Mary O'Rourke, 1983
RTÉ Photographic Archive.

1987 - 1991
5th Cabinet Minister



‘I wanted with my two hands wide open to be a politician.’ Mary Banotti’s Something about Mary, Liberties Press, 2008

Mary O'Rourke, 1983.
RTÉ Photographic Archive.

Political Career timeline:

  • Member of Athlone Urban District Council from 1974. 
  • Member of the Board of Management Athlone Regional Technical College 1974-1979.
  • Chairperson of the Athlone Regional Technical College 1978-1979.
  • Member of the Westmeath County Vocational Committee, 1979-1987.
  • Member of Westmeath County Council. Topped poll in 1979 Local Elections. Remained a Councillor until 1987.
  • Secretary of Athlone Comhairle Ceanntair.
  • Chairman Athlone Urban District Council 1980-1981, 1984-1985 and 1986-1987.
Mary O’Rourke, Chair Athlone Urban District Council 1980, 1981 – 1984-1985 and 1986
Mary O'Rourke Collection

Political Career timeline:

  • Member of the FF National Executive. Council of Fifteen. 
  • Senator on the Industrial and Commercial Panel, 1981-1982 and Cultural and Education Panel April-November 1982.
  • Stood for Election in February 1982. 
  • Elected to the Dáil in the General Election of November 1982. 
  • Front Bench Spokesperson on Education 1983-1987.
  • Minister for Education from 1987-1991.
Mary O’Rourke, receiving her seal of office from President Patrick Hillery.
©Irish Photo Archive


Ministerial Achievement:

Minister for Education March 1987-1989, reappointed in 1989-1991

One of her key tasks was the development of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. She also oversaw the introduction of the Junior Certificate to replace the Inter Certificate. She also was responsible for the establishment of the Home-School Liaison Teachers. She brought forward legislation to allow the NIHEs in Limerick and Dublin to become universities – University of Limerick and Dublin City University.

She was Minister when the Educate Together schools, were given the go ahead as well as other multidenominational schools. During Ireland’s Presidency of Europe in 1990, Mary presided over the Council of Ministers of Education in Brussels. One of the programmes that became firmly established at that time was the Erasmus Programme. Another programme which was introduced was V-TOS and the setting up of Teacher Training Colleges around the country.

Minister for Health and Children, 1991
Ministerial Achievement:

In 1991, Mary was appointed Minister for Health. Mary oversaw a publicity campaign and the introduction of preventative measures on cot death, following which cot deaths decreased.

Mary O'Rourke presents 'Liveline'

Mary O'Rourke presents 'Liveline' (1992)

  • Minister for Health and Children 1991-1992.
  • Elected to the Dáil in the General Election of November 1992
  • Junior Minister at the Department of Industry and Commerce, 1992 (While there she brought the Consumer Credit Bill to the Dáil).   
  • Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise and Employment, with special responsibilities for Labour Affairs, 1993-4 (where she had charge of FÁS and its expansion to include Community Employment schemes). 
  • Deputy Leader of Fianna Fáil 1994-2002. 
  • Elected to the Dáil in the General Election of June 1997.
  • Minister for Public Enterprise 1997-2002.

Minister for Public Enterprise 1997
Ministerial Achievement:

During her time as Minister, the Railway Safety Programme was implemented, and the Luas proposal was brought to Cabinet and the privatisation of Telecom Éireann (later Eircom) was completed.

Mary O’Rourke photographed in RTE during budget coverage, 1997.
RTÉ Photographic Archive.
  • Elected to the Seanad, 2002.
  • Leader of the Seanad 2002-2007 and also Leader of Fianna Fail in the Seanad.
  • Member, Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, 2002 (Sub-Committee on Human Rights). 
  • Seanad Éireann Committee on Procedure and Privileges 2002 -.Member of Committee on Members' Interests of Seanad Éireann. 
  • Committee of Selection of Seanad Éireann 2002 – 2007.
  • Elected to the Dáil in the General Election of May 2007.
  • Elected to the Dáil in the General Election of May 2007.
  • Member, Joint Committee on House Services.
  • Member, Joint Committee on Standing Orders.
  • Chairperson, Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children 2007-2011.
  • Member of Joint Committee on European Affairs, 2007-February 2011.
  • Members Sub-Committee on Review of the Role of the Oireachtas in European Affairs, 2010. 
  • Member, Joint Committee on the Constitution, 2007-2011.


Drawing of Annie Scanlan by Séan O’Sullivan.
Mary O’Rourke Collection.

The youngest child of two graduates of University College Galway, Mary Lenihan’s parents were from Clare and Sligo who had met during their undergraduate studies. Her father was Patrick J Lenihan from Clare who had attended the University to study Law. Her mother was Annie Scanlan. The politics of the Scanlan family was anti-treaty. Her father's family had supported Michael Collins and the Treaty, but Mary described he father later ‘fully embraced Fianna Fáil’. By the time Mary was born both sides of the family were closely linked to Fianna Fáil.

Mary was born in Athlone in 1937, where her parents had moved. Her father a civil servant, was asked by Seán Lemass, Minister of Industry and Commerce, to set up a textile factory, which became known as Gentex.

