Reflections on resilience from the Dublin Lockout (1913) to the rise of ISIS (2015)

Reflections on resilience from the Dublin Lockout (1913) to the rise of ISIS (2015)

by Dr. Angela Veale

It was a moment of personal revelation. I checked the 1901 and 1911 Irish census data at census@nationalarchives. There, in the handwriting of my ancestor, Thomas Veale, was a digitalised record of lives once lived. In 1901, Thomas, aged 46 years was married to Bridget, fourteen years his junior. They had four children, Laurence, James, John and Edward, aged nine, eight, six and two years of age respectively. The writing is looping and elegant. All except Edward, the baby, speak both Irish and English. Laurence is able to read and write and the other children of school going age have learnt to read. Ten years later, 1911, Thomas and Bridget are married 20 years. Thomas, now 56 years old, fills in the details of his family. Laurence is nineteen years old now. I search for the names of James and John? No mention. Edward is next, now twelve. He is no longer the youngest child. Following him in rapid succession are Thomas (aged 9 years), Christopher (aged 8), Patrick (aged 7), Bridget (aged 5), James (aged 4) and John (aged 3). The ‘particulars as to marriage’ section yields the explanation. Of thirteen children born alive, eight were still living. Did James and John pass away of some childhood illness? Were their names bequeathed to their younger siblings as a way of keeping the fact they existed alive? I have only my imagination to fill in the blanks. I felt a profound sense of gratitude.   I am here because of those who survived.

Psychologists are interested in resilience -how individuals navigate challenges they face in their lives – and also the inter-generational effects that cascade across the generations, the biological and cultural inheritance we all have. There are different definitions of resilience, which can be thought of as positive adaptation following hard times. Ann Masten, the ‘Grande dame’ of resilience theory, notes resilience can take different forms: achieving better than expected outcomes in contexts of high-risk or ‘overcoming the odds’; sustaining competence or effective functioning in very difficult conditions (resistance to stress); or regaining effective functioning after exposure to traumatic stressors (recovery).   Some people even become strengthened by their experiences of adversity, known as post-traumatic growth, or adversity-activated development.


Traditionally, the research literature has been interested in understanding individual resilience- individual processes of, capacity for, or patterns of positive adaptation in the face of adversity that has the potential to destroy successful functioning or development. Increasingly however this is regarded as a limited way of understanding the world. For example, Ireland in 1901 and 1911 was a time of high unemployment and poor working conditions that fuelled high child mortality rates. This culminated in the Dublin Lockout of 1913, in which over 20,000 workers were fired and people died in rioting in the aftermath. Personal stories are embedded in such historical times.

Developmental and cultural psychology, as inter-related sub-disciplines, are moving to seeking to understand resilient systems. Masten & Obradovic (2008) note that resilience in children and youth arises from the ‘ordinary magic’ that is inherent in the biological and cultural human adaptive systems that have evolved over time. There is a complex interaction between genetics and biology; biology, stress reactivity and emotional regulation; emotional regulation and thinking, and the ability of people to think and work collectively and develop responses to social challenges. When these systems operate normally, they convey capacity for resilience for children within them. If systems are damaged or destroyed such as through economic crisis such as experienced in Ireland since 2008, conflict, or other major events, capacity for resilience is reduced. Resilience therefore is an emergent property of the system in which individuals act and live- not only of the individual him or herself.

Within such a systems perspective, resilience is fundamentally about the connectedness between the individual and their broader environment. Ungar (2008), a Canadian psychologist, captures the essence of this in his definition of resilience that argues “In the context of exposure to significant adversity, whether psychological, environmental or both, resilience is both the capacity of individuals to navigate their way to health-sustaining resources, including opportunities to experience feelings of well-being, and a condition of the individual’s family, community and culture to provide these health resources and experiences in a culturally meaningful way” (p 225).  Resilience therefore emerges from the efforts of the individual to mobilise people and resources for his or her needs and from the capacity of the environment to provide those resources in such as way that there is a “goodness of fit” between the support needed for that individual/culture and the support offered. Norris (2008) goes even further to talk about community resilience that can arise from individual efforts, ‘a set of networked capacities’, of people coming together to combine their efforts to build collective capacity that in turn supports those struggling to manage.

What do these new models of resilience mean in practice?

