Sunday 27 March 2011 which your colyoomist seeks to self-improve, but ends up lost between doing a Masters in Writing and nothing at all!

For decades I’ve earned my living through a mix of freelance writing and Youth Work, but these days in beautiful bonkers bankrupt Ireland, it’s tough finding a job. Even as a Youth Worker with years of experience working with young Travellers, I can no longer get a job interview without a relevant FETAC 5 qualification. 

It’s frustrating knowing that I’d be at least known and often trusted in most Traveller kitchens in east Galway City, yet the job’s going to someone who’s probably never spoken with a Traveller. But self-pity doesn’t pay the rent. I’ve still a couple of intact brain cells, so if it’s qualifications I need, then qualifications I’ll get.

A friend gave me the name and number of the Course Administrator on a distant learning degree in Community Development, who just happened to follow my newspaper column. After nearly 20 years in the West of Ireland I know how it’s done, so I met yer man, who was thoroughly delightful. He told me that someone with my writing experience could drop several modules. That should have been good news, but I’d left school just turned 17 in 1977, had no further academic education, and hadn’t a clue what a module was. 

His course had already begun, so the sooner I started the better. I’d be expected to attend a Saturday workshop once a month in a neighbouring town, while most of the work would be done online.

So with gusto I enter once more the arcane world of essay writing, and I’m half-way through my second module when I suddenly realise that I don’t know exactly what qualification I’m working towards, nor what the course will cost.

The Administrator tells me I’m doing a HETAC 6, which overlaps with FETAC 6. Two years of this part-time course will be like the first year at university, and all being well, fifteen months after that I could have a degree. How will I pay for the course? He suggests I approach FAS about funding. 

At Galway’s Island House, FAS officer Tom gives me a form to fill out, promising to see whether I qualify for funding. He’s a busy man and truth be told, I don’t expect to hear from him, so I’m rather impressed when a few days later he telephones me. 

He’s very sorry, but it’s not good news. There’s a slight problem with the fact that I’ve already started the course, but the real problem is that FAS only provides funding for FETAC not HETAC courses. I point out that a HETAC 6 is only a FETAC 6 in disguise. He apologises again, suggesting I speak to Pat down there above the Dole Office. Pat will be able to point me in the right direction. 

Oh and by the way, I should check out for help and advice.

Thanking Tom, I head off to Pat down there above the Dole Office, but Pat isn’t available, so I have an interview with Donal, who says he’s sorry, but there’s not much he can do either. If I want to investigate funding for Third Level courses, he says I’d be better off visiting the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG), or the Vocational Education Committee (VEC). Donal suggests that as I’ve never had a grant before, I must be due something, and I meet all the criteria for the Back To Education Allowance (the BACTA, as it’s known). 

Oh and by the way, I should check out for help.

In the meantime the course I’m doing turns out to be quite different from what I expected. The online element is minimal. Everyone lives in the town. I’m the only student who comes all the way from Galway. All the people involved are absolutely splendid, but nothing feels distant about it. On my third month I’m required to attend 4 times in 5 weeks, which costs a lot in petrol, not to mention time. Given Galway City’s rush hour traffic problems, making it to a 6pm lecture on a Wednesday evening means leaving home several years earlier.

Anyway, without funding I’m not able to pay for the course it, so I quit, which hurts. Ouch. I am not a quitter. My essays are in and now I’ll never know. All that work gone to pooey. That hurts. But I’m still determined to get to a qualification. Sitting back and accepting that I can’t get a job interview just isn’t my style. 

Donal of the Dole had previously given me the names of the women who run the Community Development Programme at the university. He told me that I was just the sort of person they were looking for on this programme, because I already had experience in the field. This was a course specially geared to people like me. 

Oh and by the way, I should check out for help and advice.

How good it sounded at last to be told that I actually met criteria. Thanking Donal profusely I left with a spring in my old boots. There was hope yet. Who knew, maybe I’d end up with a proper degree, attending a real university, just like a normal person.
Eagerly the next morning I call NUIG, to be greeted by a machine. 

