Wednesday, 27 February 2013

William Higgin 1793-1867 Bishop of Derry and Raphoe 1853-1867

William Higgin was born at Lancaster on the 27th September 1793. He was educated at Lancaster and Manchester Grammar Schools and Trinity College, Cambridge graduating B.A 1817, M.A. 1823, D.D. 1849. He became Curate of Clifton, near Bristol until 1820 when he moved to Ireland to act as tutor to the sons of Henry Goulburn, chief secretary of Ireland. Shortly afterwards he was appointed Chaplain of Richmond Penitentiary, Dublin. In 1823 Higgin became Rector of Roscrea, in the Diocese of Killaloe, and subsequently became Vicar-General of the Diocese. He was appointed Dean of Limerick in 1845. In this position Higgin appears to have been active in trying to relieve distress caused by the Great Famine. The local community's appreciation for his actions led the Corporation of Limerick to lobby for his promotion to the bishopric of Limerick. Four years later he was translated to the See of Derry.

The death of Richard Ponsonby in October 1853 led to speculation that William Higgin, then Bishop of Limerick, would be his successor. The news was greeted with apprehension by the local newspapers of the day. The Londonderry Sentinel, in particular, expressed its position in no uncertain terms:

"There are various cogent reasons why the appointment of Dr Higgin would be objected to in this diocese"

The paper opposed Higgin on two counts. Firstly, it was the fact that he was an Englishman. The appointment of Englishmen to lucrative Irish benefices when Irish born clerics were ignored was a sore point and indeed an old grievance. The paper argued that there were few enough opportunities for native clergy to advance without the added competition of their English counterparts. Furthermore  English clergymen were regarded by the paper as "ignorant of the habits and feelings of the population" and would thus be ill-prepared to serve their needs. The second issue which the paper drew attention to was Higgin's "Ultra Views" concerning the National System Education. As a recently appointed  Commissioner of National Education, Higgin would be at odds, the paper argued, with most of the clergy in the diocese who favoured "scriptural education" (those who supported the Church Education Society) . Despite this local opposition, however, William Higgin was indeed translated to the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe.

The appointment signalled a distinct change in the administration of the United Diocese in more ways than one. In contrast to Ponsonby, Bishop Higgin proved to be an energetic reformer. His aim was to raise the standard of ministry in the diocese and provide for the growing  spiritual needs of those of under his care. In his visitation of 1863, Higgin looked back on his arrival in the diocese ten years earlier when he had found "many of the churches without baptismal fonts, and in some instances, without becoming means for the decorus celebration of the Lord's Supper". Moreover, he found Holy Communion administered infrequently in many of the churches. Ten years later, however, Higgin was pleased to relate that every church now had a font and that the celebration of the Holy Communion was administered more often, to greater numbers and "with becoming reverence". There was also a discernible rise in the provision of evening services with increased attendance recorded. The 1859 religious revival, which the Bishop supported  also contributed  to increased church commitment.

This new spiritual energy could also be seen in the building of seventeen new churches and the enlarging of twenty-seven during Higgin's episcopate. The restoration of St. Columb's Cathedral was a case in point when, again on his arrival in the diocese, he had expressed sadness at the poor condition of the building and it's unfitness for the proper conduct of worship. In November 1858 the Bishop addressed the Vestry on plans for it's restoration which were eventually carried out in the period 1861-62 at the cost of approx £4000. The scheme saw the removal of the south and north galleries, the introduction of gas lighting and the erection of riga oak pews, the bishop's throne, western screens and stained glass windows.

During his episcopate, Bishop Higgin also sought to defend the church from attacks in parliament and the newspapers calling for its disestablishment. These attacks became more intense and more frequent as the 1860's progressed. To Higgin, therefore, it was all the more important that a high standard of clerical conduct was observed as a way to defend its establishment against such criticism. He consistently emphasized the duties which were expected of his clergy. Not only were they to ensure that church property was to be kept in good order, but by actions they were to set a good example to their congregation and acquaint themselves with the condition of their spiritual beliefs.

One case which proved to be indicative of Bishop Higgin's more vigorous administration was his suit against the Revd Moore O'Connor, the "soi distant" rector of Culdaff, in the consistorial court of Armagh in 1857. O'Connor, with no offcial clerical training, had successfully conned his way into serving the Anglican Church. After holding various curacies in England and Ireland, it appears in 1851 that he obtained the rectory of Culdaff through an act of simony. After Higgin's translation to Derry, however, O'Connor's colourful past eventually came under episcopal scrutiny, forcing the Bishop to act against him. In this curious case, which cost Higgin a small fortune (£1000), Moore O'Connor was finally deprived of his living. On this occasion Higgin's strict enforcement of clerical discipline won particular praise from the clergy of the diocese.

In other areas of his administration, however, the Bishop provoked "feelings of extreme dissatisfaction". On the question of clerical appointments, charges of nepotism and favoritism were made by the local press concerning the advancement of the bishop's sons-in-law and "palace favorites". Their quick rise in promotion to financially lucrative benefices at the expense of longer serving clerics in the diocese led to sustained protests in the early months of 1864 when a number of pamphlets were published by those defending and attacking the bishop's use of patronage.

William Higgin also attracted ill-feeling when, in 1860, he interfered with the celebrations marking the anniversary of the Relief of Derry.

It was customary on these occasions for Derry's crimson flag to be flown above the cathedral's east window and for the cathedral bells to be rung. During this particular year, however, The Party Emblems Bill (a measure designated to reduce breeches of public order) was making its way through parliament. Higgin as a member of the House of Lords which passed the bill on its first reading, and in the absence of the Dean, reused to allow this display to take place. The Apprentice Boys of Derry, however, defied Higgin's command and raised the flag. Attempts made by Higgin to stop these proceedings proved unsuccessful and led to the Apprentice Boy's occupation of the belfry over a period of two days during which the flag was flown and the bells rung. The local newspapers launched scathing criticism on the Bishop's conduct, "The Lord Bishop of Derry has done a grievous wrong. He has committed an outrage upon the Protestant Community".

Bishop Higgin died on the 12th of July 1867, even his fiercest critics acknowledged he had a genuine faith-

"He had his faults, for he was a man, but none was more ready to acknowledge them... He may have been sometimes too impulsive, but he was a thoroughly honest man, and sound judgement soon re-asserted its ascendancy."


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