Tag Archives: Willie Diggin

December 1918: Pittsburgh rally for Irish freedom

This is the third in a series of short posts exploring December 1918 events that became a turning point in the struggle for Irish independence. In Ireland, the republican Sinn Féin party routed the 19th century nationalist party in the first parliamentary general election since 1910. This set the stage for the Irish War of Independence, which began in January 1919. In America, Irish immigrants and their first-generation offspring submitted hundreds of letters and petitions, and held public rallies, to pressure the U.S. government to support Irish freedom. A U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing highlighted their effortsMH

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On Sunday evening, Dec. 15, 1918, “friends of Irish liberty … crowding every available space in the Lyceum Theater,” a Pittsburgh vaudeville house, demanded that President Woodrow Wilson support their cause in the upcoming Paris peace conference.1 The event was one of the last of the nationwide “Self-Determination for Ireland Week,” which included a New York City rally that drew 25,000 to Madison Square Garden, and a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on “the Irish question” in the U.S. Congress.

“A mass meeting in Pittsburgh” was foretold to the committee in a letter signed by representatives of the city’s United Irish Societies and Duquesne University, a Catholic institution.2 The committee also received letters from Pittsburgh’s Allied Irish-American societies and friends; Friends of Ireland; Ulster Society of Pittsburgh; and Brotherhood of Railway Clerks.3

This was the second time in seven months that Pittsburgh’s Irish packed the Lyceum. In the spring, they protested the forced conscription of their countrymen while Britain withheld limited domestic political autonomy, called home rule, from Ireland. The arrangement had been approved in 1914, but immediately suspended with the outbreak of the Great War.

Bishop Canevin

Dioceses of Pittsburgh Bishop Regis Canevin headlined the December rally, following the example of Boston’s Cardinal O’Connell at the Madison Square Garden event, and other Catholic clergy at the Washington hearing. Canevin echoed the theme that Ireland deserved the right of self determination for small nations, which Wilson proclaimed earlier in the year.

“Shall Ireland be free, or shall she be the only exception?,” Canevin asked. “If Ireland be the exception, then lasting peace is doomed to defeat. No pledges to other nations can be kept without freedom of Ireland.”4

Canevin asserted that despite seven centuries of “political oppression and tyranny,” Ireland remained deeply Christian (avoiding Catholic/Protestant division), with distinct literature, music, and other national characteristics. “Ireland had her place on the map for centuries as a nation.” 

Mary McWhorter, Chicago-based president of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, also emphasized Ireland’s geographic separation from Britain: “The boundary line of the Irish nation is clearly defined: God, Himself, took care of that,” she said.

Three days earlier in Washington, McWhorter told the congressional committee of her travels to dozens of cities and towns in 30 states to visit Irish mothers with sons fighting with the American forces.5  

The Pittsburgh rally came a day after the Irish Sinn Féin political party won a record number of parliamentary seats in the first British election since the war began in 1914. Many of those in attendance would have read Pittsburgh newspaper coverage of the old-guard home rule party being “hopelessly beaten” by Sinn Féin, even in the moderate nationalists’ former strongholds.6 No longer willing to settle for home rule, Sinn Fein  refused to take their seats in London, declared an Irish republic, and established their own parliament in Dublin.

Anti-conscription rally

The “overflow audience” of the May 1918 anti-conscription rally “brought out the strong attachment that exists between the Irish cause and the Irish people and their beloved priests.”7 Rev. Patrick O’Connor of nearby St. Mary of Mercy Catholic Church, an Irish immigrant parish since the Great Famine, spoke of “the glorious record of past generations of Irishmen in defense of this great country.”

When America entered the war in 1917, Pittsburgh’s Irishmen ages 18 to 31 registered for the military, my grandfather among them. At the time, the city’s population of native Irish was falling from a post-Famine high of 27,000 in 1890, to about 14,000 in 1920.8

Thomas Enright

First generation Irish Americans now outnumbered their parents. Thomas F. Enright, the son on Irish immigrants in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield district, was among the war’s first U.S. casualties. At first buried on the French battlefield were he died, his remains later were returned to Pittsburgh and re-interred with military honors at St. Mary Cemetery.

