Phew! We’re finally at the final ten in this little series. In case you’ve forgotten (I started this in 2023) I am looking at 50 people who were deemed by the Irish Times in 2011 as the 50 most influential people in education.

Let’s check out numbers 41–50!

41. Seán Sherlock

Back in 2011, Sherlock was the Minister of State for Research and Innovation and was tipped to be a future leader of the Labour Party. Ultimately it didn’t work out as Labour fell slowly but surely from grace with several other TDs taking up the mantle unsuccessfully. Sherlock announced his retirement from politics in 2023.

In terms of education, he didn’t really end up having much influence. Aodhán Ó Ríordáin has managed to keep the education portfolio for Labour for a very long time.

Would he make the list now?

I’m not quite sure if he deserved his place back in 2011 but the Labour Party were riding high at the time. As a former Labour voter, I look back wishing things were different but they made their bed. In any case, Sherlock wouldn’t make the list now, whether or not I still supported the party.

Also 41. Ciaran Cannon

For whatever reason, both these TDs were put in the same billing but I’m separating them.

In 2011, Cannon was the Minister of State for Training and Skills. Again, he was one who was tipped for greater things and was somewhat celebrated for showing “his mettle by defending unpopular cuts” but I’ll mostly remember him for our short-lived double-act at various ICT conferences where he was arguing to make coding a subject in primary schools and I was arguing the opposite.

Suffice to say, despite the fact technology is to become a subject from 2026, I still think I’m right and time will tell.

As for Ciaran, he’s just announced he won’t be contesting the next election. I’m surprised he didn’t go on to bigger things. Possibly because I had some time to meet him and talk to him, I found him to be courteous, professional and encouraging. However, maybe they aren’t the traits one needs to get to the top.

Would he make the list today?

I started writing this profile before Cannon announced he wasn’t stepping away from politics and I said “Not today but never say never. There is still time for him to achieve things in education. I’m surprised he never got a crack at that whip, especially when Joe McHugh was given the portfolio.”

It looks like that isn’t going to happen now. I wish him well. One of the good ones.

42. Dr. Emer Smyth

Smyth was being celebrated in 2011 for having an influence on the Irish Education system because she wrote papers on education that shifted government policy, including the Junior Cert and other areas deemed interesting to the Irish Times. Emer Smyth is still a researcher in the ESRI and continues to provide facsinating insights to the Irish Education System. If there’s a paper written on primary education that makes the news, it’s more likely than not to have Emer Smyth’s name somewhere on it. One of her most notable recent studies, Growing Up in Ireland, provided some of the best insights to children and education.

Would he make the list today?

It’s been quite some time since I’ve answered “yes” to this question but this couldn’t be a more definitive one. Dr. Emer Smyth continues to produce essential reading for anyone involved in primary education.

43. Michael Murphy and Don Barry

Another case of two people sharing the one number, in this case I’m going to do them together because both are third level and won’t make my list today. Michael Murphy was the president of UCC and Don Barry was the president of UL. Neither had any dealings with primary education.

Would they make the list today?


44. Sean Cottrell

In 2011, Cottrell was the director of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network. He remains one of my education heroes and despite stepping away from public duties since 2017, his presence is badly missed. Known by some as Mr. IPPN, Sean was one of the founders and visionaries of the organisation — a professional network for principals around the country, which grew to become the de facto body run by principals for principals.

I looked forward to hearing his speech at the IPPN conference every year. He was never afraid in speaking truth to power and he always did it with a twinkle in his eye, so much so, that the Minister at the butt of the remarks often could only laugh and take it on the chin. God, how I miss those days.

According to the Times, in 2011, despite being in existence for more than a decade, some in the INTO still viewed the IPPN as an interloper on its patch. This was a very healthy thing and it’s such a shame that this relationship lost all of its tension. The IPPN and INTO may as well be called the IPPNTO. What the IPPN forgot was that they were there to speak truth to power, not to be friends with them.

I also loved how Seán was a bit of a rebel. One of my favourite moments was when he went on a solo run about homework and got into all sorts of bother with his board.

He was right, of course, but it took over a decade for most principals to see it. Sean was a progressive thinking and one of the smartest people I ever met in education.

Unfortunately, ill-health forced Sean to retire from IPPN and the organisation is a shadow of its former self. What was once an exciting, dynamic, challenging organisation, it is now one of the status quo.

Would he make the list today?

