How many people live on Islands

Oileáin Site Map

Numbers | 1841 to 1851 | 1851 to 1901 | 1901 to 1951 | 1951 to 2002

Some Questions

What do the graphs show.
Why do the figures start in 1841
Did people live on the islands before 1841
What were the effects of the Great Famine.
What about people who don't live on islands all year.

The Graphs

The graphs list all islands where more than 100 (except Rathlin) people were living in 1841.

Each graph
takes the number of people living on the island at the beginning of the period and shows the percentage change over the period.

For example.
If there were 100 people living on an island in 1841 and 50 people in 1851 the change is -50%.
Again if those 50 people in 1851 drop to 20 people in 1901 the change is -60%.

Why the numbers start in 1841

1841 was the first year a reliable census took place in Ireland. Before 1841 there was an incomplete census in 1813 and complete but unreliable censuses in 1821 and 1831. Before these dates there were no censuses and nobody knows for sure what the numbers of people living in Ireland or on the islands were. However, it is possible to make some good guesses about whether numbers were going up or down and for some places to guess how many people there were.

Did people live on the islands before 1841

The answer is some people lived on some of the islands. For most islands it is not possible to know when people first started living there. Some examples of the evidence available are

Old Written Records

The Roman alphabet first came to Ireland about 1600 years ago so there are almost no written records before that time.
Written records show that Christian monks were living on the Aran Islands in the 5th century. The Annals record that in A.D. 812, the Skellig monastery was sacked by Vikings and again in 825.

Ruins and Stonework

There is quite a lot of old stonework such as forts, churches and carved stones on some islands. For example, there are forts on the Aran Islands, churches on Inishmurray and .carved stone crosses on Duvillaunmore . For example from the evidence it is possible to say that some people lived on the Aran Islands as long as 4,000 years ago.

Shell Middens

For example there are shell middens (piles of shells) on Omey Island which may prove that people lived there thousands of years ago. When people ate shellfish they threw away the empty shells and in places they did this in the same place day after day for years with the result that large piles of shells built up.


As part of the process of making seeds trees and plants produce huge numbers of tiny pollen grains which get blown about in the wind. Some along with other dust and particles fall on the surface of lakes and fall to the bottom where they become part of the mud at the bottom. In some lakes this mud has not been disturbed for thousands of years. It is possible to tell how old each layer of mud is. By examining the pollen grains in each layer it is possible to find out what plants were growing in the area around the lake each year. In this way it is possible to say that people began to grown food plants on Inishbofin, County Galway about 1,750 years ago.. 3

The 1700s to 1841

Following the end of long years of war, the period from 1700 to 1841 saw a dramatic increase in the population of Ireland, particularly along the Atlantic coast. This increase in population was due to a number of factors and, of these, the most important was the potato. There were more people to feed and all the good land was already occupied. People had to grow food on land which wasn't so good or so easy to get to. Such land was to be found on islands. The number of people living on islands grew and people moved to islands where no one had been living permanently. Examples are Gola, Inishtrahull, Inishmurray and Inishkea.

The Potato
In Ireland the potato was first grown in the 1600s along the south coast and spread up the Atlantic coast in the 1700s. Ireland and particularly the Atlantic coast gets a lot or rain, doesn't get a lot of sunshine and rarely gets very warm or cold. The potato, unlike other food crops, grows well in this climate. Milk and potatoes form a balanced and healthy diet.

The Great Famine

Blight (a fungus) destroyed the potato crop in 1845 and the following years. Without the potato and because they could not get enough alternative food, millions of people in Ireland did not have enough food in those years. A million died of starvation and/or disease. Millions went to America. On the islands the reduction in numbers of people varied from island to island. Also people may have moved to islands during the famine. See the graph to compare the changes in population on different islands.

Famine before the Great Famine

There was a severe famine in 1740 in which many died. The population at that time was about 3 million as against 8.5 million at the time of the Great Famine. Presumably, the islands were badly affected by this famine too.

