Higgins, Aidan Charles (1927–2015), writer, was born in Celbridge, Co. Kildare, on 3 March 1927, the third of four sons of Bartholomew (‘Bart’) Joseph Higgins (1891–1969), whose family, originally from Boyle, Co. Roscommon, had settled in Longford. Bart met and married Lillian Blanche Boyd (1892–1966) and bought Springfield, a Georgian period house and 74-acres near Celbridge. Aidan’s siblings were Desmond (b.1919), Brendan (b.1921) and Colman (b.1929), and the family’s comfortable circumstances were thanks to Bart’s paternal uncle Tom Higgins (1844–1920), whose fortune originated in a copper mine in Bisbee, Arizona. Tom Higgins later invested in property in downtown Los Angeles, most notably the 1910 Beaux Arts style Higgins Building. He never married but used his wealth to help his Irish relations prosper.
CHILDHOOD AND FORMATIVE EXPERIENCES
Higgins was kept back two years in order to accompany Colman to school, attending first the convent in Celbridge, then boarding at the prep school in Killashee. All four brothers attended Clongowes Wood College, a school run by the Jesuit order, with Higgins attending from 1942–6, where he was captain of cricket in his final year. In later life he resented the fact that in his day James Joyce (qv) was never once mentioned as a distinguished ex-alumnus, still being considered a ‘dirty’ writer, and that he left school ignorant of his work. He would thus likely have been amazed at the school’s subsequent recognition of Joyce, and even of Higgins’s own work, when his photograph was added to its collection of distinguished alumni in 2020.
Aidan and Colman had little contact as children with their two older brothers. Aidan developed a strong animosity towards Desmond, the first-born, described in vivid detail in his memoir Donkey’s years (1995). The memoir, also shows the imaginative importance of the ‘below stairs’ world to the young Higgins, from the rough Keegan boys in the gate lodge, the young maid Lizzy Bolger, the Bowsy Murray who delivered meat from the butcher, the cook Mrs Henry, and the aged retainer Old Jem Brady.
Between the lavish lifestyle of Higgins’s parents, and Bart’s ineptitude with money, the inheritance soon disappeared. Aidan and Colman were offered reduced fees at Clongowes due to the family’s long association with the school, which was also attended by their Longford cousins. The elegant house and gardens, tennis court and stables of Springfield were exchanged for a cramped, leaky bungalow on the Burnaby Estate in Greystones, Co. Wicklow. All four brothers were traumatised by the loss of their idyllic childhood home, which is recreated several times in Higgins’s work: as a fictional background in the story ‘Killachter Meadow’, the primary setting of Langrishe, go down (1966) and as a key aspect of memoir in Donkey’s years, and continually resurfaces in the other volumes of his trilogy of autobiographies. His mother, who was a devoted reader, introduced Higgins to the works of Ernest Hemingway and Karen Blixen, among others. Having suffered for some years from ‘claustrophobia’, and taken to her bed, Lillian became even more reclusive after the move to Greystones, and saw few people outside her immediate family.
EARLY WRITING CAREER
At Lillian’s suggestion Higgins attended art classes after leaving school and also learned to type, but spent much time reading or travelling around Dublin by bicycle visiting mentors including Arland Ussher (qv), Joseph Hone (qv) and the painter Patrick Collins (qv). Collins introduced him to the work of Djuna Barnes and William Faulkner, among others. Higgins discovered James Joyce, in particular A portrait of the artist as a young man, which he later said seemed to have been written specifically for him. He was also a talented golfer and was soon, with Bart’s encouragement, earning money by winning competitions. Like Eddy Brazill in his story ‘Asylum’ (Felo de se), Higgins’ first paying job (in 1951) was as a golfing companion to an elderly alcoholic attempting to stay sober on the Isle of Man. He also played cricket for the Phoenix club in Dublin.
By a lucky coincidence, the Higgins’s neighbours in Greystones were the Beckett family, and he became friends with John Beckett (qv), Samuel Beckett’s (qv)cousin, a gifted musician. John leant him a copy of More pricks than kicks, which Higgins admired so much he wrote its author a letter of appreciation. John warned him that Sam seldom answered letters, but this time he did, adding some advice to the aspiring author: ‘Despair young and never look back’ (Samuel Beckett to Higgins, 1 Sept. 1951).
A brief stint as a copywriter for an advertising agency in Grafton Street was abandoned in favour of trying his luck in ‘light industry’ in west London and broadening his horizons. Higgins met South African Jill Damaris Anders (1930–2019) at a party, and they married in London in 1955. (His autobiographical novel Scenes from a receding past (1977) features a lightly fictionalised version of their meeting in London.) The couple embarked on a tour with John Wright’s puppeteers in 1956, which led to over two years on the road in Yugoslavia, South Africa and Rhodesia, setting up and operating the puppets, all of which later inspired the travel memoir Images of Africa (1971). Having acquired some savings the couple settled in Johannesburg and had their son Carl Nicolas (b.1959), while Higgins worked in an advertising agency.