Irish and Irish Americans not only sacrificed their blood, Father O’Connor told the Lyceum crowd, but also their treasure. He spoke of an Irish workman who earned $80 a month and purchased $500 worth of Liberty Bonds, or half his annual salary.

People without parallel

It is unknown to me, and probably unknowable, whether my grandfather, Willie Diggin, was among the 4,000 or so attendees at either of the 1918 Irish rallies at the Lyceum. He turned 23 a few months before he registered for the military in June 1917, four years after his arrival in Pittsburgh from Kerry. He was not drafted. 

Willie Diggin

In 1918 he was still six years from marriage. He was established in his job as a streetcar motorman with a regular route that terminated at St. Mary of Mercy, a few blocks from the Lyceum, and thus familiar with these streets. On Dec. 17, 1941–23 years after the second Lyceum rally–he died of a heart attack in front of the church; a priest summoned from inside to give him the last rites aboard the streetcar. He was a month shy of 48.

In the week before Christmas 1918, a month after the armistice and a month before the Irish War of Independence, a “burst of enthusiasm took place” among Irish freedom supporters packed inside the Lyceum as two soldiers marched onstage; one holding the red, white, and blue of Old Glory; the other bearing the green, white, and orange of the new flag of the Irish Republic. The Irish Club Orchestra, with pipes, and several soloists, performed patriotic and sentimental tunes between speeches.9

Perhaps Pittsburgh City Councilman P. J. McArdle best captured the spirit of the evening, and this brief period of peace between two wars: “We are here to make known the appeal without parallel for a people without parallel.”

The Lyceum Theater in Pittsburgh, at middle of the block, in 1914.

NEXT: U.S. Press on Sinn Féin Win

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House hearing on’The Irish Question’

The bishop & the president

Irishmen registered for U.S. draft 100 years ago

One hundred years ago, on 5 June 1917, the United States conducted its first military draft to support the war in Europe it entered two months earlier. Many Irish-born or Irish-American men lined up to sign up, including my grandfather, Willie Diggin, and his future brother-in-law, John Ware, both emigrants of Kerry. Below is an edited chapter of my book, “His Last Trip: An Irish-American Story,” about draft day in Pittsburgh. MH

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The United States tried to isolate itself from the war that erupted in August 1914, but American industry was closely tied to events in Europe. Pittsburgh steel mills operated around the clock to meet the demands of the unprecedented military buildup on the continent. Carnegie Steel alone hired 8,000 additional workers in 1915 as Willie began his career as a streetcar motorman, two years after his arrival from Ireland.

When America finally entered the war in April 1917, Congress quickly authorized a draft to build the military. The first round of registration set for June 5 required men ages 21 to 31 to sign up, including non-citizens. This presented a conflict for Irish immigrants with strong nationalist views who had openly supported Germany against England, Ireland’s historical oppressor. Such a position now became treasonous.

Only a few people openly opposed the war in Pittsburgh. In the final days before the draft four men ages 19 to 21 were arrested and charged with treason for distributing fliers opposing the conscription. Churches asked the mayor to close bars so that “young men under the exhilaration or depression of the day may have removed from them the temptation of drink.” The president of the liquor retailers association promised his members would voluntarily go dry for the day because “it was the least we could do and patriotism demanded it from us.”

Willie Diggin, undated.

Willie registered at the Hazelwood Police and Patrol Station at the corner of Hazelwood Avenue and Lytle Street. The two-story brick building was located a half mile west of the streetcar car barn where he worked. Uniformed police officers bustled about the station, enhancing the military atmosphere. American flags snapped in the breeze as showers and thunderstorms raked across the city. News accounts reported that most registration lines were “orderly and cheerful.”

Nearly 3,200 men registered in Hazelwood between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., a pace of 228 per hour. Many of the men were workers from the nearby B & O Railroad switch yards and J&L steel mill. They shuffled through the lines with smudged faces, dirty hands and soiled clothing. Willie was joined in the line by other streetcar men in their Pittsburgh Railways uniforms.

