Dedicated to the late Niamh Bhreathnach former Minister of Education.
This piece was written by Tom Ferris (husband), pays as a tribute to his wife, Niamh Bhreathnach and her significant contributions to education and equality in Ireland. It highlights her role as a teacher, advocate, and Minister for Education, focusing on her initiatives, influence on gender equality, innovative reforms, and lasting legacy in the field of education.
My wife Niamh Bhreathnach was politically and educationally active all her life, both as a teacher and advocate for equality of opportunity in education. Her period teaching in St Audeon’s National School, that served Dublin’s south inner city, had a major influence on her. And so, as Minister for Education, she introduced Early Start and Breaking the Cycle. These initiatives subsequently morphed into the DEIS Programme today. It was Bishop Eamonn Walsh, who spoke at Niamh’s funeral, who lauded her wonderful legacy of what became the DEIS Schools.
Advocacy for Education – Niamh Bhreathnach was a trailblazer in advancing education and life-long learning. Her legacy is echoed not only in transformative policies but also in a recent podcast series – The Learning Garden – produced by the Irish Froebel Network. Seamie O’Neill, Director of the Irish Froebel Network has spoken about the important role Niamh played in advancing life-long learning in Ireland. He went on to extol the choice of the Niamh Bhreathnach for the first of the podcasts.
Promotion of Gender Equality – Niamh’s leadership broke gender barriers, exemplifying the potential of female leaders in a male-dominated political field. Her influence on gender equality in education is a prominent theme in the insightful podcast series. Niamh was a true champion of equality. She was not afraid of fighting for the marginalised and the disadvantaged. Niamh was a concerned person, but that didn’t mean she suffered fools gladly, be they politicians, from Ministers to EU Commissioners.
Innovative Reforms – Niamh’s most notable achievement was the abolishment of third level fees in Ireland during her tenure as Minister for Education. This transformative move has had a lasting impact on the landscape of education in Ireland. The rationale for the abolition of third level tuition fees was to close a tax loophole. But more importantly it was designed to widen participation, particularly to traditionally underrepresented socio-economic groups. Many in the wake of Niamh’s passing stated on social media that they wouldn’t have had a chance to attend third level education had it not been for Niamh abolishing third level fees.
Legacy in Education – Legacy in Education – Niamh’s imprint on education remains indelible. Her policies and innovative approaches continue to be integral components of the Irish education system. This legacy is further echoed in the podcast series she recorded, a testament to her enduring influence. She remained true to the introduction she wrote for her ground-breaking White Paper which stated that – “The ultimate objective of the strategies set out in this White Paper is an education system which will provide every student with fulfilling educational experiences at every stage in a lifetime of learning”.
Conclusion – Niamh has been a significance force in the field of education. Her enduring legacy is as a leader who transformed the educational landscape in Ireland. An inspirational woman whose determination to level the playing field for all who aspired to higher education opening worlds of opportunities to those who would have otherwise never had the opportunity to realise their potential. Laoise Ní Chléirigh who hosted the podcasts set a challenge for us all when she said that she was truly – “… grateful to Niamh for sowing the first seed in our Learning Garden podcast. Let something she says sow a seed in your mind about how you too, can make a difference in education or in your chosen life journey today”.