Higgins wrote persistently while travelling with the puppets and in Johannesburg, sending drafts of his stories to Samuel Beckett who reluctantly (he did not relish the role of mentor) dispensed advice. He recommended Higgins’s work to his English publisher, John Calder, who enthusiastically accepted it. By the time his first collection, Felo de se (1963, later republished and retitled in 1978 as Asylum and other stories) was published, Aidan and Jill were living in Dublin. The couple had two more sons, Julien John (b.1961) and Elwin James (b.1965).
A letter from a friend who had settled in Nerja on the coast of Andalusia, Spain, which was both cheap and sunny, convinced Aidan and Jill to move there in 1965. Calder was paying Higgins a small allowance while he wrote his novel, which would go much further in Spain than in Dublin. Here he finished Langrishe, go down (1966). It was immediately recognised as a masterpiece, with the Irish Times declaring it ‘clearly the best novel by an Irish writer since At swim-two-birds and the novels of Beckett’ (Murphy, 2010, 56), while the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) identified Higgins as ‘a missing link between the modernist period and contemporary writing’ (Murphy, 2010, 43). Though featuring an Anglo-Irish family ineptly confronting changing times, in which their way of life is doomed, Langrishe, go down subverts the ‘big house’ genre of the Irish novel with its setting in the economically and politically stagnant 1930s, in a house already ruinous and inhabited by three passive and penniless ageing sisters, catholic rather than protestant.
Langrishe, go down went on to win the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. By far his most conventional novel, it is often cited as his best work, though his more innovative later novels (Bornholm night-ferry and Lions of the Grunewald) and the extraordinary trio of memoirs continue to attract ever more admiration. Langrishe, go down’s reputation has been further enhanced by Harold Pinter’s adaptation (1978), screened as one of BBC television’s ‘Play of the week’ series and which gave Judy Dench and Jeremy Irons their first starring screen roles. It is also the only work by Higgins set entirely in Ireland. His mother, whose past had partly inspired the characters of the novel’s unmarried sisters, died in Dún Laoghaire in 1966, six days before its publication. Later he claimed that the sisters were loosely modelled on his brothers.
The family returned to Spain after the success of Langrishe, go down, where Higgins worked on Balcony of Europe, a novel set largely in Nerja among a group of ex-pat writers, artists and other emigres. By 1968 funds were low again and the novel unfinished. The financial crisis was temporarily solved when Higgins was awarded a scholarship by the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD) which enabled him to move the family to Berlin.
LONDON LIFE, 1969–82
The marriage, which had been under strain in Nerja, began to unravel in Berlin when Higgins considered leaving his family while having an affair. Jill frightened him by taking the boys to England but returned and eventually the couple agreed to try family life again, in London, so that the boys could attend English schools. In September 1969 they moved into a large, rented flat in Muswell Hill with a spectacular view over London, which remained the family base until Jill’s death.
Balcony of Europe had turned into a prodigiously long novel, and John Calder took on the formidable task of editing it alongside the author, a task both relished. A printer’s strike led to a further delay, and Images of Africa was published in 1971 to keep the author’s name in the public eye. Based on a diary kept by Higgins while on tour with the marionette company, Images of Africa, an episodic, impressionistic notebook, is a sparse but memorable record of those days, which included the Sharpeville massacre.
Balcony of Europe is set largely in Nerja with set pieces from the main character, Dan Ruttle’s Irish life intertwined. Conventional narrative is abandoned in favour of discrete scenes, contexts unelaborated, while Ruttle, the lynchpin of it all, remains a furtive and elusive enigma. The novel had a mixed reception; while some reviewers recognised a master prose stylist at work, with sequences of extraordinary power creating a colourful, complex portrait of cosmopolitan characters in a (largely) Mediterranean setting, others saw only an experiment gone badly wrong. Much of it was written to reflect real events, including the details of the affair between Ruttle and the young American wife, Charlotte; the author later explained ‘I thought I’d write a book that I wouldn’t have to invent at all. Whatever happened to me I’d write down’ (Murphy, 2010, 92). Higgins intention was for the experience of reading the book to be as close as possible to the lived experience it was recreating.
Apart from Langrishe, go down, all of Higgins’s novels feature main characters who are lightly fictionalised versions of the author himself, the author having given up on observing the conventions of fictionalisation. While the blurring of the boundaries between fiction and memoir has since become accepted practice, in the 1970s it was still seen as subversive. The next novel, Scenes from a receding past (1977) is a kind of ‘prequel’ to Balcony of Europe, the first part consisting of the author’s childhood memoir, albeit fictionally transposed to Sligo, and the second telling the story of ‘Olivia’, the author’s wife, in which Jill’s South African background is recast in New Zealand.
