Higgins was born in Limerick. When his father's health grew poor, with alcohol a contributing factor, his mother sent Higgins, aged five, and his four-year-old brother to live on his unmarried uncle and aunt's farm near Newmarket on Fergus, County Clare. His older twin sisters remained in Limerick. He was educated at Ballycar National School, Co. Clare; St. Flannan's College, Ennis; University College Galway; Indiana University; and Manchester University. Serving as Vice Auditor of the College's Literary and Debating Society in 1963–1964, he rose to the position of Auditor in the 1964–1965 academic year. He also served as President of UCG Students' Union in 1964–65. Before entering politics he worked as Statutory Lecturer in Political Science and Sociology at University College Galway (UCG) and Visiting Professor at the Southern Illinois University.
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