Willie’s emigration centennial: Day 6 of 12


Willie Diggin was hardly the first to leave Ireland.

From the mid-19th century potato famine to his May 1913 departure more than 4.5 million Irish sailed from their homeland to America, Canada, Australia and other parts of the world. The population of County Kerry plunged from 294,000 in 1841, four years before the famine, to 165,000 in 1901. Kerry had one of the highest rates of emigration in Ireland.

Willie’s older sister Annie emigrated in October 1910, six months before the census enumerator returned to the family house in Lahardane. Kerry’s population declined to 159,000 in the April 1911 census.

Annie journeyed to Pittsburgh, some 370 miles west of New York. Her trip was sponsored by her uncle Michael Diggin, who immigrated to the city in 1891. At least three male cousins also landed in Pittsburgh between 1902 and 1910.

As it turned out, the woman Willie would marry in 1924 emigrated from near Ballylongford in September 1912, arriving in Pittsburgh eight months before his departure from Ireland.

A few weeks before he left, the April 16, 1913, issue of The Kerry News published an editorial under the headline, “Still Going.” It referenced an annual report showing that nearly 30,000 people left Ireland the previous year, most of them sailing to the United States. It said:

The emigration returns prove very clearly that our young people cannot find work and most go to places where they will get work and decent wages. They must face risks and hardships, but it is better to face them than remain in slavery and poverty all their lives.

Willie traveled to Pittsburgh with a neighbor from Lahardane, John Stack, whose brother lived in the city. The Baltic’s manifest shows several passengers destined for Pittsburgh,though most were bound for Irish hubs such New York, Boston and Chicago.

On the manifest, Willie’s occupation is listed as “laborer,” the same as recorded in the 1911 census. He surely worked on the family farm, but it is unclear what other employment he may have had around Ballybunion.

In America, his ability to read and write English,learned at the small school in Rahavanig townland, would give him and other Irish an advantage over many European immigrants.


The Baltic at sea.

Like Willie, most of the Baltic’s Irish passengers were in their late teens and twenties. Many were from Ireland’s rural western counties such as Kerry, Clare, Galway and Mayo. Their last view of Ireland was the Cork coast as the Baltic slipped from the Queenstown harbor and steamed toward the open sea. They were unsure whether to focus off the stern or the bow, to look back or to face ahead.

It took eight days for the Baltic to cross the Atlantic.

Tomorrow: AMERICA