 “Please state the name or extension number of the person or department you wish to speak to.” 
 Oh lord no. Please can’t I have a human being? 
 “Community Development Programme.” I enunciate slowly, clearly and calmly.
 “Sorry. Please state the name or extension number of the person or department you wish to speak to.”
 Taking a deep breath, I try again.
 “Community Development Programme.” I say slowly, but not quite so calmly.
 “Sorry. Please state the name or extension number of the person or department you wish to speak to.”
 “Community Development fucking Programme.” I scream down the phone like a deranged rabid beast.
 “Thank you. Putting you through to Kevin Lynch.”

I hang up. Whoever Kevin Lynch may be, he doesn’t need me in his life right now.
Heroically, I give it one more shot.

“Please state the name or extension number of the person or department you wish to speak to.”
“Community Development Programme.” I enunciate slowly, clearly and as calmly as a nutter is able.
“Thank you. Putting you through to the Spanish Department.”

 ...this is a long sorry painful tale, so feel free to take some time to take a break, have a drink, live your life a little...

Scrabbling through notes scrawled during Dole interviews, I find a name and number at NUIG that by-passes the demonic central voicemail.
Instead I’m now in somebody called Fiona’s voicemail. Leaving my details, I explain that I want to find out about the Community Development programme. Fiona replies by email, suggesting I contact Trish, the Mature Students Officer. 

So I send Trish an email and she replies to tell me yes, while I would have been eligible to attend the Community Development programme, and most likely receive both a grant and funding, I’d missed the deadline for courses starting in September 2011 by one week.
7 measly days? I ask if there is any chance of a little flexibility, seeing as how I’d wasted time being shown down wrong tracks, been given poor advice, so please don’t exclude me now, just because I’m a week late.

Trish is really sympathetic and wants to help, but there’s no hope of a course in 2011. However, she makes a surprising suggestion.
‘Perhaps you should speak with the Postgraduate section of the University to see if you could do a Masters in Writing. Sometimes, if an individual has a portfolio and much experience in the area they wish to study, they would consider them for a Masters and not require an Undergraduate degree. Perhaps set up an appointment with the director of the course to see if this is possible.’

All I want is a simple FETAC qualification to help me get job interviews for Youth Work, but after a trail of minor travesties, I’m now looking at the possibility of doing a Masters in Writing, my other professional field. How bad would it be to have a Masters after one year, without having to do a degree? Unsure whether I was influenced by vanity or my need for qualifications, I wrote an email to the Professor of the Masters in Writing.

He wrote back to say that I was not too late and that I sounded ‘like an excellent candidate’ for the exceptional admission onto the Masters without a BA. He explained that I had to register for Postgraduate Applications at, make a personal statement and give a writing sample of not more than 10 pages, and then, if I was admitted on a ‘provisional basis’, I’d need to register for an MA Qualifier, which entailed providing a paper of 5,000 words before August 1st.

After registering online, I dared to entertain thoughts that my miserable quest to gain qualifications might be about succeed. Back I went to Donal of the Dole, to find out if I’d qualify for funding. Hadn’t he told me that I was eligible for the BACTA? Indeed he had, but as he now explained patiently, watching my face redden and my eyes swell with exhausted tears, there was no provision for BACTA on a Masters course. 

At this stage, unashamedly, I pleaded with him. I had never had a grant or funding or done any kind of Third Level Education. I was applying for the 1 year course as an ‘exceptional’ student, as a writer with a lifetime portfolio, and if there was ever a time for an ‘exception’ surely it was now, in my favour. 

He sighed and shook his head, entering into a lengthy explanation as to how I might be able to retain some benefits if I signed off and became wholly dependent on my wife, even though I wouldn’t be making pension contributions or even exist financially in the eyes of the system for the period of the course, depending on whether her circumstances changed...

My spirits sank below the earth’s crust, but Donal suggested that my journey might not yet be over. He told me I needed find out if the fees for the course were covered under VEC or Local Authority Grant, and if so, by how much? If neither of those enquiries proved fruitful, there was a chance that some philanthropic old student might have left a bursary for the course, to support students who didn’t fit into the holes. 

