Higgins Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Higgins Surname Meaning

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.

Higgins Surname Resources on The Internet

Higgins and O’Higgins Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Connacht)
  • to England, Chile, Canada, America and Australia

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. Ownership passed to the Gray family around 1750.  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.

Michael D. Higgins became President of Ireland in 2011.  His family roots are at Ballycar in county Clare  where his great grandparents Michael and Judy lived through the Famine.

South America. Among the descendants of the Spanish exiles was Ambrosio 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).
  • while 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 1620’s.  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 1820’s. He founded 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 1920’s 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 20th 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.

New England 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 back in 1633 and later migrated onto New Jersey. This line was covered in Katharine Higgins’ 1918 book Richard Higgins and His Descendants.

Joseph Higgins had 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.

Higgins Surname Miscellany

O’Higgins Origin and Heritage.  It is thought that the O’Higgins were originally a branch of the Ceneil Fiachach, a group of septs claiming common descent from Fiach, one of the sons of Niall of Tara.

The Annals of Ireland suggest that the O’Higgins had originally been associated with the area of Uisneach in Westmeath.  By the twelfth century, some O’Higgins has moved westward into Connacht and were located in the southern region of county Sligo on the border with Roscommon.

Since early times, the O’Higgins were renowned as bards and minstrels, producing over three centuries a remarkable number of distinguished poets, beginning with Tadhg M’or O’hUigin who died in 1315 and continuing to Tadg Dall who died in 1617.

Another Tadg called O’g flourished in the first half of the fifteenth century.  The sixteenth century saw five more poets of the name, one of whom, MaoImuire, was also the archbishop of Tuam.  A poem by Pilib Bocht O’Huig’in was the first to be printed in the Irish language.

With the destruction of the Gaelic order in the seventeenth century, the O’Higginses lost their pre-eminence in the literary sphere.

The Higgins Burnt Out at Summerhill.  The local story has it that the Higgins were evicted from their  homes at Clondoogan during the troubles of the 1790’s.  Their homes were set on fire and they were forced to live in the bog lands at the edge of the Ardrums estate in Summerhill.

John Higgins later took up employment with the Royal Canal Company.  As part of his payment for services rendered, he was allowed to build a small cottage on a section of bog land on the northern bank of the canal by the Meath border.  This remained the family home until 1947.

Reader Feedback – Higginsbrook in County Meath.  Looking for any information on the Higginsbrook estate, especially around 1897-1910.  My grandfather James Arthur Higgins was born there.

James Harms (allthesixes@gmail.com).

Richard Higgins – An Early Settler in New England.  There are several recorded documents relating to the life of Richard Higgins.

April 23, 1627.  Richard Higgins, son of Robert Higgins of Leominster in the County of Hereford, mercer, placed himself as an apprentice with Philip Ruddock of St. Clements Land, London for the term of seven years from the date given herein.

October 7, 1633.  Richard Higgins purchased from Thomas Little his now dwelling house and misted, for and in consideration of twenty one bushels of merchantable corn, whereof twelve bushels to be paid in hand and the remainder at harvest next ensuing.

April 1, 1634.  Samuel Godberson, son of Godbert Godberson of New Plymouth, deceased, was duly apprenticed to Richard Higgins aforesaid, tailor, for the term of seven years.  Samuel agreed to deliver to Higgins six bushels of corn and a cow calf this present year and Higgins agreed to deliver the calf and half her increase in the expiration of the term of seven years.

December 11, 1634.  Richard Higgins married Lydia Chandler and went to housekeeping in the house bought from John Barnes.

August 11, 1639.  Richard Higgins hath assigned and set over all the residue of the term of Samuel Godberson which is until April 1641; for and in consideration that John Smaley shall teach Samuel Godberson the trade of tailor and that Richard find Samuel apparel and John Smaley meat, drink and lodging for said term.

The Indian Paul Higgins.  Norridgewock resident Sylvanius Sawyer may have given the best testimony of the destiny of Higgins in 1779.  That Paul Higgins as a white man could rise to the level of an Indian chief, or leader of family bands, is not so much of a mystery as that of uncovering who the man actually was.

The best theories researchers can adopt regarding Higgins’s identity suggest that he was not a joiner but tended to form his own alliances and hunt his lands on his own terms and that he managed to escape exposure and harm in those ways.

Kenneth Roberts in his historical novel Arundel, for the sake of spinning a good tale, would, however, have us believe otherwise.   He gives Higgins a major role in the expedition as one of that group of Indians who tailed the army through the dead river lands and left food, canoes, and a youthful guide along the route, then met with Arnold in Sartigan where a number of Abenakis joined the forces bound for Quebec.

