My path to the Activating Social Empathy Project was a bit autobiographical, and something I share in my essay in Ionbhá: The Empathy Book for Ireland, which I co-edited.
grew up in central Dublin, the youngest in a family of 10 children. I lost my father in an accident at work when I was 7 months old and grew up with a very strong, resilient mother and siblings.
My mother had incredible empathy for others, and as I later discovered in my work in this field, a parent’s influence is very important in developing empathy.
I worked in child and youth welfare and service management for years and drifted into science about 25 years ago. I was really interested in doing research that makes a difference because I quickly realized that with a lot of research no one reads it and to be completely honest it has no impact.
So I was interested in doing social research for the benefit of society. I was fortunate enough to start a research institute at Galway University many years ago with the support of Atlantic Philanthropies. It has grown and been very successful.
I’ve done a lot of research on how to empower young people to be more resilient in life and the important things like family support and early childhood education. I was a bit concerned about this at first, although schools are right to invest in wellbeing education that focuses on doing things for yourself and not for others.
Empathy isn’t sympathy, it is completely different. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of others and understand where they come from. You can have cognitive empathy, and that’s where you understand what someone else is feeling, and that’s great, but affective empathy is where you actually feel what the person is really feeling.
So I became very interested in what drives a young person to go from cognitive to affective. What drives a young person to go from passive empathy to more affective is actually doing things. There is an empathy education program in elementary schools called Roots of Empathy, which is great, but it doesn’t exist in high schools.
Working with an absolutely amazing team here, we developed Activating Social Empathy, a program for secondary schools. We also have a community version that we developed in collaboration with Foróige who work with many disadvantaged youth and other young people.
Cillian Murphy, as our patron and friend, has been incredibly supportive of our work and this has reached its zenith Ionbha.
We met by chance at a Druid theatrical event about 10 years ago and I won’t say I had to pressure him because he is very interested in empathy and uses it a lot in his acting. About a year and a half ago we started talking about the idea of a book that would not only be written with well-known people, but also with everyday citizens and what empathy means in their lives. Cillian is co-editor of the book, along with Gillian Browne, my colleague at the University of Galway, and Mark Brennan, UNESCO Professor at Penn State University USA.
There are over 80 pieces of prose, essays and poems in fields such as politics, education, entertainment and sports. Some of those who have kindly contributed include Rachael Blackmore, Panti Bliss, Tolu Makay, The Edge, Fr. Peter McVerry, and President Michael D. Higgins. Paul McGrath has a wonderful article on the kindness shown to him by Jack Charlton. The royalties from the book all go to the project to support students, teachers and schools.
We want to think that while having Ionbha out there it makes people realize how important empathy is. I see it as a gift of empathy, but it also presents the issue as one we need to talk about. While we talk a lot about wellbeing, we don’t talk enough about empathy.
Ionbhá: The Empathy Book for Ireland was edited by Pat Dolan, Cillian Murphy, Gillian Browne and Mark Brennan and contains over 80 articles on empathy from some of the most well-known Irish names. It will be published by Mercier Press on October 6th.
In conversation with Sarah Caden
https://www.independent.ie/life/actor-cillian-murphy-our-patron-and-friend-has-been-incredibly-supportive-and-this-has-culminated-in-ionbha-42020576.html “Actor Cillian Murphy, our patron and friend, has been incredibly supportive and that has culminated in Ionbhá.”