MAJESTY AND MISERY…
Willie Diggin’s young life in Ireland spanned the last years of the 19th century and first decade of the 20th century. His native Kerry was a place of “majesty and misery,” Ireland’s National Archives said a century later:
On the one hand, there was the majesty of its scenery, its wild and varied landscape which pushed out into the Atlantic Ocean in a series of peninsulas. Those peninsulas, and the islands off them which marked the most westerly point in Europe, contained a unique heritage of ecclesiastical ruins, archaeological remains and popular folklore which, as well as its scenery, made the county a prime destination for tourists. On the other hand, there was the misery of endemic poverty, of a subsistence existence in the countryside and along the coasts which occasionally strayed close to famine, and which forced generations of Kerry people to leave in search of a basic living.
Back then a nationalist awakening was welling throughout Ireland. People were rediscovering Irish heritage and resisting English rule from across the sea. The Gaelic Athletic Association was created in 1884 to promote Irish sports. The Gaelic League was formed in 1893, a year before Willie’s birth, to revitalize Irish language and culture, which the English had suppressed for centuries.
The 1880s brought new efforts to secure land reform by reducing excessive rents from absentee English landlords and opening the way for property ownership. There were brutal evictions and resistance often involved violent tactics and civil unrest that caused the struggle to be known as “the land war,” or Cogadh na Talún. Kerry was at the center of such violence, euphemistically known as agrarian outrage.
On the political front, nationalist leaders such as Charles Stuart Parnell lobbied to obtain domestic autonomy for Ireland, called home rule. Parnell died three years before Willie’s birth, but the home rule effort continued in Ireland as he boarded the Baltic in May 1913.
His departure came at the eve of a decade-long revolutionary period that including the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, partition of the northern part of the island and civil war in the new southern Free State.
Above: Early 20th century image of the Lartigue monorail traveling west to Ballybunion from Listowel. Below: The station at Ballybuinon. National Library of Ireland
One of the more peculiar aspects of Willie’s life in north Kerry was the unique monorail that linked Ballybunion to the mainline trains at Listowel. Opened in 1888, the strange-looking locomotives and other cars draped saddle-style over a single rail fixed atop 3-foot-high support trestles. The system was named after its creator, French engineer Charles Lartigue.
The 9-mile Lartigue short line helped bring visitors and commerce to remote Ballybunion as it attracted photographers and writers to the area. For example, a January 1898 story in London’s Strand Magazine described Ballybunion as a “beautiful seaside and health resort” and boasted “the advantages of the [Lartigue] system are its great safety, and that the line can be quickly and cheaply laid.” Stories about Kerry’s odd railway also appeared in American newspapers and magazines.
In 1913, the Lartigue had a record ridership of more than 73,000 passengers. But some of these were people leaving Kerry forever. The station at Ballybunion not only welcomed summer visitors but also sold tickets to the great ocean liners making regular voyages to America and Canada.
For emigrants like Willie, the single-line railway was a one-way road away from home.
Tomorrow: HIS CATHOLIC FAITH