English, and occasionally Scottish and English settlers who had resided inIreland for a time are referred to as Irish. There is indication of Scottish settlement inTipperary and Longford counties, while the English settlement is widespread with the exception ofCountySligo.

The Irish outnumbered the English in the south by ten to one, while in the north the ratio was fairly even. As such, you may wish to begin searching ancestors of English or Scottish ancestry in the north of Irelandbefore looking in the southern counties. Leinster, or the area around Dublin, had the highest concentration of Scottish and English settlers. Unfortunately the surviving census is not complete, as is the case with many Irish records. No returns survive for the counties of Cavan, Mayo, Galway, Tyrone, and Wicklow, and only partial reports are available fromCork and Meath.

Still a Valuable Resource

In spite of the fact that portions have not survived or are incomplete, the 1659 Irish Census is a valuable research tool for genealogists. It is very similar in function to the Birth Index of nineteenth century Ireland in that you can pinpoint the origin of your surname. Most families inhabited the same area for centuries, and it is possible that you can find your Irish ancestors in the same location that they lived in all those centuries ago. Many families were driven from their land however, but finding the original location of your family will help you to better track where they moved to. Once you find your family surname, you can consult more recent census reports to find later generations.

What to Do With the Information You Find

After you find your family members in census reports, you will want to record that data in a census extraction form. These are convenient for recording census data, enabling you to review the information you record at a glance. They are available for specific years, and you can download one of our Free Blank Census Forms to get you started.