Nick Higgins at Liffey Head

“I’d rather be at Nick Higgins’s at Liffey Head!”
It was a phrase of my mam’s growing up. It meant I’d rather be anywhere but there, she
said. It was wasn’t exactly a regular saying of hers but it had its diverse uses in our house.
“Mam, would you not want to go to Santa Ponsa with all the neighbours on the road like
Claire’s mam does?”
A scoff.
“I’d rather be at Nick Higgins’s at Liffey Head!”
It provided a strong last word to a discussion.
I’d never heard anyone say it outside the house but that wasn’t unusual. Growing up in
suburban South Dublin with parents who were resolute not-Dubs, I heard a whole
repertoire of sayings that I never heard said by anyone else. Old dog for the hard road. He
didn’t lick that off the stones. I’d ate a farmers arse through a tennis racket. Useless as half a
scissors in a sheep-shearing competition. Jesus, Mary suffering mother of God and merciful
Saint Joseph.
I liked the Nick Higgins one though. It was evocative, mythical. Somewhere up in the
mountains where the River Liffey rises, there was the house of Nick Higgins and (for
unknown reasons) it was a place you categorically did not want to be.
Unknown, that is, until I found out that it was not a saying at all.
My mam was recounting a winter of fierce snow they had when she was a child in the
Wicklow Mountains. They had had to dig a path through the yard to the cow shed and when
she walked through, the banks of snow on either side had been higher than she was tall.
“-and sure poor Nick Higgins was completely snowed in, he had to live on turnips ‘till the
thaw came.”
“Nick Higgins?” we said. Astounded. “Nick Higgins of Liffey Head Nick Higgins? He was a real
“Ah, he was of course!” as if it was obvious, “He lived up above us – at Liffey Head – away
up the mountains. A lonely auld place my mother used to say-“ and on with the story of the
big snow.
But I were reeling. A mythical creature was just made flesh. Nick Higgins was eating turnips
in the mountains by the source of the Liffey. The tooth fairy may as well be working in the
newsagents. Big Foot drives a golf.
The phrase still jumps to my mouth sometimes when I need a stronger way to say that I
don’t want to go somewhere. There’s a niche for a phrase like that, I believe. I would rarely
actually say it, and definitely not outside the house. A bit too far from mainstream. I do tell
the story of it sometimes to friends, for a laugh. And we do get a laugh out of it; a classic
rural Irish catchphrase that was actually some kind of intergenerational family meme about
a neighbour.
I perhaps should not make light of it because it could hardly have been a fun experience for
Nick. But all the same, I can hardly imagine that Nick Higgins, stuck at the head of the Liffey,
eating turnips and waiting for the snow to melt, would have thought that a generation later
he’d be the folk hero, an urban legend, of a one-house pocket of South Dublin suburbia.