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“His Last Trip” was 75 years ago

About half seven in the morning of 17 December 1941, my Kerry-born grandfather braked his streetcar to a stop in front of St. Mary of Mercy Catholic Church, the inbound terminus of a trip to Pittsburgh’s city center.

As he stood to tug a cord that flipped an exterior sign to show his outbound destination, a heart attack dropped him to the floor of the motorman’s cab. Someone summoned a priest from the church to administer the last rites.

Willie Diggin was 47, a husband and the father of six girls. After a home wake, he was buried five days before Christmas.

I researched and wrote His Last Trip as a 12-part blog serial to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Willie’s 1913 emigration from North Kerry. The linked section also contains information about the similarly-titled book I later developed about Willie.

And this weekend, he is remembered with a Mass intention at St. Mary of Mercy.

Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord …

William Diggin.jpeg

An 82-year-old clipped copy of Pearse’s graveside oration

A few years ago I inherited some family-related personal items upon the death of one of my mother’s sisters, my aunt. She had saved many of the items for decades, including correspondence from Ireland, and the U.S. citizenship papers of her father (my grandfather Willie Diggin) and mother, and her mother’s brother and sister. All four emigrated from Kerry a few years before the 1916 Easter Rising, each sailing separately to Pittsburgh.

Also among the items was a copy of “History of Ireland,” a text book written in 1903. Stuffed inside the book were several yellowed newspaper clippings, mostly poems cut from The Gaelic American, an Irish nationalist weekly published in New York from 1903 to 1951 (Limited scanned issues available online from Villanova University.) One clipping, dated 13 December 1941 and headlined “America First, Last and All the Time,” says the new war with Germany and Japan “will have the fighting support of every worth-while drop of Irish blood in the United States.”

Willie died four days later, 10 days after the Pearl Harbor attack. It is the inclusion of an Irish Times editorial from 19 June 1974, that makes me believe the book and its collection of clippings belonged to his brother-in-law, John Ware. I knew “Uncle John” to be an avid newspaper reader and follower of Irish politics. I was 15 at the time the editorial was written, which was two and a half years after Bloody Sunday. The piece begins, “Loyalists and Republicans are marching around in the North, like lost legions, in the dark.” We know a lot more darkness followed.

pearseclipAll this is the background to the clipping shown at left, a 19 August 1933 reprint of Pádraic Pearse’s oration at the graveside of Fenian leader O’Donovan Rossa. The clip dates 18 years after the 1 August 1915 funeral and Easter Rising, which soon followed in April 1916. It is 11 years after the creation of the Irish Free State and four years before the 26 counties adopted a Constitution in 1937. In America, the Great Depression was four years old. Roosevelt was just past his first 100 days in office.

In August 1933 John Ware was 47 years old, a veteran of World War I who fought in France. I wonder what Pearse’s stirring speech represented to him? What did he think of the history of Ireland to that point, especially the partitioned North the Times would write about 41 years later?

The oration “has been published more than once in The Gaelic American,” the newspaper’s editors wrote by way of introduction. “At the earnest request of a reader we give it again. Repetition cannot take away from it and it cannot be read too often. A great many people have memorized it.”

John Ware clipped the speech from the newspaper and carefully placed it in the history book that contains not one word about O’Donovan Rossa in a three-page section titled, “The Fenian Movement in America.”

Here’s an online link to the speech that’s easier to read.

Best of the Blog, 2014

This is my second annual “Best of the Blog,” a look at some of the most important news stories, historical anniversaries and personal favorite posts of the past year. The posts are not numbered to avoid the appearance of rank. They follow below this “Happy Christmas from Ireland” video, produced by Dublin documentary filmmaker Cathal Kenna. It features views from each of the Irish island’s 32 counties. Enjoy!

