Willie’s emigration centennial: Day 3 of 12


William Joseph Diggin was born in County Kerry, Ireland, on January 12, 1894. He was the third child born to John Diggin and the former Johanna Behan. As their first son, he was by custom named after his paternal grandfather, who died five years earlier.

The Diggin family leased a small house and five-acre farm near Ballybunion village since at least 1864, according to property records. John and Johanna were raising seven children at the house by the time the census enumerator knocked at the door on March 31, 1901.

Diggin was a common name in Kerry, shared by some 50 families in the county. It derives from the Irish dubh ceann, or black-headed people, which refers to their hair color. William soon acquired the nickname Willie.

The family lived in Lahardane townland, from the Irish leath ardan, which means half the hill. The rural community, still there today, is located midway on the western slope of Knocanore Hill, an 880-foot peak isolated from Kerry’s taller mountains to the south.


Early 20th century view of Ballybunion village with Knocanore Hill in the background. National Library of Ireland

A Dublin entomologist exploring the hill in August 1897 described the abundance of wildflowers on Knocanore’s slopes as “a mine of wealth to the insect-hunter” because it attracted so many species to collect. He wrote of orange Hawkweed, purple Knapweed and blue Scabious, which drew “butterflies of the coloured kinds, especially the Peacock, the Small Cooper and the Grayling.”

Willie could see a broad expanse of the Atlantic Ocean from his home on the hill. He would have heard stories about the Killsaheen, a mythical village the old people said occasionally emerged from beneath the waves near the coast. As family and others from north Kerry continued emigrating to America, it is easy to believe that Willie also dreamed about or dreaded crossing the sea himself one day.

A hike to Knocanore’s height provides more sweeping views of northwest Kerry, where two rivers empty into the sea. To the south is the shallow Cashen, a favorite of salmon fishermen. To the north is the broad, deep Shannon, its wide mouth formed by the Loop Head peninsula of County Clare. Ireland’s verdant interior stretches toward the east. 

In 1908, when Willie was about 14, the Irish Independent wrote that Knocanore’s summit offered “one of the finest views” in Kerry, “embracing three counties and extending from the Aran Islands to Limerick City, and away to the far-off Killarney Mountains.” 

These views are much the same today, though there is more development near Ballybunion village. The hilltop is one of my favorite places in Ireland.


June 2012 image looking southwest from the top of Knocanore Hill toward the Cashen (left) and the Atlantic Ocean.