Between 1973 and 1990 seven of Higgins’s radio plays were produced by the BBC in London and RTÉ in Dublin. Subjects included Flann O’Brien, Charles Lamb, Berlin, and the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand. Radio plays were a useful and more reliable source of income than novel-writing; they paid about the same, and Higgins enjoyed the collaborative aspect. (The plays were collected by Higgins and Daniel Jernigan and published in 2010 as Darkling plain: texts for the air).
In 1983, Higgins, who was finding it ever more difficult to extract royalty payments from an increasingly embattled John Calder, gave Bornholm night-ferry to the Allison & Busby publishing house. The novel consists of a sequence of love letters shared by Elin, a Danish poet, and Fitzy, an Irish novelist. Unable to be together for more than a few impossibly intense days at a time, the lovers create a world of their own in intimate letters, rich in verbal play often inspired by Elin’s imperfect English. Perhaps one of the most extraordinary epistolary novels of the twentieth century, Bornholm night-ferry is a remarkable achievement, unlike anything written by an Irish writer post-Beckett.
Apart from a brief stay in Ireland in 1977 (funded by the American Ireland Fund), Higgins lived somewhat awkwardly due largely to his erratic income. Estranged from Jill but determined to keep in touch with his sons, he moved between the family home in Muswell Hill, a house owned by Jill in Cómpeta, an Andalusian hill village, and whatever friends or girlfriends could put him up. He supplemented his often-paltry income with regular reviews for Hibernia and the London Magazine, both having friendly editors who gave him unusual freedom.
In 1984, when his friend Alan Burns was unable to take up the offer of a semester teaching creative writing at the University of Texas, Austin, he invited Higgins to step in. Advised by Burns to talk to the students about the writers who had inspired his own work, Higgins proved a popular choice. He banked the proceeds, the largest sum he had ever earned, against the possibility of someday buying his own home.
RETURN TO IRELAND
In 1981 Seamus Heaney (qv) alerted Higgins to the existence of a new Irish association for Irish artists, Aosdána, which would pay him a modest salary (known as the Cnuas) if he moved back to Ireland to write. He became a founder-member and moved initially to County Wicklow, where his brother Colman had settled. He received the Cnuas annually for the rest of his life as his income from writing never reached the limit above which it could not be claimed.
While visiting his friend Derek Mahon in Kinsale in 1986, Higgins was introduced to Alannah Hopkin (co-author of the current piece), a Singapore-born writer and journalist who had recently moved from London to Kinsale, her mother’s hometown. An arts and travel journalist, Hopkin was a regular reviewer for the Evening Standard, the Financial Times and the TLS, and freelanced for numerous other publications. After publishing two novels with Hamish Hamilton, she had moved to Kinsale and was writing The living legend of St Patrick (1989) when she met Higgins. Higgins and Hopkin moved in together and, thanks in part to his Texan nest egg, eventually bought a house in the town. The couple married in 1997, and Higgins lived in Kinsale for the rest of his life.
When Allison & Busby ceased as an independent publisher in 1987, Higgins moved to Secker & Warburg, with whom he published two collections of short pieces in 1989: Ronda Gorge and other precipices and Helsingor Station and other departures. The discovery of a journal covering his time in Berlin led to the novel Lions of the Grunewald (1993). Written at a white-hot pace in some six weeks, the novel contains a barely fictionalised account of his companions on the DAAD scholarship, his wife and children at home in a leafy suburb, and above all his great love, Hannelore, with whom he has an affair in the novel. Life is reconstituted as fiction, complete with comic set pieces and suicide as farce – a ‘missionary stew’ in narrator Weaver’s words. For many of Higgins’s admirers, including his friend the graphic artist, Tomi Ungerer, Lions is his consummate achievement. Others dislike its cartoonish humour and melodramatic set pieces.
FROM FICTION TO MEMOIR
In 1985 Higgins was commissioned to write a piece about the small town Athy, Co. Kildare (ultimately published in 1989 in 32 counties: photographs of Ireland by Donovan Wylie). Higgins’s contribution vividly evokes the poverty and simplicity of the Ireland where he grew up and brought back memories of living at Springfield. When Hopkin suggested that he write an autobiography about literary Dublin in the 1940s and 1950s, Higgins instead went back to his childhood and adolescence in Kildare. Donkey’s years (1995) was followed by two more memoirs, Dog days (1998) and The whole hog (2000).
