In one form, Higgins is an English name, from the medieval given name "Higgin", a diminutive of "Hicke", which was in turn a pet form of Richard. In Ireland, however, the vast majority of those bearing the name are of Gaelic Irish stock, Higgins being used as an anglicisation of the Irish Ó hUigín, from uiginn, meaning "Viking". The original Uigín from whom they claim descent was grandson to Niall of the Nine Hostages, the fifth-century King of Ireland who founded the powerful tribal grouping the Uí Neill, and they are therefore regarded as part of that grouping. Originally based in the midlands, part of the southern Uí Neill, they moved west over the centuries into the western province of Connacht, particularly Co. Sligo, settling at Dooghorne, Achonry and Ballynary. More than half of those bearing the surname today still live in Connacht where they achieved fame as poets and scholars and were particularly associated with the Royal House of the O'Conor Don, Kings of Connacht. One of the earliest of the O'Higgins poets from Sligo that we know of was Tadhg Mór O'Higgins who died in 1315. Donnell O'Higgins who died in 1501 was the "Chief Preceptor of the schools of Ireland in poetry". Another was Tadhg Dall O'Higgins who had his tongue cut out and died in 1595 in revenge as a result of a satire he had composed against the O'Hara's of Cashel Carragh, in the Parish of Kilmacteige. His son, Tadhg Óg, who was 12 years old when his father was killed by the O'Hara's, inherited his father's lands at Dooghorne in Achonry. Throughout the 14th to the 17th century there were many O'Higgins who considered themselves to have inherited poetry as their birthright and were recognised as such by their patrons who included the O'Conor Don family of Sligo, the MacDermott's Princes of Moylurg and Coolavin, and the MacDonagh's Lords of Corran and Tirerill.
Later, due to their loyalty to the Gaelic tradition, the O'Higgins suffered as part of the Cromwellian settlement of Ireland and by 1654 they had been dispossessed of their lands in Sligo and Westmeath. Many of the family fled to Europe while the majority of those who stayed in Ireland began to drop the "O" from their name and had to work as labourers and tenant farmers on the estates of the new English settlers. Sheán Duff O'Higgins was Baron of Ballynary in Sligo at the time of the Cromwellian settlement and by 1720 his line had lost all of their lands in Sligo and had resettled in Dangan/Summerhill in Co. Meath. Don Ambrosio O'Higgins (1720-1801) who was Barón de Ballinar and Marquis de Osorno, rose to become Viceroy of Peru for Spain, and his son, Bernardo O'Higgins (1788-1842), the first head of state of Chile were descendents of the O'Higgins of Ballynary. Christopher Thomas O'Higgins NSC, another of this branch, lives in Cheshire in England and is styled as Lord of Ballynary and Chief of the O'Higgins. In 1890 there were 205 births of the name, ranking it as the 83rd most common surname in Ireland. By 1996, it was ranked 79th. Francis Higgins (1726-1802) whose ancestry is unclear is less kindly remembered than others of this name in Ireland. A social climber known as "The Sham Squire", he owned the Freeman's Journal and was rumoured to have been paid £1000 to reveal the hiding place of United Irishman Lord Edward Fitzgerald. The O'Higgins continued to play an important role in the development of the Irish State after independence was obtained from the UK in 1921. The controversial Kevin O'Higgins (1882-1927) of Stradbally in Co. Laois was the first Minister for Justice in the Irish Free State Government. In 1927, hard line republicans assassinated him near his home in Dublin. His nephew Tom O'Higgins (1917-2003) TD and former Chief Justice contested the Presidential elections in 1966 and 1973. Today many of the name O'Higgins/Higgins are found in more than one academic discipline not to mention their continuing prominence in the church, education, law, the arts and politics.
Contributed by Dr. James O'Higgins-Norman MGSI.
O'Rorke, T. (1889) The History of Sligo Town & County Vol. II - Conclusion (Dublin: Duffy & Company).
The National Genealogical Office (Dublin) MS 165 p. 136.
The Annals of The Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters, Books IV and V.
McLysaght, E. (1935) A Short Study of the Transplanted Families in the Seventeenth Century (Dublin).
Donoso, R. (1941) El Marquis de Osorno, Don Ambrosio O'Higgins (Santiago: University of Chile Press).
De Breffny, B. "Ambrose O'Higgins: A Enquiry into His Origins and Ancestry" in The Irish Ancestor 2:2 (1970), pp. 81-89.
Sepúlveda, A. (2006) "Bernardo O'Higgins: The Rebel Son of a Viceroy" in Irish Migration Studies in Latin America (Burtigny, Switzerland: SILAS).