And now, here are the stories:

  • One of the biggest stories of the year in Ireland involved protests over water charges. As Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole wrote, “If the Irish are finally catching the mood of anti-austerity anger that has been rolling across much of the European Union, it may be a case not so much of the straw that broke the camel’s back as the drop that caused the dam to burst.” … Less controversial, the Irish postal system is also bracing for modernization in 2015.
  • On a personal note, my wife and I moved to Washington, D.C. this year, which allowed me to get more active in Irish news and history. I’ve met some great people and enjoyed numerous events as a member of Irish Network DC. … My book, “His Last Trip: An Irish American Story,” found a home at the Carnegie Library and the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh; the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington, Pa.; the Archives of Irish America in New York; and the County Kerry Library in Tralee. … A version of the story about my grandfather Willie Diggin also was published by History Ireland.
  • I came across two new books about County Kerry: “Forging a Kingdom: The GAA in Kerry 1884-1934” by Richard McElligott; and “The Kerry Girls: Emigration and the Earl Grey Scheme” by Kay Maloney Caball.
  • 2014 was the centennial of gun running operations at Larne (Ulster Volunteers) and Howth (Irish Volunteers), as well as the start of the Great War. … It also marked the 100th anniversary of the passage and suspension of Home Rule in Ireland. … October was the 90th anniversary of the closing of the Lartigue monorail in Kerry. … This year also was the 20th anniversary of the historic 1994 IRA ceasefire.
  • This year’s scandals included reporting (and misreporting) about infant and child deaths, illegal adoptions and vaccine trials at Catholic-run mother-and-baby homes in the early-to-middle 20th century. … Gerry Adams spent a few nights in custody about the 1972 abduction and murder of Jean McConville, a widow wrongly suspected of informing against the IRA. He also faced criticism about how he handled, or mishandled, allegations of rape by members of the IRA.
  • Organizers of St. Patrick’s Day parades in New York and Boston may have banned gays from marching for the last time in 2014. It now appears a gay veterans group will march in Boston and Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan has welcomed gays in New York for 2015. … The 55th annual Rose of Tralee winner Maria Walsh revealed she was lesbian the day after being crowned. It wasn’t a big deal.
  • Ian Paisley, “the ultimate Orangeman,” died at 88. … Albert Reynold, a former Irish prime minister active in the Northern Ireland peace process, died at 81.
  • After a record-setting 18-month gap, the Obama administration finally nominated (and the Senate approved) St. Louis trial lawyer Kevin O’Malley as Ambassador to Ireland. … Former Senator Gary Hart was named U.S. Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, helping with a year-end deal in the province. … Kerry T.D. Jimmy Deenihan has been named Ireland’s first Minister of State for the Diaspora. … Emigration continued to be a major concern in Ireland, and some wondered if those who have left the country should be able to participate in elections back home.
  • Kerry won the All-Ireland Championship.

Blog celebrates second anniversary; book finds home in libraries

This month the blog celebrates its second anniversary, a total of more than 200 posts. Thanks to all those readers who have clicked on the content and sent notes of support.

The biggest developments of the past year were publishing my book, “His Last Trip: An Irish American Story,” and moving to Washington, D.C., where I’ve been more plugged into Ireland through Irish Network D.C., which has sponsored speaker events about Northern Ireland, the Republic’s banking and economic crisis, and the police and criminal justice services on both side of the boarder.

Regarding my book, I’m happy to report that copies have been accepted at the Carnegie Library and the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh; the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington, Pa.; and the County Kerry Library in Tralee. I checked the Kerry library’s online catalog recently and was pleased to see the book was checked out. Due Aug. 8.

Here a link back to my 2013 serialized version, “Willie’s Emigration Centennial.”

A copy of my book about my grandfather Willie Diggin, and his streetcar company lunchbox with name engraved in the top.

A copy of my book about my grandfather Willie Diggin, and his streetcar company lunchbox with name engraved in the top. The book is available in libraries and archives in Pittsburgh and Kerry.

 

Best of the Blog, 2013

This is my first annual “Best of the Blog,” a look at some of the most important news stories, historical anniversaries and personal favorite posts of the past year. I am not numbering the list to avoid the appearance of rank. Most links are to my original posts.