As a writer who had repeatedly used autobiography as the basis for his fiction, Higgins was already a master of the memoir: ‘I am consumed by memories and they form the life of me; stories that make up my life and lend it whatever veracity and purpose it may have’ (Donkey’s years, 1995, 3). The autobiographies are consummate examples of the genre, the skills of an accomplished writer of fiction applied with panache to the vividly remembered past, make his work at once innovative and classic, rich in digressions, infused by wit, with the viewpoint most typically ironic. The chapter on Clongowes, for example, is titled ‘The bracing air of Sodom’. History is imported into the text piecemeal, as are lists, and the narrative thread is often elliptical. The deeply moving later sections, set in London, South Africa and Dún Laoghaire, describing the death of his parents, are lifted piecemeal from Balcony of Europe and Scenes from a receding past, both of which the author declared would remain out of print for his lifetime: ‘I have freely pillaged from both for sections of this present work – bold Robin Crusoe ferrying booty from the two wrecks’ (Donkey’s years, 323).
There is a growing consensus among critics that these works have not received the recognition they deserve. Derek Mahon detected a hostile note in some reviews, tracing it to a reaction against the austere and often astringent style of Higgins’s prose: ‘His whole practice and attitude are about as far as one could get from current aesthetics, though it would be wrong to think of him as conservative … he is, paradoxically, the most blithely subversive of writers’ (Murphy, 2010, 75). The whole hog was shortlisted for the Irish Times’ non-fiction award in 2000. In 2007 Celbridge played host to ‘Aidan Higgins at 80’, a weekend celebration of its local author, masterminded by Neil Donnelly. Among those gathered to pay tribute were admirers such as John Banville, Gerry Dukes, Dermot Healy (qv), Derek Mahon, Neil Murphy, Fintan O’Toole, Annie Proulx and Jonathan Williams.
John O’Brien (also in attendance at Celbridge in 2007), publisher and editor of Dalkey Archive Press, had long been an admirer of Higgins and was keen to publish his work in the US. He started with the memoirs, collected into one volume with the title A bestiary (2004). This was followed by Windy arbours (2006), a selection of Higgins’s criticism, compiled by Jonathan Williams, his friend and agent.
O’Brien’s enthusiasm gave Higgins a much-needed boost at a time when his eyesight was fading due to macular degeneration, and reading and writing had become increasingly difficult. O’Brien was puzzled by the lukewarm reception of Higgins’s work in Ireland and commissioned critic and academic Neil Murphy (co-author of the current piece) to assemble a collection of essays on Higgins (The fragility of form), and to re-edit Balcony of Europe, with the author’s co-operation. A collected edition of the radio plays (Darkling plain: texts for the air) was also published. The three books were launched together in Trinity College Dublin in October 2010. Higgins’s physical frailty was apparent as he sat on stage for an interview with John O’Brien, and he was received with warmth and affection, in what was a kind of belated acknowledge of his stature in Irish writing.
DEATH AND LEGACY
By 2012 Higgins, almost blind and increasingly frail, needed full-time care and he moved to a nearby nursing home in Kinsale. Vascular dementia allowed him some good days, on which he continued to work on the text eventually published as March hares – a collection of hitherto unpublished papers, diary entries and reviews. Aidan Higgins died on 27 December 2015 and his ashes are buried in the graveyard of St Multose Church, Kinsale, beneath a hand-carved stone plaque facing the garden wall of what was his home from 1987 to 2013. The day before his funeral a strong storm caused widespread damage in Cork, and the road to the crematorium was flooded. The ceremony, put together by Higgins’s friends, was instead held in a private room in Acton’s Hotel, Kinsale. Obituaries were warm and laudatory, often lamenting the sparse public recognition for his work, despite its critical success.
Aidan Higgins had a reputation for being difficult, even hostile, which those who knew him well would contradict. The often cantankerous and superior tone of his writing was perhaps to blame, combined with an unsmiling, bearded countenance and an inability to make small talk. He was unwilling or unable to play the publicity game. His friends knew him as a witty and entertaining companion, loyal and generous. His inability to ‘perform’ as a live interviewee did not help his reputation, as publicity became ever more important in the literary world. John Banville recognised this failing early on, suggesting that Higgins was a ‘shy’ writer. Banville also predicted that the success and public recognition which was Higgins’s due as a writer would prove elusive in his lifetime, but predicted that it would ‘be like an underground river, flowing on unnoticed for a long time and then suddenly bursting out and joining and mingling with the broad sea of a glorious tradition, where it firmly belongs’ (Irish Times, 4 Jan. 2016).
In 2001 Higgins was awarded an honorary doctorate by University College Cork. His reputation was enhanced by Where would you like the bullet? (2019), a well received, affectionate, off-beat film written and directed by Neil Donnelly and edited by Seamus Callagy. Alannah Hopkin’s memoir of her life with Higgins (A very strange man: a memoir of Aidan Higgins) was published in 2021.
Aidan Higgins’s literary papers (1963–1967) are in the University of Vancouver Library. Papers primarily from 1982–2012, while incorporating some material from 1968–82, are in the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.