This year Cillian Murphy completed a momentous decade, as he saw off the sixth and final series of Peaky Blinders. The Irish star’s turn as Tommy Shelby in the 1920s crime saga has been a career-defining role, with the show spawning a proliferation of fan fiction, tribute nights and sharp haircuts; a film should begin production next year. Yet it was also about a decade ago that Murphy became aware of the work of the Unesco Child and Family Research Centre at the University of Galway, which champions empathy in education. Working with Unesco’s Pat Dolan, he has co-edited a new book of essays promoting Ionbhá – “empathy” in Irish – and has managed to get the subject onto the curriculum of 150 Irish schools, with a practical programme attached – but he doesn’t plan on stopping there.

“We see it as a worldwide project,” says the 46-year-old, his Cork accent still strong; he and his artist wife Yvonne McGuinness returned to Ireland after a long spell in Britain to live in Dublin with their two sons in 2015. “There’s an awful lot of interest in it, and I think it’s a critical time for something like this.” The world, he says, is ever more polarised and social media has made things worse: “It’s very emotionally draining for children or for young people. It takes a lot out of them to be under scrutiny all the time – I can’t really imagine that.” 

Murphy himself has always been studiously private, dodging all the main requirements of the star system as he has climbed up the acting ranks; he accumulated cult film roles in 28 Days Later, The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy until Peaky took him to another place entirely. But it’s with his empathy project that he thinks he can create true change. “It’s a very quiet revolution.”

Murphy in Dublin
Murphy in Dublin © Simon Watson

Ionbhá is a sweet-minded book of essays featuring teachers, youth workers and sportspeople, plus creative figures such as The Edge and Murphy himself. But what is empathy? The word only entered the English language in 1908, a translation from the German Einfühlung, which means “feeling into” – and “I think that perfectly describes it”, says the actor. “It’s different to sympathy; it’s adjacent to kindness.” Sympathy, he explains, “is about adding your own sorrow or your own pity onto the other – whereas empathy is where you sit and listen with someone, and you absorb what the person is feeling… And then you’re compelled to take an empathetic action. And that’s when I think it’s at its most powerful. So it isn’t just talk – it’s action.

“This isn’t some hocus-pocus thing. It isn’t sloganeering,” he promises. “We’ve done randomised control studies on kids that have come through the programme, and not only are they empathetic at the end of it, they actually perform better academically as well. It’s win-win.” The practical side of the programme, which has four distinct modules (Understanding Empathy, Practising Empathy, Overcoming Barriers to Empathy and Putting Empathy Into Action) is vital: “That’s the thing that I feel strongly about.”

Murphy is an elegant, eloquent talker, his voice as deep and sturdy as his cheekbones are lofty. He admits that his day job – done well – is a good training in empathy. “Listening is key to all acting. At the beginning, you’re so petrified that you just learn your lines, and then it’s rhubarb-rhubarb-rhubarb – my line!” But with experience you learn to listen and engage with your fellow actors. “I’m not saying I’m the most empathetic person in the whole wide world,” he adds wryly. “Of course, I spend a lot of time thinking about myself and worrying about myself.” Would your wife say you’re a good empath? “I mean, definitely not. But at least, you know, I’m trying.”

Both Murphy’s parents were teachers (his mother doing French, his father eventually working in the Department for Education), and several other family members too. “Good teachers make the pupils feel acknowledged, make the pupils feel recognised,” he concedes. He very much felt this at home, where he was the eldest of four children. “I had the problem, or advantage, depending on how you looked at it, that I would study French at school, and then my mother would teach me French at home also. And I would study Irish at school, and then my father would teach me Irish at home also. So I probably had too much focus on education,” he laughs, “and pretty much focused on me, at times!” (An attempt to go on and do a law degree, when his heart was already set on performance, ended in failure. “It was a terrible mistake – and I knew it, you know? I failed catastrophically in the first year, and I was almost sabotaging it.”)

Ionbhá: The Empathy Book for Ireland (Mercier Press, €24.99)
Ionbhá: The Empathy Book for Ireland (Mercier Press, €24.99)

Murphy’s sons, Malachy and Aran, are now in their teens, and in Ionbhá he writes in his own essay, “On Connection”, that “raising boys in this world is difficult. You do everything in your power to avoid raising proto-bullies or proto-misogynists, to avoid all the evil tropes of masculinity we are confronted by every day.” Is empathy a more feminine thing? “There probably is some pre-judging there about boys and girls, but I just think that if you’re around it, and exposed to it, and that muscle is exercised, then I think there should be no difference.” That said, he believes that “schools should be mixed... I don’t know why you would have boys and girls in separate schools. I went to an all-boys school all the way up, but it just seems insane to me. My boys have gone to mixed schools, and I think it’s been really beneficial for them.”

All of which leads to the inevitable question: just how empathetic is macho cold-blooded killer Tommy Shelby? “Well, here’s what I’ll say to you,” he starts – he has clearly thought about it before. He points out that Tommy is, when we first meet him, deeply traumatised after fighting in the first world war. “He’s seen men blown apart in front of him – he’s lost belief in authority, in faith, and he’s arrived at this position. I think that what we tried to do over the course of the series is to defrost him. And interestingly, a lot of that comes from his kids.” That said, he sighs. “Listen: he’s a fictional character.”

Murphy hopes the Peaky Blinders film does happen next year, but he also seems fine with a small wait. “I think we need a little break from each other,” he says. “It was very, very intense… I think everybody just needed to go home to their families and to themselves.” Then comes Nolan’s blockbuster Oppenheimer, due next July, in which he takes the title role as the atomic-bomb-creating physicist. “Oppenheimer is a very complex character, and they’re the sort of characters that I’m drawn to. And sadly, I think it’s a very relevant tale, given the threat that the world is living under right now.”

If Murphy loudly advocates empathy, he has no truck with woolliness. He is also an ambassador for Montblanc, and as he praises the elegance of its products, it leads me to ask which of his past characters’ styles he’d like to revisit. “Oh God! I’m so unsentimental about my work,” he says immediately. “I finish it, and I just move on. I never used to keep scripts or anything, I’d just throw them all out.” And yet. He has started to, a bit, because “you know, for my kids, maybe”, he says tentatively. “Maybe there’s a film in there that they might just be interested in…” A middle-aged dad hoping his teenage sons might care about his career? You’d have to be truly hard-hearted not to empathise. 

Ionbhá: The Empathy Book for Ireland is published by Mercier Press at €24.99

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article