Enjoy, and Happy New Year:

  • The most significant personal milestone of the year was the centennial of my grandfather’s May 1913 emigration from County Kerry. I detailed Willie Diggin’s trip in a series of posts and recently published book, “His Last Trip: An Irish-American Story.”
  • The year 2013 marked the 150th anniversary of the Irish Brigades fighting in the Battle of Gettysburg and Irish-Catholic anti-conscription riots in New York City. It was the 100th anniversary of the Dublin labor lockout and the formation of the Irish Volunteers.
  • Ireland also noted the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s return to his ancestral homeland in June 1963. November marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of America’s first Irish-Catholic president.
  • Ireland liberalized its abortion laws in 2013 after a contentious debate with the Catholic Church, including a controversial appearance at the Boston College commencement by Irish PM Enda Kenny. Kenny won the abortion battle, but his effort to abolish the Seanad Éireann was defeated in a nationwide referendum.
  • The Irish community in Boston was in the news with the trial and conviction of mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, and the election of new mayor Martin J. Walsh.
  • The Irish Independent obtained recorded telephone conversations between former Anglo Irish Bank executives that revealed the depth of deception leading up to a government bailout of the failed financial institution. The Irish banking scandal and property bust reached all the way to Tampa, where I have covered problems with a retail and entertainment complex called Channelside Bay Plaza.
  • The Gathering Ireland 2013 focused on increasing visitors to their ancestral homeland. Project officials said it delivered more than a quarter million overseas tourists as of Dec. 23.
  • RIP: The passing of Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013, was probably the most significant death in Ireland during the year. Watch New York Times video tribute. The death of Margaret Thatcher also caused quite a stir on the island, though hardly as affectionate.
  • U.S. President Barack Obama and other global leaders attended the G8 Summit at County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, something that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. Nevertheless, as the year ended, U.S. envoy Dr. Richard Haass and Northern Ireland political leaders were still trying to finalize on agreement to solve ongoing problems with flags, parades and the past.
  • The past year was the 125th anniversary of the murder of Kerry farmer John Foran, a victim of the agrarian violence so widespread across Ireland in general and Kerry in particular during the last quarter of the 19th century. I look forward to doing more research and writing about this episode and the period in the new year.
This image of Kerry was used to illustrate a New York Times story headlined "Lost In Ireland. I've had it posted at my desk since it was published in October 2010. In 2014, I'll be moving to Washington, D.C. and look forward to seeing what's beyond the hill.

This image of rural road in Kerry illustrated a New York Times story headlined “Lost In Ireland. It was published in October 2010. I’ve kept the picture posted at my work desk ever sense. In 2014 I’ll be moving to Washington, D.C. and look forward to seeing what’s beyond the hill.

Pittsburgh Ancient Order of Hibernians records available for review

A large trove of records from Pittsburgh area divisions of the Ancient Order of Hibernians are now available for viewing at the Senator John Heinz History Center. The Irish-Catholic fraternal organization was founded in 1836 to fight anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice.

During a recent visit to the Heinz Center I was able to find meeting minutes recording the 1914 acceptance and induction of my grandfather, Willie Diggins, into the AOH. He joined Division 15 in the city’s Hazelwood section nine months after his emigration from Kerry. The record states:

The application of Wm Diggins, age 20 years of 63 Almeda St. was reported favorable. The ballot being found favorable the candidate was duly elected.

I also read the group’s June 26, 1921, discussion about “the critical situation in Irish affairs.” Division 15 membership opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty “in which the leaders in Ireland were apparently being jockeyed into negotiations which could not end in anything more than a compromise and a sacrifice of the time-honored principals of a united and independent Ireland.”

AOH shield

There is a critical gap in the Division 15 meeting minutes from 1925 to 1935. This period would have included the group’s discussion of the 1928 candidacy of Al Smith, the nation’s first Irish-Catholic presidential nominee, as well as potential details about my grandfather’s February 1935 streetcar accident.

Separate membership dues ledgers show that Willie made his last $1 monthly payment to the organization about the time of the accident. He was “dropped” from the group on July 1, 1935, after 22 years of membership. He was $15 in arrears.

Willie’s failure to continue paying membership dues after his streetcar accident suggests he might not have received any support from the group, which helped members in times of hardship. Other ethnic associations provided similar benefits to their members. With a wife and six daughters to support on his streetcar motorman’s salary, Willie’s money was tight and his family ranked as a higher priority than the AOH.

