Higgins


Select Higgins Surname Genealogy

Higgins or O'Higgins is an Irish clan name originating from the Gaelic uigan, meaning Norse seaman or Viking. However, the clan or sept is thought to be of native Irish origin.  The name first appeared in Sligo records on the west coast of Ireland around 1100. 

There is also a separate English derivation; from the medieval Higgin, a diminutive of Hick which was a pet-name for Richard. 

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Ireland.  The O'Higgins as lords of Ballynary held sway in Sligo until the 17th century.  They were renowned throughout Ireland as bards and poets

However, their Gaelic order was crushed by Oliver Cromwell and his armies.  Lands were confiscated and families driven into exile.  The clan did secure some land at Summerhill in county Meath where they suffered under the English yoke.  O'Higgins also migrated landless to Galway and Mayo.  And many anglicized their names from O'Higgins to Higgins as the English penal laws took effect.  Others sought refuge overseas, across the Atlantic and even in Spain and its Spanish colonies in South America. 

In 1725, two Higgins brothers from Dublin went to Trim in county Meath and built their Higginsbrook estate by the Boyne river.  The little house there still stands (it was used as the setting for the 2007 Jane Austen film). 

Although many Higgins have moved away, F.R. Higgins, a friend of Yeats, had a special love for the area and was known as one of the Boyne valley poets.  Contemporary with him was Brian O'Higgins, also from Meath, who was an active promoter of the Irish language and played a prominent part in the 1916 Easter Rising.

South America.  Among the descendants of the Spanish exiles was Amrosio O'Higgins.  He was made viceroy of Peru in 1796 in recognition for his services in the Spanish army.  No one expected his red-haired illegitimate son to make much of his life.  But he did.  Bernardo O'Higgins is famed today as the liberator of Chile for his leadership in driving Spanish rule out of that country. 

England.  Most Higgins in England are likely to be of Irish origin. 

But home-grown Higgins do appear in the west country: 
  • Higgins in Herefordshire date from the early 1500's.  Richard Higgins from Herefordshire appears to be the first Higgins to have stepped foot in America.  He arrived in Salem, Massachusetts and his descendants settled in Maine (including one, Paul Higgins, who took up Indian ways).
  • two more adventurous Higgins left rural Wiltshire in the 1780's; Robert who joined the NSW Corps and served in Australia in its formative years; and John who settled in what is now called Higginsville in Nova Scotia. 
Higgins were to be found at Weston Underwood in Buckinghamshire from the 1620ís.   Charles Higgins of this family prospered in London as a grocer and was Sheriff of London in 1786.  He subsequently acquired Turvey Abbey in Bedfordshire.  A later Charles Higgins made major improvements to Turvey village in the mid-19th century. 

Meanwhile another Charles Higgins, distantly related, moved to Bedford in the 1820ís.  He foundied a brewery on Castle Lane and built his family home next to it.  The family business proved very successful and they were important and influential figures in the town for over a hundred years.  The brewery remained in the Higgins family until the late 1920ís when Cecil Higgins, then over seventy, decided to sell it in order to focus on his ambition to found a museum.

Canada.  For later Higgins emigrants across the Atlantic, Newfoundland was an early port of call, if this refrain from The Banks of Newfoundland is anything to go by:

"We had on board an Irish girl, Cassie Higgins was her name
To her, I'd promised marriage, on me she had a claim
She tore her flannel petticoat to make mittens for my hands
Before she'd see her true love freeze on the banks of Newfoundland."

Higgins also settled in Quebec and Ontario.  In the 1830's, William Higgins was the first chief of Toronto police at a time of strife between the Protestant and Catholic immigrants.  He himself was set up for murder but later exonerated of the crime.  In the twentieth century, Newfoundland's favorite son Jack Higgins fought valiantly but in the end unsuccessfully against federation with Canada. 

America.  The English Higgins arrived first, followed by the Irish.

Maine  There was a sizeable Higgins presence in the state of Maine, dating back to the 1750's.  Many were descendants of Richard Higgins who had arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1633.  Joseph Higgins moved to Gorham in Maine from Massachusetts in 1804.  He was a sea captain later unfortunately lost at sea. However, his offspring were numerous.  When his wife Mercy died in 1843, there were said to be 128 descendants.  Saul Higgins lived to see a hundred.

These Higgins were active in a range of businesses in Maine and elsewhere; early shipbuilding in Portland (Eleazor Higgins); carpet making in New York (E.S. Higgins & Co); and pressed steel manufacturing in Massachusetts (Worcester Pressed Steel Co).  John Woodman Higgins' fascination with arms and armory led him to establish the art deco Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester in 1927.

Irish Higgins  The Higgins name had become relatively well-established in America when the Irish Higgins began to arrive in large numbers.  It is thought that some Hagens changed their name to Higgins on arrival. 

These Higgins contributed to the immigrant melting pot of places like New York.  Some did move onwards, such as David and Bridget Higgins who formed a new life for themselves in Iowa.  But most stayed in the Irish communities that they had formed.  Vannie Higgins, active in bootlegging during the prohibition years, has been called the last of the New York Irish bosses. 

Australia.  Australia started out as a penal colony and the Irish particularly suffered here.  The records show Mary Higgins receiving a flogging of 26 lashes in 1791.  James Higgins, who took part in the Vinegar Hill uprising in 1804, escaped execution but was exiled to the Coal river near Newcastle. 

More than a hundred Higgins were transported there as convicts between 1790 and the 1850's.  John Higgins, transported on the Phoebe Dunbar in 1853, can be founded listed on the welcome wall of the Western Australian museum at Albany.  Bu only a few records of these lives survive. 

Gold fever brought settlers in the 1850's, including one Sligo farmer, Patrick Higgins, who did very well for himself.  He worked hard and became the leading public works contractor in Victoria.

Select Higgins Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:


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Tading Mor O'Hiligin
, who died in 1315, was the first in the line of celebrated Higgins bards.
Father Peter Higgins was a Dominican priest martyred by the English in Dublin in 1642 at the time of the penal laws.

Bernardo O'Higgins
is commemmorated in Chile as the man who gave the country its independence from Spain.
Kevin O'Higgins was one of the Sinn Fein leaders who supported the 1922 Anglo-Irish treaty.  He was later assassinated by the IRA.
Jack Higgins was a leading Newfoundland politician during the 1920's and 1930's.
Terence Higgins was the first UK publicly identified AIDS victim in 1982.  The Terence Higgins Trust is named after him.

Select Higgins Today
  • 32,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 31,000 in America (most numerous in California).
  • 38,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)



PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

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