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‘Actor Cillian Murphy, our patron and friend, has been incredibly supportive and this has culminated in Ionbhá’

Professor Pat Dolan is joint founder and director of the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre in the University of Galway, and co-editor of Ionbhá, a book on empathy. He lives in Galway


Prof Pat Dolan.

Prof Pat Dolan.

Prof Pat Dolan.

My route 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.

I grew up the youngest in a family of 10 children from inner city Dublin. I lost my dad in a work accident when I was seven months old, and I grew up with a very strong, resilient mother and sisters and brothers.

My mother had incredible empathy for others, and as I later discovered in my work in the area, the influence of a parent is very important in how you develop empathy.

I worked for years in child and youth welfare and service management, and drifted into academia about 25 years ago. I was really interested in doing research that made a difference, because I quickly became aware that, with a lot of research, nobody reads it and it doesn’t have impact, to be totally honest.

So I was interested in doing social research for social good. I was very lucky many years ago, with the support of Atlantic Philanthropies, to start what became a research institute in the University of Galway. It has grown and been very successful.

I was doing a lot of research around how young people can be enabled to be resilient in life, and the important things like family support and early intervention. I was a bit concerned early on that, although schools quite rightly invest in well-being education, that focuses on doing things for yourself and not for others.

Empathy is not sympathy, it’s totally different. Empathy is the capacity to get into somebody else’s shoes and understand where they’re coming 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 really feels.

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So I became very interested in what makes a young person go from cognitive to affective. What makes a young person go from passive empathy to affective is actually doing things. There is an empathy education programme in primary schools, called Roots of Empathy, which is great, but it’s not in secondary schools.

Working with an absolutely fantastic team here, we’ve developed Activating Social Empathy, which is a programme for secondary schools. We also have a community version, which we have developed in collaboration with Foróige, who work with a lot of disadvantaged youth and other young people.

Cillian Murphy, as our patron and friend, has been incredibly supportive in our work and this has culminated in Ionbhá.

We met randomly at a Druid theatre event about 10 years ago, and I won’t say I had to press-gang him, because he’s 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 book, not just written with people who are well-known, but also everyday citizens and what empathy means in their lives. Cillian is a co-editor of the book, with Gillian Browne, my colleague at the University of Galway, and Mark Brennan, UNESCO Professor at Penn State University USA.

It’s over 80 pieces of prose, essays and poetry, from areas including politics, education, entertainment and sport. People who kindly contributed include Rachael Blackmore, Panti Bliss, Tolü Makay, The Edge, Fr Peter McVerry and President Michael D Higgins. Paul McGrath has a wonderful piece about the kindness shown to him by Jack Charlton. Royalties from the book all go to the project to support pupils, teachers and schools.

We’d like to think that by having Ionbhá out there, it makes people aware of the importance of empathy. I see it as giving someone the gift of empathy, but it’s also putting the topic out there as one we need to talk about. While we talk a lot about well-being, we don’t talk enough about empathy.

‘Ionbhá: The Empathy Book for Ireland is' edited by Pat Dolan, Cillian Murphy, Gillian Browne and Mark Brennan, and comprises over 80 contributions from mostly well-known Irish names on empathy. It is published by Mercier Press on October 6.

In conversation with Sarah Caden

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