As the Great Depression lingered, other AOH members nationwide also were drifting from the organization, according to Jay P. Dolan in his book, “The Irish Americans: A History.” By 1935, U.S. circulation of the National Hibernian magazine declined by nearly two thirds of its pre-Depression readership. The fervor of Irish nationalism waned more than a decade after the revolutionary period of 1913-1923.

By the mid-1930s the Irish community and the Catholic Church had recovered from the prejudice and indignities of Smith’s 1928 election defeat. As a demographic group and as individuals they asserted their place in America as the country trudged through the economic downturn and soon marched into World War II.

Willie died 10 days after the Pearl Harbor attack, a month before his 48th birthday. A few weeks later Division 15 of the AOH passed a motion endorsing President Roosevelt and agreeing to purchase defense bonds to support the war effort.

Thanks for supporting “Willie’s emigration centennial’

Before returning to regular blog posts, I want to thank all those who have supported “Willie’s emigration centennial.” The 12-day serial got good traffic from the U.S., Ireland and eight other countries. Visits averaged more than three minutes, so I guess people were actually reading.

The series remains archived on the site and additional referrals are certainly appreciated. Contact me if interested in seeing the full manuscript, “His Last Trip: An Irish-American Story.” It runs about 45,000 words, plus extensive source notes.

Below, from Day 7, the Pittsburgh skyline about the time of Willie’s May 1913 arrival in the city, and from Day 3, a contemporary view from Knocanore Hill in Kerry, Ireland. 

Thanks again…MH

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Willie’s emigration centennial: Day 12 of 12

HIS LAST TRIP…

Willie Diggin remained shocked by the Pearl Harbor attack as he walked to work the morning of December 17, 1941. He also was thinking about Christmas gifts for his wife and six daughters, now nine to 16. Nora was planning a big holiday meal for the extended family.

At the streetcar barn Willie stepped into the motorman’s cab and soon was rolling west on Second Avenue. Within a minute or two he reached the intersection of Johnston Avenue and could see his house, fourth from the corner. The house slipped from his view as the streetcar rolled in front of St. Stephen’s Church, its twin spires towering over the north side of the street.

It was the start of another familiar trip into downtown Pittsburgh. Willie probably made 100,000 runs back and forth on Second Avenue during more than 25 years of working for Pittsburgh Railways. He was familiar with many of the passengers boarding at these stops, and they with him.

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A Depression era streetcar motorman in his cab. Not Willie. Library of Congress

Willie rolled through Hazelwood, past the miles-long J & L Steel mill and into the downtown district. At Third Avenue and Ferry (now Stanwix) Street he stopped the car facing the soot-covered Wabash train terminal. This was the end of the line.

To the left side of his motorman’s cab the front entrance of St. Mary of Mercy angled to the corner, the high-water level of the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day flood recorded by a brass marker near the front door. A white marble statue of the Virgin Mary gazed down from a red-brick arcade.

Willie opened the double doors on the right side of the car, allowing his final inbound passengers to disembark for their destinations. He tugged an interior cord to adjust the route placard outside the car until it read, “Kennywood via Second Avenue,” signaling the eastbound route to the opposite end of the line.

Suddenly, he was seized by a heart attack.

A policeman noticed him slump in the motorman’s cab and rushed to the streetcar. The cop grabbed Willie under each arm and dragged him to the long rattan bench seat at the front right side of the car.

A strand of rosary beads slipped to the floor from a pocket of Willie’s dark blue uniform.

Somebody ran inside St. Mary’s and notified a priest, who boarded the streetcar to administer the last rites. He dabbed his thumb to a small silver vessel filled with sacred oil, made the sign of the cross on Willie’s forehead and whispered, “Through this holy unction may the Lord pardon thee whatever sins or faults thou hast committed.”

***

The police report identified Willie by his motorman’s badge number 3018. His brother Michael was summoned to the morgue for confirmation. In the “Proof of Identity” statement he wrote that Willie had “been in good health all his life and had never complained of any illness.”

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St. Mary of Mercy Church is the only building that remains from the day Willie died at this corner in December 1941.

