Tag Archives: emigration centennial

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



Willie’s emigration centennial: Day 12 of 12


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.


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.”


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.


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


Willie’s emigration centennial: Day 11 of 12


In September 1932 William Diggin reached the point at which he had lived in America as long as in Ireland, his life equally divided between the two countries. He was 38 years old. He had a wife and six daughters. He was a homeowner and landlord. He was surrounded by extended family, hard-working neighbors and a strong church and civic community, even as Pittsburgh and the nation plunged into the Great Depression.

Amateur photography was becoming popular at the time and somebody snapped a picture of Willie and his six girls. One of his streetcar co-workers heard about the image and wrote about Willie’s refusal to submit a picture of his family to the company newsletter, Public Service.

“Willie is naturally shy and we cannot get him to co-operate,” the February 1933 newsletter said. “Perhaps he is waiting a few more years when he will have a real group to have published.”

In February 1935 Public Service reported that Willie was nearly killed on the job, “the victim of a hit-and-run driver as he stepped off a car at Rutherglen Street,” about a mile west of the Glenwood streetcar barn. The newsletter said a company official rushed Willie to the hospital. “His injuries proved more serious than expected and for several days his life was despaired of.” But he recovered and went back to work.


Second Avenue in Hazelwood, about a block or two from Willie’s house, 1936. Pgh. City Photographers Collection

One of the biggest events in Pittsburgh during the Depression years was the St. Patrick’s Day flood of 1936. Heavy rain and sudden snow melt caused the city’s three rivers to overflow the downtown district. The flood halted streetcar traffic and stopped construction of St. Mary of Mercy Church at the corner of Third Avenue and Ferry (now Stanwix) Street. The location was the western terminus of the streetcar route Willie regularly operated from Glenwood.


The “point” at Pittsburgh during the St. Patrick’s Day flood of 1936. Heinz History Center and Archive

Ancient Order of Hibernians records show he withdrew from the fraternal organization in June 1936. Government records show Willie enrolled in the new Social Security program in November 1936. On December 15, 1936, he and Nora settled their mortgage with Manchester Savings Bank and Trust Company in a lump-sum payment of $5,392.95 (about $84,000 today).

Paying off their mortgage in 11 years was a remarkable accomplishment for the couple, especially in the middle of the Depression and nine months after the devastating St. Patrick’s Day flood caused such widespread hardship throughout the city. By most any measure of the day, Willie enjoyed a happy and comfortable life. The March 1939 issue of Public Service included an item that reflected his success:

At a recent inspection of uniforms, Bill Diggins was told he needed a new cap. He dutifully attempted to obey orders but had a lot of difficulty in getting one to fit. It seems that when Bill first started with the company he took size 6 ¾; then he got married and the size jumped to 7. Now he finds, after he has acquired six lovely little daughters and a beautiful home, that the size of his cap has taken another jump and nothing less than 7 ¼ will fit. We always thought this was a joke, but we do not think so any more. With six little girls he has [the five daughters of] Eddie Cantor beat and we hardly wonder at anyone’s head doing a bit of swelling.

For all of his good fortune, however, Willie could not avoid some sorrows and hardships. His sister Annie returned to Ireland in 1938 to care for their sick father, who died in 1940. There were calls to remove streetcars from the city’s crowded downtown streets as Pittsburgh Railways began converting to buses, threatening his employment.

Pollution from Pittsburgh’s steel mills and other manufacturing plants soiled clothing and required street lights to be turned on at midday. Economic troubles lingered in America and war was erupting again in Europe.



The Jones & Laughlin Steel Co. mill on Second Avenue in Hazelwood, 1935. Pgh. City Photographer Collection

Willie’s emigration centennial: Day 10 of 12


In January 1925, Willie and Nora Diggin welcomed their first child, a girl they named Mary in honor of the “Mother of God” and patroness of the rosary, a popular custom in Catholic families. Two months later, as the new parents reached their first wedding anniversary, they bought the three-story, red-brick house at 121 Johnston Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood neighborhood.

The seller, Anna A. O’Toole, was a 26-year-old unmarried telephone operator. She obtained the deed a year earlier for $1 from her Irish immigrant parents, who bought the house in 1917 for $5,125. The daughter sold the house for $13,000, or about $160,000 today, on March 28, 1925. Records show Willie and Nora made a $6,000 down payment.


Allegheny County public record photo of 121 Johnston Avenue, left, probably from the 1980s or 1990s. The property has not been owned by the Diggin family in over 25 years.