Square peg? I’d sand myself down. Inspired by Donal of the Dole’s stoic persistence, I refused to give up.

So I sent an email to the course administrator at NUIG who told me that unfortunately there was no bursary availiable for the course, advising me to send an email to the Fees Office. They emailed explaining that fees could be funded up to €6270, which was excellent news as I’d discovered online that the total fees for the course came to €6,015. Once again I dared to feel that the force might at last be with me. Ignoring the fact that without BACTA I’d have no income whilst doing the course, I followed the trail of funding like a dog follows a bitch on heat: because it felt good and offered hope.

Off I went, to visit the offices of the VEC at Island House, where many moons ago this journey began with a visit to FAS. An extremely helpful VEC woman shared much time and knowledge, telling me that actually I needed to go to Galway County Council to apply for funding, while warning me that should I receive funding for a Masters, in the future I’d never qualify for funding for a degree or any other lesser qualification. Handy to know, given that all I really wanted was a FETAC 5 that gave me access to job interviews.

Apparently the forms for funding application didn’t come out until May, but I needed to be very on the case, as they already had a backlog. I asked how on earth they could have a backlog before the application forms came out, but she sideswiped that one, insisting I needed to apply on the day that the forms were released. 

She gave me a checklist of things that I’d need to process my application. Along with the  birth cert, passport and proof of residence, I’d need an Official College offer; a course acceptance schedule FA2 or PLC/FA1; a Revenue PAYE P21 and P60 or P45 for each employment on the P21; a statement from the Social Welfare, and proof of independent residence, just in case I was still living with Mammy at the age of 50.

Although my eyes followed her fingers running down the checklist, my brain had stalled at the 'Official College Offer’. The course Professor had said that I would only be on a provisional offer until August, or had I got that wrong? The VEC woman insisted that I had to have a firm offer before I filled out the forms in May. 

My head started to swim. I couldn’t get BACTA but might be able to find a penny or two if I become entirely dependent on my wife’s financial circumstances. I might get funding but only if I had an offer of a firm place but I couldn’t get an offer of a firm place because I was an exceptional candidate. I couldn’t get financial support because I was doing a Masters even though I’d never done a BA, but all I really wanted in the first place was a FETAC 5.

The VEC woman said that if all I wanted was a FETAC 5, I should go along to the Open Day at the GTI college on Father Griffin Road. So I did, and the moment I entered the building, the woman at reception told me that for the course I wanted, I should really go to the offices of Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme (VTOS) on Merchants Road.

I’d been to FAS, the HSE, the GCP, the GTI and the VEC. I’d called NUIG, the CAC, the GCC and registered at I’d gone through more capital letters than the most ambitious of academics could ever hope to sport after their name. My best efforts to self-improve, to gain a simple qualification, were proving useless, and it made me wonder. 

How on earth might somebody who didn’t have the energy, drive and motivation that has powered me through 20 years of a freelance writing career fare on this journey?

Many of you reading this are doubtless tutting and shaking your heads, wondering how I made such hard work of an essentially simple process. You lucky winners have an instinctive and symbiotic empathy with the system, while many of us who are not the least bit stupid are unable to deal with the vagaries of welfare, academia and bureaucracy. We just bounce off the system like oil from water. It’s a labyrinthine nightmare. We need a course on how to apply for a course.

Hang on, that’s an idea.....

Wednesday 23 March 2011

Malcolm X’s maxim used to overthrow African national leader!

Just like Donald Rumsfeld, there are some things I know I know and some things I don’t know that I know. I know that war is complex, and that when a dictator talks about showing his own people ‘no mercy’ there may well be a bloodbath.

So intervention in Libya might have been justified to save the lives of the rebels in Benghazi, but all last week I was wondering about what I didn’t know: why were Cameron and Sarkozy so very eager to impose a ‘No Fly Zone’?

