Professor Rory Breathnach is the recently appointed dean of the UCD School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM).

Having started the role in September 2023, Rory hopes during his reign he will continue to develop the three core values of the school which are teaching, research and clinical endeavour.

Growing up as “a local lad from Sandymount”, Rory thought he would follow in his brother’s footsteps and study medicine at third level. However, that all changed coming home from Marian College one day when he saw a horse being loaded out of a horse lorry in Dublin 4.

“The moment that happened, I thought, that could be something I would really like,” said Rory.

Inspired by the famous British veterinary surgeon James Herriot, Rory’s career path changed. And he had his sights set on being a farm animal vet working in a country practice.

Discovering an area of interest

“When I first qualified, being a farm animal vet in the west of Ireland was the first thing that went through my head, but then I did an internship because I wanted to do further study in drug safety at the University of London,” he said.

In order to get some money together to pay for a master’s abroad, he did a rotating internship in UCD involving small animal, surgery medicine and farm animals.

“We always recognise that when it came to farm animal practice, particularly those days, there was a commercial value on the animal. In reality, if the surgery was going to cost €800, and the animals were worth €400, a decision was made.

“Companion animals were different, and you can push yourself,” he said.

In the late 80s, Rory moved to the UK to do a MSc in Drug Toxicology at the University of London. Having always had an interest in drug safety it was a course that pushed him.

“It led to other developments throughout my career, including large involvement with the HPRA [Health Products Regulatory Authority] and the European Medicines Agency, where I’ve sat on various committees that authorised and put drugs on the market,” he said.

It was a very exciting time to be studying and researching in this area as Rory was getting exposed to medication that was going to hit the market in 10 years’ time.

“You look at the drugs on the veterinary market now-monoclonal antibodies, stem cells, that kind of stuff that nobody thought about. But to get to that stage, to get through the development and safety evaluation, that could take five to 10 years.”

Returning home with the intention of staying in Ireland for two months, as a vet based in Wicklow needed a local vet, he ended up taking the position and staying for four years.

It was at that point in Rory’s career when he asked himself if he wanted to stay in the practice long-term or if he wanted to explore other avenues. Coincidentally, UCD got in touch with him and asked if would he cover a teaching position.

He jumped at the chance to teach for a year which allowed him to formulate a decision to go into academia.


“In front of your eyes, you see exactly the impact that you can have [on students],” he explained.

Lecturing in areas of small animal medicine, dermatology, toxicology and drug safety, Rory then went on to complete a PhD in Dermatology.

“It definitely opened up new research avenues for me. It was the right decision, you should be doing research when you’re in academia,” he said.

In 2015, he was asked if he would take up the post of clinical director in the School of Veterinary Medicine at UCD.

“I did that for eight years and it is true when they say a change is as good as the rest,” he said.

Rory enjoyed this new experience but it was also challenging.

“It’s not an easy role running a veteran hospital within an academic setting because you’re in a commercial environment. Your primary role is to teach, it’s all about the student experience,” he explained.

Making a plan to step down dovetailed with the new dean position becoming available. Having never intended to apply for the post, when the time came around, he decided to put his name in the hat and he was selected.

Rory is still finding his feet as the dean of the UCD School of Veterinary Medicine after being appointed in September of this year.

“I think everybody in this kind of role is constantly finding their feet. There’s always something new or a different challenge that comes up. You have to be vigilant all the time and prepared to adapt. I think adaptability is going to be one of the key things we need going forward,” said Rory.

Challenges affecting veterinary education

In terms of barriers currently blocking veterinary education in Ireland, Rory said cost is a main issue.

“It’s very expensive that’s the bottom line, when it comes to having a veterinary hospital, animal handling classes and the early years of education, it is extremely expensive. Part of the reason for that is you can’t operate at a normal commercial pace. If you do, the student will not learn,” he said.

Equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in education is an area he feels very passionate about, they are currently working nationally and internationally to maximise openings for people who traditionally didn’t enter veterinary medicine.

Shortage of large animal vets

When it comes to the shortage of large animal vets across rural Ireland, a question that keeps coming up is what are the solutions? For Rory, there is definitely an element of needing to provide farm animal vets with a work-life balance.

“A lot of people come to the UCD Veterinary School with the intention or the desire to be a farm animal vet. However, there is a recognition that it can be very difficult with regard to work-life balance,” Rory explained.

“The economics of farming practices can also become a major factor, farming is something that goes through cycles, [at the moment] it’s a tough time for farmers and it’s going to be a tough time for vets as well”.

Rory hopes that joined-up thinking and accepting that it’s a multi-faceted approach would make farm animal practice a better lifestyle and one that more vets would want to stay in.

Advice for students

Rory advises students to get outside of their comfort zone, get a broad variety of experiences, and don’t be afraid to ‘take on challenges’

“You might think there’s something you want to do, but you don’t know whether that’s right for you until you actually try and experience different things as well,” he said.

“Just be prepared to take a risk because the rewards can be absolutely huge,” he said.

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