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Irish surname Higgins

Higgins is the anglicised version of an old Irish surname - O'hUigin - with ancient royal connections.

It comes from the Irish word uiginn, meaning Viking. Bearers of the old name were a sept (followers and extended family of the main 'clan') of the southern Ui Neills who, over time, migrated westwards from the midlands to the province of Connacht where they acquired a reputation as poets in the courts of the regional Irish Chiefs and Lords.

The Higgins Shop in Leighlinbridge, Co Carlow makes a pretty show in this picturesque village beside the River Barrow.

The main O'Higgins bases were in Ballynary, Dooghorne and Monteige in Sligo, and in Kilbeg in Westmeath.

By 1654, however, their traditional Gaelic way of life had been brought to an unhappy end by the English crown and its armies. Nearly all their lands had been taken from them and many felt they had no choice but to go into exile. Some migrated to Spain where they were accepted as part of the European aristocracy and worked their way into high office.

Others remained in Ireland, demoted to tenants on their own land. By the time of Griffith's Valuation (an island-wide survey of property and land ownership carried out in the 1850s), most of the O'Higgins in Ireland had 'lost' their 'O'.

The figures are dramatic. Of the 1,972 Higgins households recorded at that time, only two still attached the 'O' prefix. 

The main clusters of Higgins were in Galway (248 households), Mayo (242), Roscommon (178), Cork (169) and Sligo (144), and half a century later, these were still major settlement areas for the name, as you can see in the map, left, which has been created from the 1911 Census of Ireland.


The townland of Higginstown (in Irish, Baile Huigin) is close to the town of Granard in County Longford.
The Higgins Shop in Leighlinbridge, Co Carlow makes a pretty show in this picturesque village beside the River Barrow.

The main O'Higgins bases were in Ballynary, Dooghorne and Monteige in Sligo, and in Kilbeg in Westmeath.

By 1654, however, their traditional Gaelic way of life had been brought to an unhappy end by the English crown and its armies. Nearly all their lands had been taken from them and many felt they had no choice but to go into exile. Some migrated to Spain where they were accepted as part of the European aristocracy and worked their way into high office.

Others remained in Ireland, demoted to tenants on their own land. By the time of Griffith's Valuation (an island-wide survey of property and land ownership carried out in the 1850s, most of the O'Higgins in Ireland had 'lost' their 'O'.

The figures are dramatic. Of the 1,972 Higgins households recorded at that time, only two still attached the 'O' prefix. 

The main clusters of Higgins were in Galway (248 households), Mayo (242), Roscommon (178), Cork (169) and Sligo (144), and half a century later, these were still major settlement areas for the name, as you can see in the map, above, which has been created from data in the 1911 Census of Ireland.


The townland of Higginstown (in Irish, Baile Huigin) is close to the town of Granard in County Longford.




Irish surname Higgins goes global

In 1841 just over 6,000 individuals with the Irish surname Higgins were recorded in the censuses of England, Scotland and Wales. Over the three nations, only 9% gave their birthplace as Ireland, but in Scotland alone the figure was more than 25%.

It is likely that a fair proportion of the Higgins then in England and Wales were not descended from the Irish Higgins; Higgin was a medieval first name in England and later became a surname.

The Scottish population of Higgins may be more likely to be of Irish descent, and  Ancestry UK has an interesting interactive map showing the growth and spread of Higgins in that country from 1841 to 1901; it's worth playing with and noting the slow migration north. Click the image, above.

By 1891, the number of Higgins across Britain had reached 15,145. Some 2,288 of this total (15%) were residing in Lancashire, 1,789 (12%) were in London, 1010 (7%) were in Lanarkshire, and the English counties of Cheshire, Staffordshire, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Kent were home to 2,576 (17%).

The only areas where Higgins had not settled were Yorkshire's three Ridings, Durham, Brecknockshire and Merionethshire in Wales, Forfarshire (Angus) and the far north of Scotland.