One important implication is that new definitions of resilience highlight the ways in which different environments nurture different strengths. Traditionally, environments that are chronically under-resourced – such as contexts of poverty, homelessness, or conflict – have been implicitly assumed to produce poor developmental outcomes or impairments. Bruce Ellis (2015) says that instead we need to look closely at sensitivity to context and children’s positive adaptive engagement with the specific environment they are exposed to. He argues “individuals who develop in harsh environments may specialise their abilities to match high-adversity contexts”, and children developing under stressful conditions become good at thinking and reasoning in certain ways. He reports evidence of adults who had harsh childhoods had greater attentional flexibility (ability to switch attention quickly) than those not exposed to aversive childhood environments, so they demonstrated a skill in registering and responding to environmental cues quickly. This offers evidence supporting the specialisation hypothesis, that the mind is developmentally specialised according to local environmental conditions, and children from stressed backgrounds (violence, neglect) do better on detection, learning and memory tasks that are relevant to their lives compared to their peers growing up in safe and secure environments (Frankenhuis & de Weerth, 2013). Ellis argues we need to change the question so that instead of working against adaptations to stress by asking ‘what is wrong’? ask ‘what is right’?

This research is a step forward but it falls short in many important respects. What about when the environment really is toxic to good functioning and mental health. Another implication of a shift from an individualist to a systems oriented view of resilience is that it shifts attention to the macro-environment and reduces likely victim-blaming. Many psychologists have pointed out there is a danger that ‘individual resilience’ models may bias attributions of poor developmental outcomes to functional deficits within the individual psyche. This has long been a risk for refugees populations (Bracken, Giller and Summerfield, 1995). Psychologists now recognise the need to include in their formulations the political, economic and social context in which distress is experienced. Perhaps the most visible case of this in Ireland currently relates to asylum seekers. Of 7,937 asylum seekers, over half (55%) have been in the asylum system for five years or more. Many have children that were born and are being reared in Direct Provision centres. In June of this year, the Working Group on the Protection Process on Improvements to the Protection Process, including Direct Provision and Supports to Asylum Seekers Final Report issued its long-awaited final report. It reported research which found that asylum seekers including those in Direct Provision suffer higher rates of anxiety and depressive disorders than other sections of society. It recorded particular concerns about children’s and young people’s mental health. The centres are “cramped and very cluttered” spaces where parents do not have the resources to protect their children. It found that Direct Provision living “alienates children and is an unnatural family environment which is not conducive to their positive development”.

181 “An issue impacting on child welfare that was referenced by all stakeholders was where parents, particularly mothers, suffered mental health problems, including depression. The impact of past trauma and separation from friends and family are factors to be taken into account in understanding mental health problems. However, the length oftime spent in Direct Provision, in communal living without knowing when the situation would end, was cited as being a major contributing factor in the mental health problems experienced by many. Residents said that many of them were on prescribed medication, and others spoke of just wanting to sleep during the day. Children need parents who are emotionally and mentally available to them. The hospitalisation of a parent has an additional impact on a child’s welfare. In such situations children can find themselves acting as their parent’s carer, and taking on additional responsibilities with younger children”.

While the report notes there are some services aimed at supporting parents provided through Tusla and the HSE, these The Working Group was told of several instances where support services once provided on-site in Direct Provision were withdrawn to the community due to service demands. The section devoted to mental health notes “Depression, behavioural issues with children, post natal depression, separation anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder are all very common for residents of Direct Provision.”

It makes not sense to make sense of the mental health of asylum through the apolitical prism of psychological concepts such as trauma, mental health and psychosocial needs alone. The report recognises the lack of right to work, lengthy time living in DP as key contributing factors to psychological responses. Yet there is a danger this will be exactly a response framed solely in psychological terms will be the response without addressing the issue at the core of the problem- the environment of Direct Provision institutionalisation.

The Working Group considered the impact of living in Direct Provision on vulnerable persons including victims of torture, victims of trafficking and others. In order to ensure that those with vulnerabilities are identified and that they are appropriately assisted, it is recommended that the existing HSE health screening service for protection applicants be reviewed and strengthened so as to facilitate a multidisciplinary needs assessment at an early stage (4.210).

This reduces the response to existing HSE health screening services rather than also repositioning responses to psychological distress back in a political space where it rightfully belongs.

