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Cillian Murphy: ‘Irish people are afraid of emotion. Acting saved me from that’

Ireland needs ‘an empathy revolution’, says the actor, who is part of a ground-breaking educational campaign on emotional awareness

His steely glare captivated viewers as gang boss Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders. It’s a murky world where Cillian Murphy’s on-screen character succeeds by using violence as well as cunning to get by — not to mention the razor blades sewn into his flatcap. But when I meet him at a neighbourhood cafe in Monkstown, Co Dublin on a bright autumnal afternoon it’s all warm smiles and handshakes. He knows the owner, who leads us to a quiet mezzanine upstairs for our interview.

This seaside suburb has been his home for about seven years, where he lives with his wife Yvonne McGuinness, an artist, and his two teenage sons. It is clearly a place he seems at ease. He lives a private and, by his own admission, “boring” life here, playing music, reading and hanging out at home. Murphy (46) rarely does interviews outside of film projects — but there is one area where he has decided to use his platform to campaign for change.

I’m meeting Murphy and Prof Pat Dolan of University of Galway, a down-to-earth Dubliner, to discuss a ground-breaking project aimed at getting empathy taught in Irish schools. Empathy, or the “ability to understand and share in another person’s feelings and experiences”, is increasingly seen as key to reducing bullying, boosting compassion, tackling racism, forging social connections and even improving academic performance.

It is hard to see Tommy Shelby having much truck with it. So why, given the infinite number of causes Murphy could align himself with, is he leading the charge to promote empathy? In part, he says, because forging connections is the essence of being an actor.


“Even though you’re performing something, you open yourself up to other people and other actors and other worlds. You are connecting to this emotion inside of you,” he says. “The most important tool that you have as an actor is empathy. Not just for your character. Unless you’re connected with that other person and truly listening and truly engaged with them, the scene falls flat. It doesn’t work.”

Murphy parents both worked in education: his mother is a French teacher and his father an inspector at the Department of Education. He attended Presentation Brothers College in Cork, a rugby-playing, all-boys school with a strong focus on academic achievement. Not a stereotypical place for a young man to get in touch with his emotions, you would think. But, Murphy says, transition year at the school was life-changing.

“That’s where I discovered drama. We did a drama module with Pat Kiernan from Corcadorca. That year for me was hugely formative. We took a pause [between exam years] which was brilliant. I think transition year — both my boys just went through it — is fantastic. It shouldn’t be like, junior cycle, senior cycle, third level, straight into exams again. I think that’s insane,” he says.

Children are typically born with an innate capacity for empathy. Infants are not only able to recognise when a person is in distress, but also show concern for that person. Researchers believe we are born with a capacity for empathy because it increases our chances for survival. But even though empathy is considered innate, some studies suggest we get less skillful at empathy as adulthood progresses. A key for teenagers, for example, is the need for someone to act empathically towards them in order to access or activate it themselves. It’s a finding that resonates with Murphy.

“I remember when I was a young man, if there were certain people that were role models — particularly male role models — and if they were open and empathetic to me, it was like a gift ... when I got into acting, everyone was so open and everyone talked about feelings and it wasn’t a bad thing. It was actually empowering.

The way civic society is going — not just in this country, but globally — we’re going to be dependent on empathy. Take climate challenge or social justice of any shape or form... it’s vital

—  Prof Pat Dolan

“Being in a rehearsal room and reading, talking about these characters; and talking about why they may behave like that. And never judging, because if you judge a character you’re f**ked. The whole thing collapses.”

Pat Dolan, who has been researching this area for years, says there is a compelling case to introduce empathy education in schools, and across wider society, based on the positive findings of a growing body of research.

“It’s as important as learning maths and English,” he says. “I’d actually even go further and say that the way civic society is going — not just in this country, but globally — we’re going to be dependent on empathy. Take climate challenge or social justice of any shape or form. It’s not just for young people, it’s actually for all of us. Inter-generationally, it’s vital.”

In schools these days there is no shortage of initiatives on wellbeing and resilience. These topics form a central part of the junior cycle in second-level schools. So is there really a need — or even space — in a crowded curriculum for empathy education?

“Empathy really is about the other; that’s what makes it different to the idea of resilience or wellbeing, which are really important things,” says Dolan. “Empathy isn’t sympathy. It’s about valuing, respecting and understanding another person’s view.”