Unfortunately because he is no longer involved in education, he couldn’t make the list. It is more the pity that is the case. Seán will go down as one of the biggest visionaries in Irish education in the history books. I miss him.

45. Brendan Murphy

Brendan Murphy was President of Cork Institute of Technology and chair of Institutes of Technology Ireland for 2011 so wouldn’t have had much to do with primary education. I had a quick Google of his name and two things arose. The first is that he shares the same name as Cillian Murphy’s dad. The second is that he was embroiled in a bit of an issue around an ice sculpture for his retirement party.

Would he make the list today?

Because this is a primary school article, not then and not now.

46. Niall Macmonagle

If ever there was such as thing as a celebrity teacher, Niall Macmonagle is arguably one of Ireland’s best known teachers. For over 30 years, he promoted his love of English literature, especially poetry, to his students and the wider world. When I was doing my poetry launches, anyone I ever met that went to Wesley College in Dublin talked to me about how Niall instilled a love of poetry into them.

Would he make the list today?

One of the few practicing teachers on the list, but at second level, so unfortunately he wouldn’t make my list. I was also lucky to have great English teachers in secondary school — one of mine just retired last week— and I’d like to think they instilled something in me.

While I have the floor, I might describe them so hope you’ll indulge me! I remember two very positive experiences from English in secondary school. The first was when one of my teachers, Kate Bateman, brought in a children’s author to challenge us to finish a chapter of a book she has written and it was going to be read blind. It was my first piece of feedback on anything I’d written and I still remember the feeling of being told I *could* write and should consider it.

The second was from another teacher who gave me my first E grade in an essay, and rightly so! For whatever reason, I decided to write a very bizarre creative piece about something to do with the 1916 Rising which had no link to the title of the essay. I had never failed anything before and my ego was a bit bruised so I asked her about it. She gave me a great critique, saying that while I could write, I wasn’t fulfilling the criteria for the essay.

My teenage ego wasn’t ready for at the time but I remembered it when I started writing poetry several years later. My early writing was getting honest feedback and I was doing what all beginner writers do, trying to defend my precious words! I don’t know what it was but that teacher’s advice came back to me and I realised that the biggest barrier to most things is ego. I try and manage mine as best I can. I wish some of the stakeholders in education might have gotten that E grade too.

47. Gary Redmond

Gary Redmond was the president of the Union of Students of Ireland. Before I went googling I guessed he was probably a consultant or a partner in EY or KPMG or one of those. He is Principal at Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and according to his LinkedIn Bio, he was with EY for nearly 10 years. Described by the Irish Times and “genial and sociable, likely to be major figure in national politics at some stage,” it looks like he took a different path.

Would he make the list today?


48. Philip Nolan

If I’m correct, the former president of NUI Maynooth, is probably better known by most of us in primary education for his media appearances during the COVID-19 pandemic saying that has said that the risks of children transmitting Covid-19 in school settings is very low when compared to the risks of transmission in household settings, (The Journal, 2021.) I think that’s about as much influence as he had on our sector. Back in 2011, he was getting his feet wet in Maynooth and was one to watch. I’m sure he’d rather he was remembered for something other than his part in the “Schools are Safe” mantra.

Would he make the list today?

He’s a few years too late now that “schools are safe.”

49. Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

Currently the only TD to have blocked me on social media, that’s probably the least of any reader’s worries (there’s my ego popping up!) if they were wondering what has become of, what the Irish Times described as, the “future education minister” back in 2011.

I guess it’s hard to write about someone whose last communications with me wasn’t pleasant to say the least. I should probably explain why.

Back in 2015, when The Labour Party were in government, an amendment was proposed for the Employment Equality Act. The Labour Party had got support from Fine Gael to make a change that stopped religious organisations from sanctioning LGBT+ staff for undermining their ethos. In plain English, up until then, LGBT+ teachers had to hide their sexuality because it could have legally been decided that this undermined the ethos of a Catholic school. There were a number of teachers that claimed they had been unfairly treated in their school, e.g. not getting promotions, because they were “out” as LGBT+.

However, a spanner in the works! The opposition parties, including the Social Democrats, then led by ex-Labour Party TD, Róisín Shortall, proposed an amendment to ensure that no teacher could be disciplined/sanctioned under the same Act, based on any of the nine grounds for discrimination. This amendment would have affected people like me — i.e. people of other faiths and none but it also affected several others, for example, marital status, which might go against a Catholic ethos. I watched the debate live on Oireachtas TV hoping beyond hope that good would prevail. You can read it back here in the Dáil record. However, I paste the most interesting exchange here without comment.