In Hazelwood, a Pittsburgh Railways supervisor and a neighbor woman friendly with the Diggin family approached 121 Johnston Avenue to deliver the news to Nora. She instinctively knew the reason for their visit. “Willie’s dead,” she moaned before they could speak a word.

Willie’s body was released to the Leo G. Sullivan Funeral Home on Second Avenue. All the Irish in Hazelwood surely knew Sullivan, himself born on St. Patrick’s Day, God love him. The funeral home was within view of Willie’s front porch. He passed it every day.

The mortician prepared the motorman’s body, which was placed in a coffin and driven the short distance to the house for the wake. But the coffin could not fit through the narrow front entry, divided 16 years earlier to separate access to the upstairs apartments. So the men removed the large window at the front of the house and passed the coffin into the living room from the porch.

Two afternoon newspapers contained brief descriptions of Willie’s death several pages inside their competing editions. “Motorman Drops Dead After Stopping Car,” said the Press. “Motorman Dies on Downtown Trolley,” declared the Sun-Telegraph.

There were no details about the final minutes of his life from passengers or other witnesses, no summary of his employment with Pittsburgh Railways or mention of his emigration from Ireland. “Traffic was tied up for nearly 15 minutes,” the stories said.

Later that evening a motorman from the Glenwood car barn knocked on the front door. He held his uniform cap to his heart with one hand and expressed his deep regrets for the family’s sudden loss. He extended his other hand to return Willie’s black lunch box, still filled with the food Nora had packed for her husband at the start of the day.

***

The wake lasted two days and two nights. Willie’s open coffin was set in the living room. He was dressed in a brown suit with the rosary beads wound around his folded hands, as was customary. The mourners prayed the litany in shifts. Some whispered the prayers in Irish.

On Saturday morning the men removed the front window again, lifted the coffin outside (feet first, by custom) and placed it a hearse for the short trip around the corner to St. Stephen’s. Father Denis Murphy, himself a Kerry immigrant, presided over the funeral Mass. Willie’s daughters say the church was filled with mourners, including John Stack, who had joined Willie on the trip from Ireland.

Willie was buried at Calvary Cemetery, a mile from the church and his home.

***

The January 1942 issue of the Public Service newsletter was distributed about the same time Willie would have turned 48. The Glenwood report said:

It is with deepest sorrow and regret that we have to report the death of one of the finest men in our car house. William Diggin died suddenly while on duty, shortly before Christmas. His death came as a great shock, and no one could talk about anything else for days. He had almost 30 years of service; nevertheless he was a young man and appeared in the best of health. No one ever thought he would be taken so suddenly, but he lived an exemplary life, and it seems that God only takes the best. The crowds of friends who went to the home to pay their last respects, and the number of floral offerings, testified to the esteem in which he was held by all who knew him.

By coincidence, the newsletter’s next item was about “one of the unique railroads of the world,” the Lartigue monorail of County Kerry. “Many of our men come from this section” of Ireland it said, proclaiming the monorail “the only one left in the world.”

It hardly seemed to matter that the monorail had closed 17 years earlier, in 1924, the year of Willie’s marriage to Nora. An accompanying photograph showed the Ballybunion train station, where Willie began his journey to America in May 1913.

***

Nora lived as a widow for 42 years after Willie’s death. She missed him terribly as three of their daughters got married and 12 grandchildren began to arrive. Two other daughters entered the Sisters of Charity convent. The sixth remained single, entering a professional career. She kept the paid house deed and other family documents inside her father’s black metal lunch box, later passed on to me.

Several of the daughters began traveling back to Ireland in the late 1960s, eventually followed by some of the grandchildren. On such trips it is customary to visit the house where Willie was born in 1894. A relative living there is always gracious in her welcome.

Inside the front door is a framed image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus bearing the name of Willie’s parents and their 10 children. It is dated from May 1922, nine years after Willie’s emigration. The image is “consecrated to Christ” on behalf of all members of the family, “present or absent, living or dead.”

Outside the hillside house is an expansive view of the Atlantic Ocean looking westward toward America.

MARK HOLAN

May 11, 2013…100 years after Willie’s arrival in Pittsburgh.

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