Higgins – ancient Gaelic poets

History of the Irish name Higgins. Image copyright Ireland Calling

Higgins is a popular name in Ireland and around the world. It has numerous variations including O’Higgins and Higgens.

The name comes from the ancient Gaelic word hUigín, which means knowledge. The name would have been originally given to literary men such as scholars and poets.

The Ó is an ancient Irish prefix that was added to names. It means ‘the descendant of’, so Ó hUigín would be the name given to the descendant of hUigín.

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History of the Irish name Higgins. Image copyright Ireland Calling

The Ó hUigíns were closely related to the O’Neills and it is believed that they may have descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages. There were several Ó hUigín clans in Ireland with their main presence being in the area now known as Sligo.

They lost most of their power in the mid-1600s when Oliver Cromwell’s British forces swept across the country confiscating land, which was then given to British settlers. The Irish were given a choice of working the land as peasants or trying to find somewhere else. Cromwell was ruthless and any Irish natives that tried to resist were killed.

The Ó hUigíns were one clan in Ireland that were particularly affected by Cromwell’s invasion. They were very loyal to their Gaelic tradition and religion and couldn’t adapt to the new anglicised country. Many left Ireland for mainland Europe.

Those O’Higgins that stayed in Ireland struggled for the next few hundred years, never regaining their position as a powerful clan. No native Irish families had the military skills or resources to overthrow the British authorities that had fully taken over the country. The name Ó hUigín became anglicised over time into O’Higgins.

The name evolved further as several families changed their names from O’Higgins to just Higgins to make their name sound less Gaelic. Employers were more likely to give you a job if you had an English sounding name. Some changed their name back to O’Higgins in the mid-to-late 19th century when Irish nationalism was reaching an all-time high as the country moved towards revolution to break away from British rule.

Higgins became a common name in English speaking countries all around the world as a result of the mass emigration from Ireland caused by the ‘Great Famine’ in the mid-1800s. Millions left the country to start a new life in America, Canada, Australia and Britain.

Famous Higgins throughout history

There have been many noteworthy people named Higgins or O’Higgins throughout history, both in Ireland and from around the world.

Kevin O’Higgins was one of the key individuals in Ireland during the early 20th century, the time of the Irish Civil War. He sided with Michael Collins after the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, and sentenced 77 Irish nationalists to death for crimes against the newly formed Irish Free State government. One of the men was Rory O’Connor who had led the seizure of the Four Courts building in Dublin. O’Higgins ordered the execution of O’Connor. A year earlier, O’Connor had been the best man at O’Higgins’ wedding.

Bernardo O’Higgins was a Chilean nationalist of Irish descent. He was a major figure in the Chilean War of Independence, in which the country broke free from Spanish rule. O’Higgins then became the first Chilean Head of State.

Alex Higgins was a Northern Irish snooker player in the 1970s and 80s. He won the World Championship twice and was nicknamed the ‘Hurricane’ because of his attacking and entertaining style.

John Higgins was another World Champion snooker player. He is from Wishaw, Scotland and has won the World Championship on four occasions as of 2014.

The loveable 1970s crime-fighting film star Benji was played by a golden mixed breed dog named Higgins.

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