Mary had two older brothers Brian and Patrick (known as Paddy) and a sister Anne. From the outset the Lenihans home became a political centre; her father was a town councillor and later a county councillor. Mary’s earliest memory of being politicised was when she would meet local TD, Erskine Childers, at the train station and bring him across to the house. One of her vivid memories was a visit of Eamon de Valera coming to Athlone. Being too young she was unable to stay up but unknown to the adults she spent hours listening at the sitting room door, vowing that she would in future be in the middle of political life. When she was a school girl, she was a member of the youth branch of Fianna Fáil called Macra Fáil.


Mary Lenihan with her classmates, St Peter’s Convent Athlone.
Mary O’Rourke Collection.

Following her primary education in St Peter’s Convent, Athlone, Mary was sent to the Loreto Convent, Bray where her mother had taught for a period of time before her marriage. Mary left school in 1954 at the age of seventeen. She then went to University College Dublin obtaining an Honours Bachelor of Arts in English and French. By that point her parents were hoteliers having bought the Hodson Bay Hotel. While Mary was working there at 18 she met Enda O’Rourke, who would become her husband. She returned to live in Athlone, her father wanted her to take over the running of the family hotel.

University College Dublin Student Card.
Mary O Rourke Collection.
Mary Lenihan and Enda O’Rourke on their wedding day, 1960.
Mary O’Rourke Collection.

Mary Lenihan and Enda O’Rourke on their wedding day, 1960.
Mary O’Rourke Collection.

Mary and Enda O’Rourke married in 1960. Her father gave them a site as a wedding present in Arcadia in Athlone. Her son Feargal was born in August 1964. Unable to have another child, Mary and Enda adopted another son, who they named Aengus, in 1968. Mary had already returned to education. At the encouragement of her father and with the support of Enda, she went back to college. Maynooth was offering a Higher Diploma in Education. She got work at the local school. She took a year out to spend time with Aengus. When she returned to work it was to Summerhill, just outside Athlone and she began to work full-time teaching English and History. Mary O’Rourke, Just Mary, Gill & Macmillan, 2012.


In 1965 her father was elected as a TD (Fianna Fáil) for Longford-Westmeath. He served until his death in 1970. When her father died, Mary was asked to put her name forward for his seat. At the time Mary declined to run but for the next election she ran as a local candidate and was elected to the town council. This was followed five years later when Mary ran for the Fianna Fáil National Executive. Her eldest brother Brian was already a TD and a Cabinet Minister. Her other brother Paddy was also elected at that time.

In 1981, Mary made a successful bid for the Seanad and left teaching. In the General Election of November 1982, she ran for the Dáil and was elected – her first day in the Dáil was 14 December 1982.

Mary O’Rourke and Taoiseach Charles J Haughey.
Mary O’Rourke Collection.

During these years Mary’s main role was in the shadow cabinet. Charles Haughey offered her the role as Fianna Fáil spokesperson on Education. For four and a half years, in opposition the shadow cabinet met as if they were in power. In 1992, in Úna Claffey’s book, The Women Who Won, she admitted that she knew then that she would never be Taoiseach, saying ‘age wise … her time was gone.’ She was fifty-six. She had put her name forward for leader in 1992, when Albert Reynolds was elected leader. He again suggested that she would be Women’s Affairs Minister, as she had before but she turned him down.

Reynolds appointed her Junior Minister at the Department of Industry and Commerce. While there she brought the Consumer Credit Bill to the Dáil.

Mary O’Rouke and Albert Reynolds

Mary was retuned in the general election of November 1992 when Fianna Fáil was in a coalition with Labour. This time her title was Minister of State for Labour with responsibility for Labour Affairs under Ruairi Quinn. There she had charge of Fás and its expansion to include community employment schemes. In 1994, Bertie Ahern became the Leader of Fianna Fáil. He appointed Mary as Deputy Leader.

Mary O’Rourke and Bertie Ahern, Taoiseach 1997-2008.
Mary O’Rourke Collection.

Following the election in 1997, Mary took over the role as Minister for Public Enterprise, with responsibility for state enterprises. During her time in office the Railway Safety Programme was implemented, and the Luas proposal was brought to Cabinet and the privatisation of Telecom (later Eircom) completed.

Mary O’Rourke at a Meeting of the North South Ministerial Council
Established by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (1998).
Mary O’Rourke Collection.

She lost her seat in the General Election of 2002 but was the Taoiseach’s nominee for the Seanad and became Leader of the Seanad. During this time Mary’s husband Enda died.

Election Literature, Mary O’Rourke, 2007.
Alan Kinsella Collection

In 2007 Mary stood for election and returned with her highest ever vote. Fianna Fáil was again in power with the Greens and Independents. Mary became Chairperson of the All Party Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment and a member of the all-party committee on children.

Mary O’Rourke and Taoiseach Brian Cowan, the announcement of the opening of the Mail Centre in Athlone.
Mary O’Rourke Collection.

In 2008, Brian Cowen became Taoiseach, and her nephew Brian Jnr became Minister for Finance. In 2009, it emerged that he had pancreatic cancer. In February 2011 Mary lost her seat. In March 2011 she was awarded a distinguished fellowship from the Institute of Technology, Athlone, an event attended by her family and her nephew who died the following June.


She remained in the public eye, writing her memoir Just Mary, A Memoir published by Gill and Macmillan in 2012. The book received the Listener’s Choice Award, in the Irish Book Awards. This was followed in 2016 with Letters of My Life. She has written extensively for the Press and been a regular commentator and contributor on both radio and TV. She appeared on programmes such as Celebrity Bainsteoir and Tonight with Vincent Browne.