As they settled into the house, workers were busy in the next block restoring St. Stephen’s Church ,which was badly damaged by fire four months earlier. There also was construction activity at Willie’s workplace as Pittsburgh Railways built an administration building next to the old streetcar barn. The first floor of the new building included a passenger waiting area, offices and a locker room, lunch room, medical clinic and tailor shop for the streetcar men. The second floor featured a large community room for public meetings and dances.

The new building and the restored church both opened in mid-December 1925. “Christmas this year will be a day of double rejoicing to the priests and members of St. Stephen’s, for once again they shall honor God in a house worthy of His majesty,” the Pittsburgh Catholic declared.


The back of St. Stephen’s Church in Hazelwood after the November 1924 fire. The back of the Diggin house was to left of photo. Catholic Dioceses of Pittsburgh

Willie and Nora agreed to rent some of their upstairs rooms as apartments. They partitioned the front entry and an interior stairway to the second and third floors. The April 1930 census shows Willie was collecting $40 a month rent from a family of three in one apartment and $26 a month from a family of four in a second apartment.

But the space available for rent diminished has his family grew. By 1932, Willie and Nora were the parents of six girls. Their daughters walked to St. Stephen’s affiliated grade school taught by the Sisters of Charity.

Willie walked the three blocks between his house and the Glenwood administration building and streetcar barn. He kept his pocket watch “in agreement with car house clock time for close observance of schedule running time,” as required by the company’s operating manual. He carried his lunch in a back metal box with his name etched into the rounded top.

Willie and his immigrant neighbors were living a better life in America than most of them had dared to imagine in Ireland and the rest of Europe. They were not wealthy, especially as the nation sank into the Great Depression of the 1930s. But Willie had secured a steady foothold in America, one that would benefit his children and future generations.


Willie’s emigration centennial: Day 9 of 12


William Diggin met Nora Ware in Pittsburgh sometime during Ireland’s struggle for independence and civil war. She had grown up on a Kerry farm near Ballylongford, just a few miles from where Willie was raised in Lahardane. The blue-eyed girl emigrated in September 1912, at age 21.

By coincidence, Nora crossed on the Baltic eight months before Willie boarded the same ship.

Like many young, unmarried Irish woman of the period, Nora worked as a household maid, or domestic. The 1920 census shows her living with the family of William Davidson, the Pittsburgh schools’ superintendent, in the city’s Homewood district.

The census also shows Nora’s older brother, John, a streetcar man, and their younger sister, Bridget, all lived within a few blocks of each other, as did Willie’s sister, Annie. The other two women also worked as domestics, and all four of these Catholic immigrants attended the nearby Holy Rosary Church, then the city’s largest parish. 

There is no indication Willie and Nora had known each other in Ireland, but the fact both were from north Kerry must have warmed their courtship. Their introduction likely came through one of their siblings or at one of the Irish social events of the day, such as the annual summer picnic at Kennywood Park sponsored by the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

Willie and Nora each had been in Pittsburgh a little more than 10 years by the time they were married on March 4, 1924. He was 30. She was 33.


Nora and Willie, seated. Standing, left to right, John Ware, Mary Diggin, Michael Diggin, Bridget Ware and Annie Diggin.

By church custom the nuptial Mass would have occurred that Tuesday morning. Any luncheon reception afterward was likely a small, humble gathering. By now Willie’s brother Mike and sister Mary had immigrated to Pittsburgh. If these Kerry immigrants toasted the occasion, they did so discretely, Prohibition being the law of the land since 1920. Another law at the time prevented Nora from automatically obtaining American citizenship through her marriage to Willie.

There was reason for optimism as the couple began their married life. Polk’s 1924 city directory described Pittsburgh as “in the dawn of a new era” and “laying the foundations for a grander future than it has visualized in the past.” The annual publication said millions of dollars were being spent on new roads, bridges and schools. “All these things mean a greater Pittsburgh, a better and more desirable place to live than it ever has been in the past,” the directory said.

The newlyweds settled into an apartment close to where Willie could walk to the streetcar barn. Nora was soon pregnant. The couple began looking for a house to buy.


Willie’s emigration centennial: Day 8 of 12


Willie Diggin’s first job in America was as a clerk, according to Polk’s City Directory, which did not indicate where he worked or exactly what he did. He was lucky to avoid more dangerous jobs in the mills, mines and railway switchyards that caused widespread death and injury among the city’s immigrant population.

