Following an act of parliament the previous year, the first attempt by the British to take an official census in Ireland was made in 1813. Entrusted to the ill-equipped local Grand Juries, after two years ‘spent in a fruitless endeavour’ the attempt was abandoned.

After that failure, a second act was passed handing the management and supervision of the 1821 census to the local magistrates. In the case of Athenry, the enumerator was John Taylor who began his work on 28 May 1821 in the north-west of the parish at Carnane (Carnaun).

Taylor confirmed 1,093 inhabitants, 538 male and 555 female, and 258 families. However 1,094 individuals are listed. Indeed, there may be more than one ‘double-count’, including two James Blakeneys listed at the police barracks.

In total, 385 of those listed were employed (35%) being 303 male and 82 female. Drilling down further, there were 182 people employed in ‘trades & manufacturing’ (47.5%), 87 people in agriculture (22.5%), and 116 people in other roles (30%).

Women in Athenry town were predominately engaged as housekeepers (37), mantua-makers i.e. dress-makers (15) and flax & wool spinners; while men were overwhelmingly employed as labourers (67) and weavers (36).

The number of those listed as unemployed, or only occasionally employed, and the nature of occupations reflect a level of poverty and economic marginalisation in the town. This was possibly connected to the increasing population and the declining living standards.

The Urban Economy

Due to the survival of the 1821 census, the economy and society of pre-famine Athenry can be explored in a manner not possible for other Irish towns. Analysis of the census reveal an economy heavily reliant on agriculture.

Structural changes in the economy after 1815 had led to a growing population. The rise in demand for grain during the Peninsular Wars at the beginning of the century had required more labourers, but the end of war and resultant collapse in demand.

The census confirms a want of employment at a time when there was insufficient money in circulation and little or no industrialisation. The extent of the poverty was reflected in various newspaper reports of the time.  

At virtually one family per building, Athenry appear less densely populated than many other Galway towns like Tuam. The density of families per building was also below the county average. Athenry was however clearly, at least economically, a town in decline.

Trade from ‘Rural Athenry’ to ‘Urban Athenry’ was regulated, with the corporation weighing produce and charging proportionally. Bartholemy Connelly of 27 Cross Street was the ‘craner’ – in charge of the weighing crane. He was also the collector of customs.

In the county, more than half (54%) of the population were under the age of 20, albeit it was a lower 43% in Athenry town. Life expectancy was low, particularly for men, and only 22 of the 1,093 people were aged 70 or over. Only one in eight were aged 50 or over.


In terms of occupations, of those who had jobs in the county, Athenry and Gort towns boasted an identical split in professions across agriculture (23%), trades (47%) and other (30%). The overall county averages of 51% agriculture, 34% trades and 15% other.

Unsurprisingly, given their relative size, both Loughrea and Tuam had more substantial industries than the cottage-industry nature of Athenry. In terms of employment, sixty-one persons under the age of 20 were employed in Athenry.

The youngest employed was Mary Connor of 47 Cross Street – a 10 year old house servant (the most common profession of the youth). The majority, forty-five, of the employed under the age of 20 were aged 16-19 years.

In an era when many children had occupations, it is difficult to be definitive on the percentage of the population employed. The average age of those employed was 33 years, with men being somewhat older. 

As a percentage of the population, just over a third had professions in Athenry town, compared to more than 40% county-wide and as high as 47% in the Arran Islands. It was again similar in Gort town, and 8% lower and higher in Loughrea and Tuam towns.

If one excludes those aged under 20 years and over 70 years, fewer than two-thirds of townspeople were employed, compared to over 90% in the suburbs and in the barony and county as a whole.

There were sixteen paupers with an average age of 50 years, with a further sixteen listed as unemployed with an average age 30 years, and four more occasionally unemployed. In the absence of factories, domestic service provided supplementary income.

Education and Religion

At 5% of the total population (139 children), Athenry had the lowest school-going percentage of any Galway town. Despite having 250 children in the town aged 5-14, only 60%, 139, were in school.

