Living Well With The Dead In Contemporary Ireland

Project Aims

This project aims to develop a medical humanities network equipped with a new and shared vocabulary that goes beyond existing intellectual frameworks to research changing Irish social imaginaries of living well with the dead. Our use of the phrase ‘living well with the dead’ alludes to Jacques Derrida’s (1994, xix) ethical challenge to ‘learn to live with ghosts’, where ‘No justice …seems possible or thinkable without the principle of some responsibility, beyond all living present, within that which disjoins the living present, before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead’. Rooted in a recognition of the inadequacies of biomedical imaginaries of the dead, transdisciplinary dialogue and synthesis of theory and methods will be crucial to our search for a new vocabulary, questions and ways of researching social imaginaries of living well with the dead. The project will consist of five workshops and a concluding ‘thinkery’, in addition to some exploratory archival and ethnographic work. We are using University College Cork as an initial study site.  

Our aim is to find new ways of thinking about, researching and responding to contemporary public disquiet in Ireland about uncared-for dead bodies. We have decided to focus on two particular populations of the dead. The first of these are the confined dead, which includes those in the poor houses and asylums of old, but also in more recent times, the dead babies and children of women confined in so-called mother and baby homes. From some very preliminary archival research, we know that in the early days of University College Cork, the pedagogical enlisting of the confined dead resulted in public agitation. Furthermore, due to report in 2019, a Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes is examining, among other things, the practice of transferring remains to universities for medical research and teaching. The second population are the unborn dead. Here we hope to contribute to and extend public debate generated by the recent Irish abortion referendum and explore how to live well with aborted and miscarried foetuses, including those with fatal foetal abnormalities. These are questions that are only becoming askable in Ireland. They also remind us that the dead and dead body are not stable concepts.

For further information, please go to the project website:


Project Outputs

Project Team: Dr. Orla O'Donovan (PI) and Dr. Robert Bolton (Post-doctoral Researcher)

Funded by: Wellcome Trust

Project Duration: 2018-2019 

Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century (ISS21)

Top Floor, Carrigbawn/Safari Building, Donovan Road, Cork, T12 YE30