Minister of Education
Niamh Bhreathnach, 1993
Niamh Bhreathnach Collection.

1993 - 1997


DECEMBER 1993 - JUNE 1997

“The order in which I took decisions within the Department of Education was parent first, teacher second, Minister third.”

‘I believe that the Party in 1989 has to reach out to a whole new generation in Irish life, through the positive use of the media, public meetings and recruitment campaigns. As Vice-Chair I ensure that the voice of the ordinary member is heard at officer level.‘

Labour Women, 1989.

Winning a seat in the General Election, 1992
Niamh Bhreatnach with her husband Tom Ferris.
Niamh Bhreathnach Collection.

At 47, Niamh was appointed to Cabinet

At 47, Niamh was appointed to Cabinet following her election to Dáil Éireann. As she stated at the time, it showed Dick Spring’s confidence in her.

It was the first time there were two women in the Cabinet.

When she first joined the Labour Party in the 1970s and 1980s, women had to fight to get their voices heard.

Women in the party campaigned to get representation on the party’s Administration Council. They put it to the Conference and Niamh Bhreathnach recalls two of their own women voting against it. The Women’s Council eventually secured two reserved places on the administrative council and Niamh won a seat in Dún Laoghaire Council.

27th Dail Cabinet Picture
Niamh Bhreathnach Collection

Ministerial Achievements

As Minister for Education, Niamh Bhreathnach published the first White Paper on Education, Charting our Education Future in 1995. She introduced the Leaving Certificate Applied Programme, and made the Transition Year Programme available to all second-level schools. She abolished third-level undergraduate tuition fees and achieved significant increases in education spending. She also initiated the ‘Breaking the Cycle’ Programme, targeted at rural and urban schools in disadvantaged areas — an initiative regarded by the teaching profession as a significant achievement.

She introduced the Education Bill, 1997— the first major legislative breakthrough since the Stanley Letter of 1831 — and the University Act, 1997, which made universities accountable for the public money they receive.

During Niamh Bhreathnach’s time as Minister for Education, Regional Technical Colleges were upgraded to Institutes of Technology, including the RTC, which she had established in Dún Laoghaire.

Niamh worked to improve opportunities for women apprentices. She developed a National Scheme for Computers in Schools. One of Niamh’s key priorities was to give a stronger voice to parents in schools. She systemically provided for extra teachers and facilities during her term in office. She concentrated on the value of research, and made major efforts to gain funding for this area, primarily from Europe.

Women's Political Association Magazine, 1988
Irish History Labour Society

Niamh Bhreathnach's speech, Maynooth University, 1993. PP-21-8(1)
Maynooth University

Niamh Bhreathnach, Minister for Education with Joan Burton, Minister of State at the Official Openeing of Castleknock Community College)
Joan Burton Collection
Statement on the White Paper by Niamh Bhreathnach, T.D., Minister for Education, to Dáil Éireann, 1995. PP-21-318(1)
Maynooth University
Niamh Bhreatnach, 1997 The Labour Party Changing the Face of Education
Alan Kinsella Collection

Political Career timeline:

  • Founder member and Chairperson, Carysfort Area Residents’ Association, 1972.
  •  Joined the Women’s Political Association, 1976.
  • Joined the Labour Party in Blackrock, 1976.
  • Booterstown Community Council, 1985.
  • Blackrock Combined Residents’ Association 1988.
  • Vice-chairperson Labour Party, 1989-1990.
  • Chairperson Labour Party 1990-January 1993.
  • Member, Dublin County Council 1991-January 1993.
  • Minister for Education December 1993-December 1997
  • Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, 1999.
  • Chairwoman, Labour Women’s National Council.
  •  Executive member, Dún Laoghaire An Táisce.
  • Member, SIPTU.
  • Maritime Museum Friends.
  • Patron, Blackrock Athletic Club.
  • Member, Board for the Employment of the Blind.
  • Cathaoirleach Dún Laoghaire 2004-2005. 

Niamh Bhreathnach, press cutting 1992.
Irish History Labour Society
We Are Women We Are Voting Yes For Divorce
Alan Kinsella Collection,
A New Face for Labour
Alan Kinsella Collection,

Chairperson of Irish Labour Party

1990 - 1992

General Election


Election Literature, 1990s
Alan Kinsella Collection

Niamh Bhreatnach, 1997
The Irish Times
Presentation Plate given to Niamh Bhreatnach,
Minister of Education
Niamh Bhreatnach Collection
Labour Party Literature
Working For Your Area
Alan Kinsella Collection


Her mother Lena Donnellan, originally from Mullagh, County Clare, supported Fine Gael.

Niamh Breathnach was born in Dublin on 1 June 1945, the second eldest of five sisters - Sighle, Eibhlin, Fionnuala and Eadaoin.

Her father, Breandán, was a Clann na Phoblachta supporter and supported Dr Noel Browne. Her mother Lena, originally from Clare, supported Fine Gael. An uncle was a chairman of the Fine Gael Party. Both of her parents were civil servants and did not express political views. As Niamh says, ‘she had no political blood in her at all.’

It was a house full of music - her father played the uileann pipes and was a collector of music, which eventually formed the collection of the traditional music archive.

Niamh’s parents believed in education and her father wanted his daughters to stay in school until they were 21. As Niamh recalled ‘she had no sense she would have to marry and settle down’.

Niamh met Tom Ferris at a party in Dublin. They had two children, Clíodhna and MacDara.

Niamh was a primary teacher at Carysfort College. She later taught at an inner city school at the Oliver Bond complex, an experience which had a major effect on her socialist beliefs, leading to her decision to join the Labour Party.

Niamh Bhreathnach press cutting, 13 January 1993. PP-21-488(2)
Maynooth University

Niamh and her older sister Sighle

Niamh and her older sister Sighle.
Niamh Bhreatnach Collection
Niamh and her older sister Sighle.
Niamh Bhreatnach Collection
Niamh and her older sister Sighle with their parents, 1940s
Niamh’s father Breandán, a line drawing taken from Ceol Rince.
Niamh Bhreatnach Collection
Niamh Bhreatnach and Tom Ferris on their wedding day, 1969.