Willie’s emigration centennial: Day 5 of 12


Willie Diggin was baptized into the Roman Catholic faith on January 14, 1894. The date is “assumed” as the first Sunday following his birth two days earlier. His parents either walked or rode a small donkey-pulled cart about a mile from their house in Lahardane to the Doon Church at the edge of the Ballybunion sea cliffs.

The church dates to 1830, one of the first built in Ireland after Catholic Emancipation, the easing of English restrictions on priests and the faithful. Kerry had among the highest rates of Catholic adherence in Ireland.


Doon Church, circa 1930-1950. National Library of Ireland Below, author’s 2009 photo of the church being used as a turf shed.

As Willie grew up he likely joined his family in visiting the holy well at Lahesheragh, a 10-minute walk from their house. Such activity pre-dated Christianity in Ireland, when the wells were thought to bring fertility, inspiration or luck. These customs were later incorporated into Catholic devotions.

The well at Lahesheragh was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Visitors prayed the rosary aloud as they walked around the spring in a 25-foot diameter circle bound by thick fuchsia hedges. In Irish, they softly intoned: “Sé do bheatha, a Mhuire, atá lán de ghrásta, Tá an Tiarna leat…”

In the 1901 publication “The Rosary Guide for Priests and People,” Father John Proctor wrote:

To speak of the rosary in Ireland, or the greater Ireland beyond the seas…is to reveal one of the secrets of Ireland’s undying faith in Jesus Christ, and her unfaltering love for, and loyalty to, the Church he founded. … In prosperity and in adversity, in the evening of sadness and in the morning of gladness, in their joys and in their sorrows, the beads were ever their talisman, the rosary their anchor of hope which kept them united to Jesus the Incarnate Son and Mary the Spotless Mother. Through…the rosary the faith became as deeply rooted in the mind and heart of Ireland as are the rocks embedded in her western shores.

Each summer, Ballybunion also celebrated Pattern Days near the 15th of August, the Catholic feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven. This included a special Mass at the new St. John’s Church, which opened in August 1897 near the center of the village.

As the day neared for Willie to make his way Queenstown, he likely visited Doon Church or St. John’s to seek a blessing from the priest. Family lore tells of his mother pressing a strand of rosary beads into his hands before the trip, a sign of devotion to his Catholic faith and a reminder of his Kerry home.