By this time, Canada was home to a growing number of Higgins. Their locations in 1871, when the total population bearing this name was 1,368, is shown in the map, below. More than 200 had been born in Ireland.

The 1871 Canadian Census recorded 1,368 individuals with the Irish surname Higgins. Their numbers in the map note their areas of residence.

Jumping forward to 1921's census, there were 2,393 Higgins over a much wider area of Canada. Only 60 had been born in Ireland. The oldest Irish-born was William Henry Higgins, a Baptist living at 1563 5th Avenue, East Vancouver Centre, with his much younger (Methodist) wife, Leah, and their five children.

The youngest child was just eight months old while his father - according to his paper census return - was 85 years old. Born in 1836 in Ireland, he could read and write and had emigrated to Canada in 1885.

Higgins also settled in the United States in big numbers, as you can see from the graph below. What is striking is the tiny proportion of immigrants born in Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) compared with those born on the island of Ireland, suggesting that Higgins families across the USA are more likely to have Irish heritage than England, Scottish or Welsh.

By 1964, the surname appeared in Social Security data for more than 94,100 instances, making it the 240th most common surname in the US. Just under 50 years later, nearly 80 thousand individuals were recorded in the 2010 census and the name ranked in 400th place.

HIGGINS - far and wide in 2014

COUNTRY

NUMBER OF HIGGINS

SURNAME RANK

Australia

15,599

212nd

New Zealand

1,907

328th

South Africa

1,517

4,579th

Scotland

4,667

189th

Jamaica

Guyana

2,352

350

218th

393rd

Source: Forbears.io

The website Forbears.ie, which uses name distribution statistics generated from a global database of over 4 billion people, calculates Higgins to be the 3,085th most common name in the world with 182,583 bearers (based on 2014 data).

The highest numbers are in the United States but the highest density is in Ireland, where the site estimates some 11,000 Higgins live. In its traditional stronghold of Connacht, it raanks as the 18th most common surname.

See the table, right, for more estimated figures from around the world.



The website Forbears.ie, which uses name distribution statistics generated from a global database of over 4 billion people, calculates Higgins to be the 3,085th most common name in the world with 182,583 bearers (based on 2014 data).

The highest numbers are in the United States but the highest density is in Ireland, where the site estimates some 11,000 Higgins live. In its traditional stronghold of Connacht, it raanks as the 18th most common surname.

See the table, below, for more estimated figures from around the world.


COUNTRY

NUMBER OF HIGGINS

SURNAME RANK

Australia

15,599

212nd

New Zealand

1,907

328th

South Africa

1,517

4,579th

Scotland

4,667

189th

Jamaica

Guyana

2,352

350

218th

393rd

Source: Forbears.io

From County Meath to the capital of Chile

Bernardo O'Higgins is one of the most famous descendents of those sept members who headed for Spain in the 17th century. He was the son of Ambrosio O'Higgins who came from a poor labouring family in Summerhill in County Meath. Bernardo (1778-1842) founded the Chilean Navy and was the first President of Chile. The main street in the country's capital city, Santiago, is named after him: Avenida O'Higgins.



Varients of Higgins

The Irish surname Higgins is rare for having relatively few varients. In Ireland's 1850s' land and property survey, Griffith's Valuation, only two real varients to Higgins were recorded: Higgin and O' Higgins.

There were only five instances of Higgin and just two of O'Higgins. There were 1,965 households across the island recorded as Higgins.

Spelling mistakes and typos always add a few more varients to the options for any surname.

You can find more for Higgins at JohnGrenham.com

The Family Tree Irish Genealogy Guide

Written by the creator of Irish Genealogy Toolkit and Irish Genealogy News, 'The Family Tree Irish Genealogy Guide' is full of advice, tips and strategies to ease what can be a challenging journey.

Its guidance will be useful to any researcher of Irish heritage, but especially for the target Irish-American researcher who's struggling to work back to Ireland from their immigrant ancestor.

Publisher: Penguin

ISBN: 9781440348808 / 240 pages.