Higgins, Frederick Robert (1896–1941), poet, was born 24 April 1896 in Foxford, Co. Mayo, eldest son of Joseph Thomas Higgins, engineer, and Annie Higgins (née French), protestant middle-class parents of solid unionist stock, who were originally from Higginstown, Trim, Co. Meath. After being educated at various country schools in Mayo, Higgins travelled to Dublin in 1912 and joined Brooks, Thomas & Co., the Dublin building firm, as a clerk. This led him to become actively involved in founding a union for clerical workers, and he began editing various trade and union journals including the Irish Clerk and the Furniture Man's Gazetteer, prompting him to claim later that his ‘contact with mechanical industry intensified a passion for primitive nature’. Based in an office in College St., Dublin, he began to write poetry and critical articles for various English and American journals and edited several short-lived periodicals, including Welfare, a women's magazine. During the period after 1920 he began to publish poems in literary magazines and contributed to a number of periodicals devoted to national independence, becoming consumed by the idea of an Irish identity, though he seems to have had little interest in the business of party politics.
The company he kept was largely literary: a constant companion was Pádraic Ó Conaire (qv), and in 1923, encouraged by George Russell (qv) who remarked that ‘here is a poet whose soul is in his eyes and who is bent on finding delicate words for every delicacy of vision whether he sees with the eyes of the imagination or the eyes of the body’, he produced a small poetry pamphlet, The salt air. Again with the help of Russell, a collection called The dark breed appeared in 1927, indicating that the lyrical poet was beginning to find his own voice and establish a reputation. In 1933 a further collection, Arable holdings, was published, and Higgins began to move in circles that included Austin Clarke (qv), Seumas O'Sullivan (qv), Lennox Robinson (qv), Monk Gibbon (qv), and the painter Sarah Purser (qv), most of whom congregated weekly at the Dublin home of George Russell.
As a poet, Higgins seems to have belonged to the last wave of the literary revival, which made a cult of ballad and folk poetry, with the poets consciously addressing themselves to a populist audience. The image he portrayed of himself in poetry – that of a rollicking, drinking balladeer – frequently verged on self-parody, although his lifestyle was decidedly bourgeois. His exaggerated neo-romantic belief in racial and ancestral traits was perhaps received with distaste by the (largely London) urban-based school of modernism, but his qualities as a verse technician were outstanding, and no Irish poet of his generation had a finer feeling for landscape or colour. The surroundings that most influenced him were the west of Ireland, including Galway and his native Mayo, and his distinct verbal melodies were also inspired by the rural domain of Meath, home of his ancestors, with the Boyne valley of that district inspiring The gap of brightness (1940), a collection of a less folksy and more intellectual mode, and probably his finest work.
Although highly self-critical and fastidious, Higgins was a kindly, impulsive, wayward, and gregarious character, but was also shrewd, opinionated, and well versed in the art of Dublin literary politics. He enjoyed a fascinating relationship with W. B. Yeats (qv), collaborating with him on a number of Cuala Press broadsheets, and was a founding member of the Irish Academy of Letters. Although he was often seen as the leading disciple and heir apparent of Yeats (Yeats referred to him as ‘undoubtedly the finest of our young poets’) or indeed dismissed as just a camp-follower, it seems to have been Yeats who instigated the friendship, desiring a bridge to the younger generation of Irish poets. The style of Higgins was clearly not influenced by the older poet, though Yeats may have played a part in disciplining his art. Biographers of Yeats seem to have concurred that Higgins influenced Yeats with a taste of the poetic ‘folk Ireland’, which he had always praised and which he used in his later collections; or, as Higgins saw it, he was able to help the elder Yeats with a move away from the intellectual exotic approach towards the simple bucolic verse. Sean O'Faolain (qv) and others accurately saw it as ‘an attraction of opposites’.
The connection also suited Higgins, a master of intrigue and a man of considerable ambition, and the influence of Yeats secured his appointment as a director of the Abbey Theatre (1935). In 1938 he was appointed managing director of the theatre, where he was noted for his sometimes dictatorial rule, and his championing of what he called the ‘peasant quality’ in plays. Along with Liam O'Flaherty (qv), Brinsley McNamara (qv), and Austin Clarke, he dismissed the plays of Sean O'Casey (qv) with ill-concealed contempt, and had little patience with the Abbey tradition of J. M. Synge (qv). He was a vigorous board member and active administrator, though his first and only play, ‘A deuce of jacks’, produced at the Abbey in 1935, made little impact. He brought the Abbey players to America in 1937, a successful trip which took its toll on him physically and mentally, after which he became the Abbey company's business manager. In terms of poetry, during his last years he seemed to have outgrown his original work and to be searching for a more cerebral vein; he admitted near the end of his life that he was tired of being a poet of atmosphere. He died in Dublin on 8 January 1941 as a result of a stroke, and was survived by his wife (m. 1921), Beatrice May Moore, a well known harpist. His premature death ensured that Higgins produced no ‘third phase’ of poetry. Some contemporaries believed that had he lived longer, he could have become as accomplished a poet as Yeats; other critics suggested that he was mentally unable, partly through lack of education, to remake himself at a time when his purely lyrical impulse was beginning to fade. Perhaps the greatest tragedy was that his poetry and legacy quickly went out of print and out of fashion.