Empathy will make for a more connected society

Ionbha, The Empathy Book of Ireland, is due to be launched in Charlie Byrnes on Friday November 11.

Edited by Cillian Murphy, Pat Dolan, Gillian Brown and Mark Brennan, the book is a collection of poems, essays, and thoughts with over 80 contributors. Its opening is provided by Cillian Murphy, who is a patron of the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre at the University of Galway. Murphy uses his chapter to discuss how he became a patron, why he thinks empathy education is so critical, and his own experience of empathy particularly within the context of being a father and an actor.

It is widely felt in society that although in some ways we have never been as connected, we are also sorely lacking in connection. “The world is very fractious at the moment, and I think it’s a difficult place to exist, particularly as a young person now. Young people exist an awful lot of the time online and that takes great emotional demands from young people online. This whole thing about empathy is about connection, the most basic description is walking in someone else’s shoes or seeing someone else’s perspective,” says Cillian Murphy.

The theme of connection will arise again and again throughout the book. Roisin Hanley, research assistant in the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre and dance teacher in the Antoinette Casserly School of Dance, Stage School Ireland, discusses the book that will launch in Galway on Friday 11th November and the education programme it is supporting.

“By purchasing Ionbha, you are also funding the Activating Social Empathy (ASE ) programme for secondary schools across Ireland and overseas.

“The education programme is a researched-backed programme developed by psychologists, past secondary teachers and researchers. It is 12 weeks long and has been devised predominantly with secondary school junior cycle students in mind. I think this programme is amazing with what it can evidently achieve,” says Ms Hanley.

The education programme was thought up initially by Cillian and Pat, who decided a book like this was a good way to promote it. The book has been in the making for about two years, with Covid delaying things slightly. How were contributors asked to write their chapters?

“We weren’t told exactly how to go about writing our chapters - we were just given an assignment to go away and write whatever it was we felt ourselves about empathy, which was great and allowed for varying perspectives,” Hanley says. “For me, stand-out chapters included one on empathy and music therapy by Senior Music Therapist in the National Rehabilitation Hospital, Rebecca O’Connell, another called A Traveller’s Perspective by Project Worker Martin McDonagh, and a chapter named My Power Called Empathy by 13yr old boy Matthew Shaw-Torkzadeh. I also enjoyed contributions from Michael D Higgins and Hozier!”

Have there been any results so far from the education programme?

“Education around empathy is actually as important as maths or physics. We have found that kids who have done the programme so far have highlighted themselves that they find it easier to empathise with people who are less like them, which will naturally and eventually lead to less bullying, hate speech and racism.

“With the climate we are living today in which Ireland is welcoming in a number of Ukrainian refugees, this programme couldn’t be more relevant. Many Irish students and adults may not fully understand the sacrifices Ukrainian refugees have to make each day, and empathy is vital for connecting us all.”

Roisin has also written her own chapter for the book.

“I became a much more empathetic person through dance in my younger, and teenage, years. In dance, you have to tune into the music and sometimes the lyrics, and for me, empathy boils down to the connection between listening and feeling. It can be summed up in the well known quote - ‘try to walk a day in someone else’s shoes’.

“It’s about trying to understand other people’s feelings, which I think, if we did, would make for a much healthier, connected and safer society. The education programme is not a way for older people to tell younger people, ‘you have no empathy’, as in fact, we as humans are all born with a huge amount of empathy.

“It is to teach and remind them that they need to use their ability to be empathetic or the ability will become weaker over time. Through the findings of ASE, it has already been proven that empathy in young people can be enriched and strengthened within that 12 weeks.”

The Galway launch of Ionbha will be on Friday November 11 at 6pm in Charlie Byrne’s. Visit Eventbrite for tickets.


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