Both Athenry and Gort had relatively even numbers of boys and girls attending school. Tuam meanwhile had a higher participation rate, albeit two-thirds of students were boys. Elsewhere, three-quarters of the students in Loughrea were boys – akin to the county average.

The 1826 Second Report of the Commissioners of Irish Education confirms that George Petty’s Cross Street school, with 70 children in 1821, was held in a thatched house costing £6. Petty was a Catholic, but a fifth, or 14, of his students were Protestant.

Anthony O’Brien’s school on McDonnell’s Lane also boasted 70 children in 1821. This number grew to an average of 85 children in 1826, all of whom were Catholic. The school ‘built of stone and mortar’ cost close to three times that of Cross Street. 

A third school is listed in 1826, with the master being Hugh Mackey, a Protestant. It was the only free school of the three and 34 of the 40 children under his tutelage were Protestant. As with the school at Cross Street, the London Hibernian Society contributed to the cost.

The Businesses

The town boasted all the occupations of a functioning economy from shopkeepers and publicans, to weavers and tailors. There were no fewer than ten pubs in the town, one for every 32.5 adult men.

Other interesting professionals included a gunsmith (Thomas Curley), an apothecary (Thomas Mahon), and an attorney (Joseph Kelly) – all on Cross Street. Kelly likely practiced in Athenry town itself.

Mathias Cannon was a baker based on the south-west corner of Northgate Street, and there were four butchers in the town, namely Barney Kyne and Michael Walsh on Cross Street, James Killgarriff on Back Street, and Patt Gilmour on McDonnell’s Lane.

The contribution of women to the economy was significant. Occupations ranged from Cross Street hotelier Eliza Cooney, to the servants in Athenry House, to the flax (9) and wool (7) spinners and manuta makers (15).

The census extracts illustrate the importance of the flax and linen industry, especially for women. There were also a substantial number (38) of male weavers, while the lace-maker, Margaret Mitchel of Cross Street, appears to have been of a higher-level of craft.

And in addition to Patt Connor – also a Publican – at Cross Street, seventeen other men were listed as tailors, including two journeymen and two soldiers among the 57th regiment of the British army in Athenry Barracks.

Varied professions included Northgate Street thatcher Hugh Dellany, slaters William Costello and James Carty on Cross Street, sawyers Michael Browne on McDonnell’s Lane and Michael Connor on Cross Street, and millwright Patt Gorman on Cross Street.

The Townspeople

The townspeople were, in general, quite poor. More than a third of the Irish population, the ‘labouring class’, lived in one-roomed cabins; while close to 40%, the cottiers and small farmers, lived in 2-4 room structures with windows.

There was no public water supply and residents were reliant on the Clarin River and communal wells. Daily life was not a bleak existence notwithstanding a dependence on the potato. And there was free fuel, through turf, albeit same led to smoke-filled habitations.

Hurling was popular, with the Lopdells providing a field. While encouraged by the Catholic clergy, in 1829 the Protestant Reverend Eyre complained to the Chief Secretary of ‘breaches of the sabbath’. He also claimed hurling led to drinking and fighting.

Festivals and customs were very important in this era and, in terms of entertainment, Michael Donevan of Back Street was a dancing-master, while William Leonard of Abbey Lane was a musician.

Elder parishioners included Bridget Burke at 6 Back Street and Mary Connor of 48 Cross Street who were both aged 80 years. They were two women apparently conceived during ‘Bliain an Áir’ (Year of Slaughter), a famine which swept Ireland in 1740-41.

Within months, they were among a handful seeing a second major famine. They would not live to see the third. There were 43 other widows with an average age of 52. At 78 years, Robert Flynn of 28 Cross Street was the oldest man in the town.

The Streets

There were nine distinct central streets in Athenry in the early nineteenth century. Some of the specifics and interesting observations of the streets at the time of the census in 1821 were, as follows:

Analysis of the census of the town was produced last year in a Heritage Week booklet in aid of Galway Autism Partnership (GAP). This coming August, an edition on the rest of the parish, Rural Athenry, will be available with full proceeds again going to GAP.