It may sound radical, but countries such as Denmark have been doing it for years, he says. “Klassens time” is a mandatory part of the school curriculum where children can seek advice from peers, learn empathy, conflict resolution and strengthen their relationships and sense of community. It has found that children who grow up to become confident, emotionally intelligent adults are more likely to raise happier kids themselves. Coincidence or not, Denmark is consistently ranked highly as one of the happiest places to live.

Murphy and Dolan first met in 2010 at the Druid theatre in Galway. They fell into a deep conversation about Dolan’s work at the Unesco Child and Family Research Centre. At the time, the centre was training young people as researchers to collect data from other young people about their lives and experiences in Ireland. Soon, the work expanded to explore and promote the power of empathy.

Murphy, who agreed to become patron for the centre, says he was initially unsure how to define empathy, or how to locate it in a practical way in his life. Slowly, he says, he began to realise that empathy was a fundamental part of his job as an actor — and as a dad.

“There is the phrase that ‘acting is listening’. This essentially means that you are not truly in a scene unless you are listening and involved and available to everything that your partner in that scene is saying and doing.”

There are many corollaries of this in modern life, he says, such as the solipsistic world of social media, the absence of time for others, the echo chamber of the media and politics. “I think for young people, social media is a very competitive and very combative environment. I think it’s very hard to be empathetic towards something that you can’t see or connect with,” he says.

Working between the US and UK, he says he has seen first-hand how polarising political debate has become. “It does feel to me that England is in a little bit of a crisis of self-identity. I think everyone would recognise that. And I was in America recently. You can see the polarisation there and how f**king dangerous the situation seems...

“With the tone of debating in both countries it seems that you can say anything. We talk about [tackling] bullying or being hurtful, but it seems that anything goes now in the political forum. You can say whatever you want. It hasn’t gotten that way in Ireland. And I think that’s a good thing.”

What really convinced him about the merits of empathy education, however, were the results it showed among young people.

“There is actual data to prove that you can teach it as a subject and kids can learn it. And then when you study the kids that have learned it, they are more empathetic, and it reduces all the stuff that we don’t like in schools and things that we’re trying to steer our kids away from.

“And then the fact that they actually become stronger academically, as a result, it seems to be a no-brainer. And it seems to me that it’s civilising, it is probably one of the most civilising things in our society.”

Dolan’s team at University of Galway has been rolling out empathy education in more than 100 secondary schools, youth club settings and Garda diversion projects for a few years. Activating Social Empathy is a 12-week programme specifically designed for post-primary school students.

First students learn about what empathy is and why it is important. Students then spend a few weeks practising their empathy skills. Next, they spend time discussing barriers to empathy and brainstorming on how to overcome them. Finally, the programme culminates with students putting empathy into action in a project of their own choosing.

The results shows the programme is increasing “pro-social behaviour”, or the willingness to do good, and boosting young people’s level of “cognitive empathy” (they were better able to understand other people’s perspectives) and affective empathy (they were more willing to share the emotions/feelings of others).

“I think it’s so vital,” says Dolan. “You know, because very often we look at negative things that are going on and saying, what can we do? Here’s something you can do.”

He emphasises that the programme isn’t about turning young people into saints or Mother Teresas.

“No one is perfect,” says Dolan. “We all have failings. So, it shouldn’t be seen that if you fail that in some ways that you don’t have empathy. You may have more empathy on a Friday evening than you do on a Monday morning. So there’s context for it.”

For all its positive findings, empathy has its share of critics. Yale-based psychologist Paul Bloom, in his book Against Empathy, argues that empathy can be a poor moral guide. He points to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 when 20 children and six adults were killed. The public response, he argues, was empathetic but misguided: warehouses were filled with donated but useless soft toys. More children continued to die in shootings elsewhere in the same year without the same reaction. The shootings, he said, tapped into our empathy but diverted altruistic impulses away from needier causes.

I think raising boys in today’s landscape is tricky enough. For myself, my wife: it’s all about communication and being as open as possible

—  Cillian Murphy

“That’s sympathy, not empathy,” Dolan counters. “The empathy education response would have been to actually sit down and educate people around why are you allowing guns in the first place? In the main, the more empathy education you have, the better civic society will be.”

Some sceptics might also point to the campaign around empathy education as being earnest and naive, along the lines of John Lennon’s well-intentioned but wide-eyed campaign to give peace a chance.

“John Lennon is one of my heroes, but it was a very broad thing he was engaged in,” says Murphy. “This is actually tailored. There is a programme and there are results. I would find it very hard to get behind a slogan — this is much more than a slogan. It’s a programme that has results.”

So what would success for empathy education look like?

