Ireland’s census time capsule will reveal the people behind the data

After I moved to Ireland last year, I came across a captivating book of historical photographs of the country that became a publishing sensation in 2020. The images had been touched up in colour, bringing them to life so they feel almost contemporary.

The latest official census, taken last weekend, similarly aims to let the future reach into the past. In what Ireland says is a world first, the form includes a “time capsule” option, to give generations to come a glimpse of the people behind the data.

Respondents were invited to fill in a personal message — a note to their descendants, a description of their own lives or some advice — which will be squirrelled away for 100 years, when the war in Ukraine, Covid-19 and maybe even climate destruction will be history.

“We’ll be writing the book that someone else will collate and publish — if they still have books,” laughs Eileen Murphy, head of census administration at Ireland’s Central Statistics Office. “It’ll be such a treasure trove for future historians about life today.”

Ireland has been transformed over the past century into one of the happiest and most prosperous places on the planet. Dublin’s business district is home to the gleaming European headquarters of digital and tech giants Google, Amazon and Meta, but the five-yearly census questionnaire remains charmingly analogue: a 23-page form, to be filled out by hand and collected by an official.

Online questionnaires will be introduced in 2027, making the handwritten time capsule in this, Ireland’s last fully paper census, even more poignant. I was thrilled to see the signature of British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, working at the time as a registrar, on my grandfather’s birth certificate in 1901. What if she had could have jotted down, in that year’s UK census, a message for us at the turn of the 21st century?

Past censuses might have told us there were 15 people to a house, their names and ages, but “I’d love to know if they were happy,” says Richella Homan O’Neill, an IT project manager. “We don’t get the emotional side. Were they hungry? So many questions come into your head.”

According to Murphy, the new census will show that Ireland’s population has nearly doubled, from 2.8mn in 1961 to more than 5mn — the first time since 1851. The country, which has exported its people into a global diaspora, is also now multicultural; even in the 2016 census, it was home to people of 200 nationalities, Murphy said.

By the time the capsules are unsealed, Ireland will be marking its bicentenary as an independent state. Mark Henry, who last year published a compendium of statistics and commentary called In Fact — An Optimist’s Guide to Ireland at 100, says progress has been remarkable.

The book boasts of Ireland’s second place in the UN Human Development Index: people earn five times more than their grandparents; eat twice the amount of fruit and vegetables that they did 60 years ago; and have a life expectancy 25 years longer than in 1922.

His time capsule message to the future will be that Ireland needs to make strategic choices to maintain that progress. “It’s about preserving and nurturing the factors that have contributed to our success,” he says.

But Simon Boyse, 62, says his will be a cautionary tale: “I was hemmed in by religion for 40 years,” he says, wearing a hard-hat and supervising construction in downtown Dublin. “Don’t be taken in by something like that — that would be the number one message.”

Others will hope for a better world or appeal to future generations to live life to the full and enjoy themselves. Let’s hope dire global climate warnings don’t deliver an apocalyptic scenario before the time capsule messages that we will never read are unsealed.

While musing what to write on my form, I admired the intentions of Emma, who works in government and did not want to give her full name. Hers will be a message of hope for her two children aged five and three.

“It’s been a crazy last couple of years with the pandemic, but I’d like them to have some optimism,” she says. “We made it through this and probably there are tougher things that lie ahead, but we’ll always make it through.”