Essentially, my hopes, and those of hundreds of teachers in the country were dashed by, in my opinion, ego. I would hope that O’Riordáin would have been supportive of the amendment had he have been on the other side of the Dáil chamber. In fact, I know he would have been. However, because opposition TDs had proposed the amendment, it wasn’t to be.

I spoke with O’Riordáin on the phone and he explained his reasons, which were everything to do with politics and little to do with the amendment itself. Since then I have reminded him of the evening of 2nd December 2015 when he chose to leave minority teachers in the shadows and we may never get another chance in my lifetime. I guess he had enough of me reminding him and he spent the next number of years pretending I didn’t exist, including an interview on Ireland AM where he completely blanked me. In 2022, he blocked me on Twitter.

Ultimately, when it comes to education, both Aodhán and I have a lot in common. I think we both believe in equity and I’m pretty sure we believe in a separation of church and State when it comes to public schools, though it affects him less than it affects me. We both sound off on social media knowing that we are unlikely to have any real influence but we do it anyway, just in case it does. Aodhán, however, did make a step into politics and I didn’t, so we differ there, and that’s where I have to hold my hat out to him. I don’t think I could be a politician because I would be forced to do things I don’t agree with, as the consequences are being disciplined by the party. It’s possibly why the evening in December 2015 happened. I just wish he had have been nice about it.

In any case, Aodhán is hoping to be the MEP for Dublin in the upcoming European elections, and I wish him well. From an education point of view, I don’t think he’d accept this, but I feel he could have done a lot more to make our system a better place. He had that chance and chose not to do so.

Would he make the list today?

It’s a tricky question to anwer because, technically, he is the education spokesperson for Labour right now. However, Labour is no longer the heavy hitter it was in 2011 and the likes of Paul Murphy and Gary Gannon have a higher profile now. Paul Kehoe (FG) and Sorcha Clark (SF) also probably have more influence in education now. O’Riordáin has rattled some feathers, and was most impressive in his interactions with Norma Foley during COVID times. His calls for single sex schools to be abolished were welcome but misplaced in their context. On balance, leaving my ego aside, I think he would. He probably has done enough and his time is not over in politics.

Joint 49. Brian Norton

In a very odd move by the Irish Times, possibly because they might have felt guilty about the fact that Aodhán O’Riardán’s wife was part of the team that compiled the list, Aodhán has to share 49th place with Brian Norton, who I’m sure was scratching his head over the decision to place them both in the same profile piece. However, his piece will be much shorter because he never touched primary education.

Would he make the list today?


50. Clive Byrne

Clive has been the director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, at second level. Described as a bon viveur and lover of all things Italian, they also described him as influential. It’s a pity to end this list of 50 with someone who doesn’t have any influence in primary education though he has spoken at IPPN events recently, as the IPPN and NAPD work closer together.

Would he make the list today?

I don’t think so but if the IPPN and NAPD merge in the future, you never know.

— -

And there we have it. 50 names and we’re finally done. The Irish Times listed a few more names but apart from, possibly, Áine Lynch from the National Parents’ Council, I don’t think any of them would have made my list. I think it would be an interesting experiment to do this list again every few years. While I’m not mad about lists because you always leave out people who should be there but it’s sometimes good to see education taking centre-stage. You can also see what was deemed important in education at the time — in 2011, it seemed to be the economy — but what would a 2024 list look like? What are the big stories now?

A list today would likely still feature the Parents of Children with Additional Needs, which is shameful, but they would be joined by others involved in special education, such as John Kearney (NCSE), Josepha Madigan (Minister for Special Education) and potentially the heads of advocacy groups for special education. Perhaps religion in schools might still warrant some names such as David Graham (Education Equality) and Alan Hynes (Catholic Schools Partnership.) Of course some of the names on the list would simply be followed by the successors like Norma Foley (Minister for Education), John Boyle (INTO) and Yvonne Keating (General Secretary in the DoE.)

I’d hope we would not see the likes of The Troika and US Multinationals in an education list but I’d hope we’d see far more women in the list.

I hope you enjoyed this little experiment. Let me know what you thought!



Simon Lewis

Primary school principal, podcaster and poet. 👨🏼‍🏫 Writes about the Irish primary education system. Tweets from @simonmlewis