Roberts portays Higgins as delivering an oration to Arnold before personally enlisting.  He ultimately elevates him to the position of “captain” of the Abenaki party.  Arundel is a thoroughly enjoyable fireside story, but one must not take it to accurately depict the life and activities of Paul Higgins.

The Liberator of Chile – A Red-haired Irish/Chilean.  No one expected the illegitimate son of a young daughter of an aristocratic Chilean family and an Irish engineer named Ambrose O’Higgins, who was in the service of the Spanish crown, to amount to much.  His early years were spent in obscurity as his father continued to rise in his profession.

Later, Bernardo O’Higgins inherited his father’s estates, Hacienda Las Canteras in Las Laja near Los Angeles, and began his adult life in Chile as a gentleman farmer.   He was soon elected as a delegate from La Laja to the Cabildo in Chillan and began his public life.

During this period, Napoleon invaded Spain and placed his brother Joseph on the throne.  This caused confusion for the Spanish colonies who refused to acknowledge Joseph.

On September 18 1810, criollo leaders met in Santiago and decided on limited self-government until the Spanish throne was restored.  This date is now celebrated as Chile’s Independence Day.  However, opponents of independence, the royalists who wanted Chile to return to royal rule, began to foment opposition to the Congress.

Bernardo recognized the need for an armed militia and, using his inheritance, formed two cavalry companies with the huasos (cowboys) and peasants who worked his estate.  His militia got the first taste of battle in the 1813 Surpresa del Roble, where Bernardo distinguished himself for bravery in leading a cavalry charge against the royalist factions.

Following his victory, Bernardo was named Commander in Chief of the army and went on to several more victories.  However, the royalists, with help from Peru, fought back and began a re-conquest of Chile.

Ahead lay the years of revolution.   When the fighting was over, the republicans had won and Don Bernardo O’Higgins became the first President of Chile in 1818.

Robert Higgins – An Early Settler in Australia.  The following story of Robert Higgins, an early settler in Australia, comes from Marion Starr’s 2002 book Murder, Mayhem & Misdemeanours – Early Settlers at the Cowpasture River.

Robert had joined the newly formed NSW Corps from Wiltshire and set sail for Australia in 1791, guarding the first shipments of Irish convicts there.  The records of soldiers in the Corps in 1808 list Robert as being 46 years of age, five feet seven inches tall with a dark complexion, hazel eyes, dark brown hair and a thin face.

At that time, Robert and his common law wife Lydia Farrell were living at 21 Spring Row in Sydney.  The same year Robert sold the house to Lydia for five shillings.  However, this was probably to prevent the house being seized by bailiffs due to debt because, a year later, he himself ended up in a debtor’s prison.

Afterwards, his fortunes improved.  He was released and transferred to a special invalid and veteran company who were no longer fit for active service but were assigned to light duties.

As part of his social reforms, the new governor Macquarie was encouraging formal marriages; and, on July 9 1810, Robert married Lydia at St. Phillip’s church in Sydney (by then they already had four children).  It was one of the first marriages in the new church.  Two years later, Robert was granted 50 acres of land on the eastern bank of the Nepean river and they built a small farm there.

In 1818, the Sydney Gazette announced the sale of Higgins’ farm.  Robert was in debt again and part of his land and all of his farming tools were sold.  He was even forced to sell his old draught horse.  Lydia died in 1823, Robert lived on for a further twenty years.

Higgins Names

  • 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 commemorated 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.
  • Michael D. Higgins served as the President of Ireland from 2011.

Higgins Numbers 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)

Higgins and Like Surnames 

The Irish clan or sept names come through the mists of time until they were found in Irish records such as The Annals of the Four Masters.  The names were Gaelic and this Gaelic order was preserved until it was battered down by the English in the 1600’s.

Some made peace with the English.  “Wild geese” fled to fight abroad.  But most stayed and suffered, losing land and even the use of their language.  Irish names became anglicized, although sometimes in a mishmash of spellings.  Mass emigration happened after the potato famine of the 1840’s.

Some surnames – such as Kelly, Murphy and O’Connor – span all parts of Ireland.  But most will have a territorial focus in one of the four Irish provinces – Leinster, Munster, Ulster, and Connacht.

Leinster in SE Ireland covers the counties of Carlow, Dublin, Kilkenny, Offaly, Laois, Longford, Louth, Meath, West Meath, Wexford, and Wicklow.  Here are some of the Leinster surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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