Willie’s emigration centennial: Day 1 of 12


I never met Willie Diggin. My maternal grandfather died 18 years before I was born.

Growing up, I learned two basic facts about the man. He was an Irish immigrant from County Kerry, just like his wife, Nora, my grandmother. He died at a young age while operating a streetcar in downtown Pittsburgh in December 1941, right after the Pearl Harbor attack and days before Christmas.


Undated photo of Willie Diggin, probably from the early 1920s.

Not much was said about Willie during my 1960s boyhood up until Nora died in 1983. Another 15 years passed before I began thinking about him while pursuing Irish citizenship through registration of foreign birth.

That document in hand, I traveled to Ireland for the first time in May 2000. I met relations in Dublin and drove to Cobh, formerly Queenstown, to stand on the dock where Nora and Willie emigrated in September 1912 and May 1913, respectively.

On my trip I also visited the small house near Ballybunion village where Willie was born in 1894. It is owned by a relation who has welcomed me inside on several occasions.

Hanging next to the front door is an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus bearing Willie’s name and that of his parents and 10 brothers and sisters. It is dated May 6, 1922, during the Irish civil war.

I have also walked along the Shannon estuary where Nora was raised near Ballylongford and Carrigafoyle Castle. The feeling of connection to my Irish roots stirs deep in my DNA every trip back to north Kerry.

But I really did not begin to understand Willie’s life until I discovered a newspaper clipping about his death. Some preliminary research resulted in my January 2009 story for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which published the original news story.

My heart sank a little reading the brief because as a reporter I’ve written dozens of similar items about the abrupt public deaths of men and women not usually in the news. Get a few details in the paper, but keep it short. You always know there’s more to people’s lives than the circumstances of their death.

This was an understatement. Though my story fleshed out more details about Willie than the 1941 news brief, it was far from a complete picture of his life. Fortunately, several readers gave me new leads about Willie as more genealogical and historical records was becoming available online.

My introduction to my grandfather was just beginning.

Four years later, I have compiled a biography of Willie titled, “His Last Trip: An Irish-American Story.” Over the next 11 days I am sharing more details about this man I never met, but whom I finally have gotten to know.

Willie was not a famous person or a hero in the popular sense. Like tens of thousand of other Irish emigrants, he was a decent, hard-working fellow who established the foundation of a new life in America for his family and future generations. He never got to see those fruits.

In that regard, his life deserves to be celebrated at this centennial of his voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.