Another challenge is when the types of adaptive responses do not fit the dominant narrative/societal story. Unger (2008), as we saw above, draws attention to the importance of the cultural nature of resilience. This is another important shift. Catherine Panter-Brick (2015) notes what resilience means is different in different cultures and contexts. In western, technologically driven, first world contexts, characteristics associated with resilience include the exercise of control, adaptability, perseverance and support. A resilience person might have a set of personal constructs about the world that include statements like “I can influence my future”; “I can deal with change”, “I am determined” and “I know a caring person”. In many non-Western contexts affected by conflict and extreme poverty, such a belief system could in fact be maladaptive/place someone at risk of heightened anxiety or even depression as so much that happens in daily life is uncontrollable and resources scarce. Instead, a resilient worldview might include a belief that “Life feeds on hope”; of unity- of putting your effort into family and community harmony as   belief in coordinated, collective power to produce desired results; a belief in effort even when the outcome is uncertain such as “I must work hard” and gaining skills to be of service “I will get an education”. She makes the point that Western girls and women are attracted to Islamic Jihadi as it offers a sense of belonging. A major new report on why Western girls and young women are joining ISIS found a major push factor is feeling isolated socially and/or culturally, including questioning one’s identity and uncertainty of belonging within a Western culture – a developmental transition ethnic minority identity “many Muslim women living within Western societies undergo a natural process of questioning their identities and belonging during their teens.” Secondly, feeling that the international Muslim community as a whole is being violently persecuted and thirdly, an anger, sadness and/or frustration over a perceived lack of international action in response to this persecution. Pull factors included idealistic goals of religious duty and building a utopian ‘Caliphate state’, belonging and sisterhood and romanticisation of the experience. They are motivated by the belief that they have an instrumental role to play in this new society and will be agents of state-building, and can take on roles as wives, nurses and teachers.

Women within our dataset consistently speak of the camaraderie and sisterhood they experience within ISIS-controlled territory. They discuss the feeling of belonging, of unity and community. Often images are posted of groups of veiled ‘sisters’ posing together, “surface-level relationships they iterate they previously held in the West. This search for meaning, sisterhood, and identity is a primary driving factor for many women to travel (Saltman & Smith, 2015 p 15)

UK policy on prevention, the ‘Prevent’ strategy requires teachers to spot signs of radicalisation that include “a desire for political and moral change”, “feelings of grievance and injustice” and “a need for identity, meaning and belonging”. This risks criminalising Muslim children and youth who may be coming aware of social justice issues (a normal stage of adolescent development- how many of your friends became vegetarians at sixteen years of age?) and who may never become involved in terrorism. Some argue such strategies are in turn leading to increased anti-Muslim racism and Islamophobia.

In conclusion, new understandings of resilience take a systems perspective to capture the inter-connectedness of the individual-environment relationship in all its complexity. It is a call to look beyond the individual to the interdependence of peoples and environments and it challenges us to understand and not only judge when the responses do not accord with dominant agendas.


Bracken, P. Giller, J. and Summerfield, D. (2007). Psychological responses to war and atrocity: the limitations of current concepts. Social Science & Medicine, 40 (8), 1073-1082.

Ellis (2015) Keynote presentation. Pathways to Resilience III International Conference. Halifax, Canada. June, 2015.

Frankenhuis, W. and de Weerth C. (2013). Does Early-Life Exposure to Stress Shape or Impair Cognition? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22 (5), 407-412.

Masten, A. & Obradovic, J. (2008). Disaster preparation and recovery: Lessons from research on resilience in human development. Ecology & Society, 13 (1) 9. Online

Norris, F., Stevens, S., Pfefferbaum, B., Wyche, K., & Pfefferbaum, R. (2008). Community resilience as a metaphor, theory, set of capacities, and strategy for disaster readiness. American Journal of Community Psychology, 41(1),127-150.


Panter-Brick, C. (2015) Cross-cultural resilience research- Three deadly sins. Keynote presentation. Pathways to Resilience III International Conference. Halifax, Canada. June, 2015.

Saltman, E. & Smith, M. (2015) ‘Til martyrdom do us part: Gender and the ISIS phenomenon. London: Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

Ungar, M. (2008). Resilience across cultures. British Journal of Social Work, 38(2), 218-235.

Working Group on the Protection Process on Improvements to the Protection Process, including Direct Provision and Supports to Asylum Seekers (2015) Final Report. Dublin: Department of Justice.