Pittsburgh was a place of stark contrasts, “between the prosperity on the one hand…and, on the other hand, the neglect of life, of health, of physical vigor, even of the industrial efficiency of the individual,” according to the Pittsburgh Survey, a Progressive era report aimed at urban reform. “Certainly no community before in America or Europe has ever had such a surplus, and never before has a great community applied what it had so meagerly to the rational purposes of human life.”

By 1915, Willie began working as a motorman for Pittsburgh Railways Company, the city’s streetcar system. He joined several of his cousins and friend John Stack at the Glenwood streetcar barn on Second Avenue, just a few blocks from where they lived.


The Glenwood streetcar barn on Second Avenue in 1919. Pennsylvania Trolley Museum

The starting wage was about 28 cents an hour, an annual rate of $875 or about $20,000 in today’s money. Motormen typically worked six days a week with 10 hours on duty during a 12-hour shift. Lunch and other breaks were unpaid. Working conditions gradually improved through representation by the Amalgamated Association of Street Railway Employees of America.

In April 1917, the United States was drawn into the Great War in Europe and Willie was required to register for the draft, though he was not yet a citizen. Nearly 3,200 men signed up at the police station a few blocks from the Glenwood streetcar barn. Willie left blank the line requesting a deferment, but he was not among 60,000 Pittsburgh men selected for the military.

Pittsburgh Railways distributed a booklet about the war that contained speeches by President Woodrow Wilson and other patriotic material, such as the lyrics to the Star-Spangled Banner. Streetcar workers were reminded that “to prevent any accidental injury is a form of patriotic action, as well as a moral, a humane, a civic and an economic duty.”


Streetcars, horse carts and a few automobiles on Liberty Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh, 1917. Pgh. City Photographer Collection.

On August 21, 1919, nine months after the armistice ending the war in Europe, Local 85 of the streetcar union voted 2,521 to 61 to strike against Pittsburgh Railways. The labor dispute involved violent clashes with police and outside workers hired to operate a limited number of routes.

The day of the strike vote, Willie filed his Declaration of Intention to become a United States citizen. His friend John Stack had completed the application a day earlier. Willie listed his occupation as “laborer,” either due to uncertainty about whether he would rejoin Pittsburgh Railways or to avoid association with the strike unrest.

Over the next three years Willie likely attended some type of citizenship classes toward naturalization. He became an American on June 15, 1922, slightly more than nine years after his arrival.

The next day in Ireland, voters approved the Anglo-Irish Treaty in a general election that ratified the Irish Free State, ending the war of independence against England short of achieving a republic. The northern part of the island was partitioned and the stage was set for a bitter civil war.

Willie’s views on Irish nationalism are believed to have leaned toward the republican cause, but there is no record of his opinions. Once he became an American citizen, his thoughts turned toward having a family.

Tomorrow: HUSBAND

Willie’s emigration centennial: Day 7 of 12


The Baltic arrived in New York Harbor on May 10, 1913, eight days after leaving Queenstown. Willie Diggin, his friend John Stack and the other third-class passengers from Ireland were transferred to barges and shuttled to the immigrant processing station at Ellis Island.


An immigrant ship in New York Harbor, circa 1900-1920, with Statue of Liberty at left and Ellis Island at right. Library of Congress

There, the first stop was a medical examination to determine whether the immigrants had any physical ailments or mental illness. Those who passed were funneled into the registry room, a massive hall with a 56-foot-high vaulted ceiling and giant American flags hanging from the walls. Some 16,000 people were turned away in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 1913. Another 838,000 were allowed to enter America.

Willie and John packed into another barge for the trip back to Manhattan. On their way to the sprawling Pennsylvania Station they caught sight of the nearly 800-foot-tall Woolworth Building, which opened three weeks earlier as the world’s tallest office tower. Architect Cass Gilbert told the newspapers:

The building and the success of its owner shows that this is the land of equal opportunities, that a man may start with nothing and accomplish everything. It is not true that strife and unrest is the way to achieve, but that man prospers by the good old virtues – thrift, industry and honesty.

The Pennsylvania Railroad offered around-the-clock departures to Pittsburgh for about $8. The journey took 11 hours, allowing Willie and John to reach their destination the following day. 

The weather the Sunday of their arrival was fair and warm. It was Whitsunday, or Pentecost, the Christian feast of the Holy Spirit descending on the apostles as tongues of fire. It also marked the celebration of a new secular holiday: Mother’s Day.

