The Higgins or O’Higgins Family

Higgins or O’Higgins family crest

(Crest No. 157. Plate 50.)

THE Higgins family is descended from Milesius, King of Spain, through the line of Heremon, eighth son of that monarch. The founder of the family was Fiachra, ancestor of the Southern Hy Nials, and son of Nial the Great, or Nial of the Nine Hostages, King of Ireland, A. D. 379.

The ancient name, Huigin, signifies “Ingenuity” or “Knowledge,” and was taken from Uigin, a chieftain of the sept. The possessions of the sept were located in the present Counties of Mayo, Galway, and Westmeath, and comprised a fertile and extensive territory. Another branch of the same sept, in the County of Mayo, was descended from Milesius through the line of his third son, Heber, and belonged to the Clanna Fogartaid, from its founder Eogan, son of Olliol Ollum, King of Munster, A. D. 177.

The O’Higginses and other septs of note in that locality were among the first to suffer at the hands of the Anglo-Norman invaders. The O’Higginses were hereditary brehons or chief judges in Ireland and many of them were eminent literary men. The name has been sometimes Anglicized McEgan or Egan.

Many of the O’Higginses were among the military emigrants who left Ireland after the siege of Limerick, and those who had taken refuge with their kinsmen of Spain in the sixteenth century from the tyranny of the English Elizabeth. Thus we find in South America, the last captain-general under Spain in Chili and the first supreme dictator of that republic was each an O’Higgins. The former, Don Ambrosio O’Higgins, was mainly instrumental in building up that province, where he established new trades, planted new towns, constructed canals and harbors, and laid, in a great measure, the foundation of the prosperity of that most progressive of South American republics. His son, General Don Bernardo O’Higgins, supplemented the work of his father by materially contributing to the independence of his country. And this he accomplished while confronted for years by force from without and faction from within. He was equally distinguished for his personal courage and rectitude of character. His masterly passage of the Maule, cutting off the Spanish General Gainza from advance or retreat with an inferior and badly equipped force and bottling him up in Talca, was a stroke worthy of a great commander; and his sacrifice of his just resentments toward a rival and a traitor, Carrera, in order to save his country, was the act of a true patriot.

Nor is there any more thrilling exhibition of courage and skill in the fifteen years’ struggle of the Spanish-American republics for independence than O’Higgins’ defense of Rancagua with only nine hundred men, poorly armed, ragged and starving, against four thousand Royalists, ably commanded and thoroughly equipped. Both sides hoisted the black flag, determined neither to give nor ask quarter. The Royalists fought their way inch by inch to the public plaza in the center of the town. “Here,” writes a fellow-soldier, General Miller, describing the event, “O’Higgins made his last stand with only two hundred survivors, worn out with fatigue, tormented with raging thirst and surrounded by heaps of slain, till, observing all was lost, he, although wounded in the leg, headed the brave relics of his party and gallantly cut his way through the Royalists. Such was the impression produced by this desperate act of valor that none ventured to pursue the Patriots, who continued their retreat without further molestation to the capital, the Royalists remaining in Rancagua to dispatch the wounded, to butcher the few remaining inhabitants, and to destroy what had escaped the flames.”

General Don Bernard O'higgins defending Rancagua

Defending Rancagua.

There is no name to-day more honored in the South American Republic than that of O’Higgins and none that is more nobly commemorated.

Bryan Higgins, born in the County of Sligo, 1737, was a distinguished physician and chemist and his son, William Higgins, became still more eminent in the same branch of science. He made many discoveries in chemistry, especially the law of multiple proportion, in which he is said to have anticipated by many years some of Dalton’s greatest achievements. Indeed, he is said to have led the way in the discovery of the atomic theory.

This name is still numerous in Ireland and in the United States and the British colonies. Mr. Anthony Higgins, recently United States Senator for Delaware, is a descendant of this family.