“We need an empathy revolution,” says Murphy. “We’d like to get people talking about it, to get it into the vernacular, for it become a topic of conversation, and for people to become interested in it.”

They hope a new book Ionbhá, The Empathy Book for Ireland, will do that. It features dozens of reflections on empathy from a wide variety of contributors in different walks of life including Michael D Higgins, The Edge, Hozier and Rachael Blackmore. There are personal essays, memoirs and poems which show the impact of empathetic actions in people’s lives. Royalties from the book will go towards expanding the education programme, and every school in the country is due to receive a copy.

“It’s a conversation we need to have,” says Dolan. “We all have limitations. What’s most important for me about empathy, and about the book in a way, is that it is a great demonstration of what we need to look at in our own lives and our own connection with others. Relationships matter. And in order to have healthy relationships, you have to work on them. And I think, putting it bluntly, empathy is the blood supply for relationships — and community.”

Murphy says that, as a father of teenagers, it’s something he tries to practice.

“I think raising boys in today’s landscape is tricky enough. For myself, my wife: it’s all about communication and being as open as possible. But being empathetic towards them and showing them that it’s a natural state and a healthy thing to do. I feel that you have to keep doing that, or reinforcing that. Just talking to them about everything and trying to talk to them about other people’s point of view,” he says.

“I think sometimes Irish people are a little afraid of emotion. And I think I was probably saved from that by acting. Because it’s all about connecting with emotions.”

Ionbhá, The Empathy Book for Ireland, is published by Mercier Press and edited by Cillian Murphy, Pat Dolan, Gillian Browne and Mark Brennan

On empathy...

Eamonn O’Shea, economist and former Tipperary hurling manager and coach

“As a manager and a coach I have delivered messages to young talented athletes which has, at the very least, disrupted their dreams – that they may have progressed as far as they can go in their chosen sport at this time; a question mark for some, a full stop for others. I have often been as devastated in delivering that verdict and they have been in receiving it... But empathy gives you the confidence to communicate the truth to them that disappointment in one area of life need not diminish the self; that personhood is resilient and strong if nurtured well and supported consistently.”

Rory O’Neill, AKA Panti Bliss

“In a family of talkers you learn quickly that if everyone is talking and nobody is listening, it’s just a lot of noise. Listening and talking are both important life skills, and even if you have a natural gift for one or the other, you still have to practise it. And it’s unlikely you have a gift for both, so at the very least you have to learn one and practise both.’

Blindboyboatclub, writer and podcaster

“By understanding, feeling and identifying my emotions I then began to calmly and safely identify the emotions of others. I’d do it mindfully. The wrinkle of a smile. The raise of an eyebrow in surprise. The furrow of disappointment. The forced teethy smile that masks discomfort. I didn’t view other people through the threatening lens of fear that a state of anxiety demands.”

Charlotte Silke and Bernadine Brady, academics at University of Galway’s Unesco Child and Family Centre

“Simple practices – like parents asking their children to think about how the child they just fought with feels – or being around people who show empathy to others can make a huge difference in nurturing empathy. For all of us, it may be worth reflecting on our own ‘empathy maps’, thinking about how we can extend our boundaries to bring more people into the high empathy zone...”

Hozier, singer and songwriter

“Regardless of genre, style or era music offers a function where a human being can feel less alone. Even in music devoid of lyrical narrative, the human mind finds a way to project itself into soundscapes and abstract pieces. As social creatures, that sense of connectedness is essential to our mental and, for lack of a better term, spiritual health.”

Michelle Darmody, food writer and activist

“Food binds us together and is essential for life, both physical and social. The recent inability to touch, or hug, or to share bread together due to Covid-19 has highlighted, with an ever brighter intensity, the importance of these human connections. Interactions once tactile and exuberant are now fraught and fragile.”

Tolü Makay, singer, actor and mental health advocate

“We are a society that bases our status, standards, goals and expectations from social media. We take it seriously. We find love there, soulmates, plan events, find a sense of community... So we should be aware and conscious when online. Empathy doesn’t stop and only relate to humans you like, it’s being mindful and respectful to every living thing you encounter, including animals and plants.”

Rachael Blackmore, jockey

“Subconsciously, as I’ve gone through my career as a jockey, I’ve learned and improved my empathy for and consideration towards others I work with. Where as I now have the great position of getting on these unbelievable talented horses and participating in the most prestigious races, I can still see and feel how it must be for many of my fellow jockeys who are struggling in a very competitive and demanding profession. As jockeys we are all aware of how quickly things can change and as the saying goes ‘you are only as good as your last winner’.”