University shows students how to intervene if a witness of sexual harassment

UCC’s ‘Bystander Intervention’ programme sees increased sign-ups in wake of Ashling Murphy killing

Mark Cooper, a second-year law and business student at University College Cork, last week joined the university's efforts to safeguard women in the wake of the killing of Ashling Murphy in Tullamore, Co Offaly.

He was not alone. Usually, “four, or five” students sign up for a place on the UCC “Bystander Intervention” programme which teaches students how to intervene if they witness sexual harassment.

Last Thursday, in the wake of the Murphy killing, over 30 students had come forward to join the intervention programme, says law academic Prof Louise Crowley, who set it up.

Cooper says he joined to learn more: "[It] is pretty intensive. I've been watching videos of scenarios that women – and men – might face, topics to do with sex, feeling safe, emotions," he told The Irish Times.


Tullamore is “very sad, but not surprising”, he says: “Every year, five or six names of women come up that something tragic has happened to. I feel so deeply for the female friends that I have and females in my family.

“They don’t feel safe anywhere. A lot of the conversation focuses on the fact that Ashling Murphy did everything right, running in broad daylight. You shouldn’t feel threatened anywhere even if you are walking home at night.”

Disrespectful ‘banter’

Sexist and disrespectful “banter” is not something that he, or his friends tolerate, he says: “I can only speak for my own peer group where it definitely wouldn’t be tolerated. If you wouldn’t say something in the presence of a women, you shouldn’t be saying it at all.

“It has become acceptable in society to make jokes about harassment and rape and about the MeToo movement. I think it’s deplorable. It’s a shame it takes a horrible tragic event like this for change to happen.

“Change needs something to spur it on,” he goes on, though he is not optimistic once the memory of Tullamore fades. “Even now, the commentary from the opposing side – and there shouldn’t even be an opposing side – is ‘Oh well, horrible things happen.’ The whole ‘not all men’ campaign is not even relevant. The fact that these people exist shows that it’s an issue that’s going to go on for a long time,” he says.

Welsh-born 30-year-old Finch McKee, who is doing a masters in philosophy at UCC, has lived in Ireland for 20 years, but believes Ireland in particular has a problem regarding how violence against women is perceived.

“It’s brushed off as being in the micro-scale. I don’t mean extreme violence (leading to murder) but there’s the attitude that it’s ‘just harassment’. That ‘boys will be boys’ or they’re just joking and don’t really mean it.

‘Socio-cultural issue’

“When something serious like this does happen, women are often not listened to,” he says, adding that he knows victims who have “gone to the gardaí to try to get something done, but they’re not listened to.”

If boys grow up harassing females and get away with it, then “problems are more likely to happen. They’re more likely to grow up thinking harassment is acceptable.

“Or, at a minimum, that there are no consequences. So I think it is fundamentally a socio-cultural issue. We need to adapt the way we look at this. We need to start thinking that women’s issues are important.”

Women “are often powerless to call out men”, he says. “I’m only an individual, but I’m still a lot more listened to when I talk about these [gender] issues. The major issue is the powerlessness of women.”

Shane O'Dowling Keane, a senior house doctor at UCC's dental school, was another who joined the UCC training programme last week. It was something he had wanted to do since the Belfast rape trial in 2018.

“I had a chat with my wife at that time. I think it was the first time I realised she doesn’t feel safe in some situations. She wouldn’t sit on a bench in a park at night on her own. She wouldn’t go for walks along the canal in Dublin when we lived there,” he said.

Does O’Dowling Keane, a member of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee at UCC, believe Tullamore will be a watershed? “I hope so, but we’ve all hoped that for a long time. I hope that by actually doing something this time, it will start something in me, at least.”