The misery of the poor inexpressible, many being obliged by the extreme scarcity to provisions of all kinds to eat horses and dogs, and to steal and kill ewes that are ready to wean., so that their foul feeding has already thrown many of them into fluxes etc. Wheat and oatmeal are excessive dear: potatoes 4s. 4d. a bushel. Many through want perish daily in the roads and ditches where they are buried. 1

Hunger after the Great Famine

Widespread hunger, starvation and poverty continued after the Great Famine was over. For instance the Cork Examiner newspaper reported on conditions on Cape Clear and Sherkin in 1862

The houses had neither windows nor chimneys. The doors served to provide all light and ventilation: because fo this the hearth on the few occasions when there was a fire lighting, changed its position on the floor. There was no fuel on the island for cooking or heating, bar some small supply of dried cow dung.
The houses on Sherkin were in better condition, being a little bigger and provided with chimneys and small windows. The distress of the people themselves was as severe as on Cléire. 2

People who don't live on islands all year.

There has been and is an awful lot of this and for some very different reasons.


During the fishing season fishermen often spent part of a year on an island (for example Gola) or moved temporarily to another isleand as did fishermen from the Inishkeas who lived for weeks at a time on Inishglora or at Annagh on Achill. Such traditions have largely died out in the last fifty years.

Temporary migration for seasonal work

After the famine a tradition grew up of temporary migration to Scotland and England to work on farms harvesting potatoes. This tradition was particularly strong in Donegal and Achill. On Achill a large proportion of the entire population travelled for this work. The tradition of migrating to England, Scotland and elsewhere for temporary work has largely but not entirely died out in the last fifty years.

Evidence of Mary O'Donnell, Achill Island
I am 18 years of age. I have been to Scotland to work for four successive years, and my sister, aged 16, has been twice. Last year I went in May with my father, sister and brother (aged 14), and we all worked on the same farm. My father was the gaffer, and looked after the 27 girls and 3 boys. We were first weeding on a farm near Paisley and we all slept in the town. I was paid 2s a day. The men paid 2s 6d a week for lodgings, and the girls 1s. The men's food cost them about 8s a week. The girls' food cost about 5s a week. We then went to Ayrshire potato digging on a farm for six weeks. We slept in a barn there. The men had one and the girls another. Sometimes when we were in Ayrshire we began work at 3am and left off at 2 pm. When we did this we worked as follows :- Began work 3 am, stopped work at 8 am for an hour to breakfast. We stopped again at 11am for quarter of an hour, and took a piece of loaf, and we knocked off work at 2 pm. The rest of the day we played about, and went to bed at 5 or 6 pm. The ordinary hours are from 7 am to 6 pm. At 9.30 we have a quarter of an hour off. For breakfast they used to give us tea, white bread, butter, and eggs. For dinner (3 pm) we either had fish or meat. The girls got 13s 6d a week. My brother got I5s a week. Some cousins of mine (boys) got £I a week each. After this we went to Stirlingshire. At harvest the men are paid 5s a day and the girls 4s. For a month's harvest a man gets about £4 and his food and bed. A woman gets £3 and her food and bed. We buy our clothes in Scotland.
From the 1900 Agricultural Statistics Report as quoted in Achill by Kenneth McNally


For a century or more tourists from the mainland or abroad have spent holidays or day trips on the islands. As a result of increasing affluence and fast new ferries numbers have increased dramatically in recent years. On some islands the majority of houses are holiday homes. Heir and Sherkin Islands in West Cork are particular examples. In some cases entire islands are owned by individuals who establish holiday homes. Inishvickillaun in the Blaskets is probably the most famous example!

Sources New Survery of Clare Island - Landscape and Society on Clare Island 1700 to 1900 by Kevin Whelan
Published by Royal Irish Academy
Irish Historical Statistics - Population 1821-1971
Published by Royal Irish Academy
The Book of Inishtrahull - Sean Beattie
Gola the Life and Last Days of an Island Community - F.H. Aalen and H. Brody
Published by Mercier Press
Inishmurray - Ancient Monastic Island - Patrick Heraughty
Published by O'Brien Press
Mayo's Lost Islands - The Inishkeas - Brian Dornan
Published by The Four Courts Press
1 As quoted in Landscapes with Figures - The World of Brian Merriman: County Clare in 1780 by Liam de Paor
Published by Four Courts Press
2 Cape Clear Island: Its People and Landscape - Éamon Lankford
Published by Cape Clear Museum 3 Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape - Edited by F. H. A. Aallen, Kevin Whelan and Matthew Stout
Published by Cork University Press.
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