Pittsburgh was a center of America’s growing industrial might. Nearly 558,000 people lived in the smoke-choked city, almost four times the population of County Kerry. The city’s skyline was modest compared to New York, its tallest buildings towering only about 300 feet above the crowded streets. But the scene was dramatically different than Ballybunion.


Above, the “point” at Pittsburgh, circa 1910-1920. Below, the city skyline during the same period. Library of Congress.


Willie settled in the city’s 15th Ward about six miles east of downtown Pittsburgh, a growing immigrant enclave on the north bank of the Monongahela River known by the names of its adjoining neighborhoods, Glenwood and Hazelwood. Willie boarded with his cousin, William Driscoll, at 65 Almeda Street. John Stack moved in with his brother, Bartholomew, a block away at 54 Almeda Street. 

In addition to his sister, uncle and cousins, Willie kept connected to other Kerry immigrants through informal Irish county associations, which reunited people from each of Ireland’s 32 counties. He also joined the Hazelwood division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a fraternal organization established in America in 1836 to protect immigrants from anti-Catholic and anti-Irish bigotry and violence.


Exposition Hall, probably a few years before Willie’s arrival in 1913. Library of Congress.

Two weeks before Willie’s arrival the AOH initiated 1,100 new members inside Pittsburgh’s Exposition Hall. Another 2,000 enrolled at the same location on June 8, 1913, “an incentive to all other cities throughout the country,” suggested one of the many Irish-American newspapers of the period.

Willie had made the crossing. He connected with family and other Irish immigrants. His new life in America was just getting started.


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


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.



Willie’s emigration centennial: Day 4 of 12


Willie Diggin’s young life in Ireland spanned the last years of the 19th century and first decade of the 20th century. His native Kerry was a place of “majesty and misery,” Ireland’s National Archives said a century later:

On the one hand, there was the majesty of its scenery, its wild and varied landscape which pushed out into the Atlantic Ocean in a series of peninsulas. Those peninsulas, and the islands off them which marked the most westerly point in Europe, contained a unique heritage of ecclesiastical ruins, archaeological remains and popular folklore which, as well as its scenery, made the county a prime destination for tourists. On the other hand, there was the misery of endemic poverty, of a subsistence existence in the countryside and along the coasts which occasionally strayed close to famine, and which forced generations of Kerry people to leave in search of a basic living.

Back then a nationalist awakening was welling throughout Ireland. People were rediscovering Irish heritage and resisting English rule from across the sea. The Gaelic Athletic Association was created in 1884 to promote Irish sports. The Gaelic League was formed in 1893, a year before Willie’s birth, to revitalize Irish language and culture, which the English had suppressed for centuries.

The 1880s brought new efforts to secure land reform by reducing excessive rents from absentee English landlords and opening the way for property ownership. There were brutal evictions and resistance often involved violent tactics and civil unrest that caused the struggle to be known as “the land war,” or Cogadh na Talún. Kerry was at the center of such violence, euphemistically known as agrarian outrage.

On the political front, nationalist leaders such as Charles Stuart Parnell lobbied to obtain domestic autonomy for Ireland, called home rule. Parnell died three years before Willie’s birth, but the home rule effort continued in Ireland as he boarded the Baltic in May 1913.

His departure came at the eve of a decade-long revolutionary period that including the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, partition of the northern part of the island and civil war in the new southern Free State.


Above: Early 20th century image of the Lartigue monorail traveling west to Ballybunion from Listowel. Below: The station at Ballybuinon. National Library of Ireland


One of the more peculiar aspects of Willie’s life in north Kerry was the unique monorail that linked Ballybunion to the mainline trains at Listowel. Opened in 1888, the strange-looking locomotives and other cars draped saddle-style over a single rail fixed atop 3-foot-high support trestles. The system was named after its creator, French engineer Charles Lartigue.

The 9-mile Lartigue short line helped bring visitors and commerce to remote Ballybunion as it attracted photographers and writers to the area. For example, a January 1898 story in London’s Strand Magazine described Ballybunion as a “beautiful seaside and health resort” and boasted “the advantages of the [Lartigue] system are its great safety, and that the line can be quickly and cheaply laid.” Stories about Kerry’s odd railway also appeared in American newspapers and magazines.

In 1913, the Lartigue had a record ridership of more than 73,000 passengers. But some of these were people leaving Kerry forever. The station at Ballybunion not only welcomed summer visitors but also sold tickets to the great ocean liners making regular voyages to America and Canada.

For emigrants like Willie, the single-line railway was a one-way road away from home.