I’d listened to the military experts and read column yards of military advice, and everyone in helmets said the same thing: that a ‘No Fly Zone’ was fairly pointless, because Gaddafi was moving his troops around on the ground, and even if and when he used helicopters for troop movements, a ‘No Fly Zone’ doesn’t actually allow you to shoot them down.

But as soon as I heard the phrase ‘by any means necessary’ being used in the new UN resolution, all became clear. They had never wanted a ‘No Fly Zone’. All they wanted was the idea of one, so that they could get a U.N. resolution passed, which allowed them to do whatever they wanted ‘legally’.

So now they’ve waded in with all the powerful speed, shocking ferocity and bloodlust that we have see so many times before. They have no idea what their endgame is because they never bother to think that far ahead. They didn’t finish in Afghanistan before they started in Iraq, and they didn’t finish there before they started in Libya. This colyoom suggests Yemen might well be next ...

My favourite bit of the war so far? That fabulous Pubic Relations exercise where the Royal Air Force said that they’d aborted a Tornado bombing mission over Libya when they’d received intelligence that there might be heavy civilian casualites. Oh my, how caring and compassionate the allied forces are. Why, I love them so much I could cuddle a cruise missile.

Monday 21 March 2011

So how exactly did England win the Championship if Ireland won the victory?

Just as the English can take victory and turn it into miserable defeat, so the Irish take defeat and cheer with the song of a thousand victories.

Ireland didn’t just beat England in the rugby at the weekend. The Irish slaughtered them, and having just beaten the old enemy in the Cricket World Cup, and what with it being Paddy’s Weekend, and the game in Dublin and did I mention the old enemy, I did did I, oh so now so now so well, it just couldn’t have been any better.

The English departed heads down, demoralised and bedraggled, while the Irish went bananas nationwide for several days. Everywhere the talk was of how if only they’d played like that in every game, they might have won the Six Nations Championship, or maybe the Triple Crown, or maybe even the Grand Slam, where your country wins all five games in this France, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Italy mini league.

Before this year’s Six Nations, I contacted an Irish friend up in Killala. As a true Ireland and Munster through-and-through rugby fan, what did he hope would be at stake on the last day of the tournament, when the English would travel to Dublin?

‘An Irish Grand Slam. Why not?’ came his reply.

So the Irish pulverised the English and won the day, but the English won the Six Nations Championship. Indeed, they won it from such a strong position that it didn’t even matter that they were marmalised by Ireland on the last day of the competition. England won the Championship yet they left Dublin dejected losers, because they’d believed the hype, and dreamed only of the Grand Slam.

There exists still a small arcane part of the English cortex that believes that anything less than winning the Six Nations is disastrous, what with us giving the game to the world donchaknow blah Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran blah blah.

An arrogance lingers that winning the thing is barely enough. To revel in glory, England must do it in style, with supremacy intact.  Bliss belonged to the Irish, who won nothing but the game. They savoured every bloodstained sweaty second of their team’s splendid display.

Irish thinking has moved on a great deal in the 20 years since I arrived here. They’ve cut the first snips of the chord that bind Church and State in a social context. Irish society has experienced affluence for a while and there are at last non-white faces on the streets of Galway. Yet still, there is nothing that puts a smile on the faces of my hosts like getting one over their historical oppressors.

Monday 14 March 2011

There's the big story, and then the hidden story, but neither are the real story!

‘The wisdom to know the difference’ - that’s what the Serenity prayer asks for. 

You can’t stop earthquakes. Going to happen. Nothing you can do.
You can’t stop man-made things breaking down. Going to happen. Nothing you can do. 

The difference between the earthquake and the man-made thing is that we don’t have to make the man-made thing. Just watch now as the world’s media and politicians make a great big hoo-haa about how maybe it’s not a good idea to build nuclear power plants on tectonic faults, but that’s not the story. 

They’ll present a united front pretending that it is the story, because building nuclear power plants on tectonic faults is evidently an astonishingly stupid idea. It makes great newspaper copy and excellent TV, with explosions that you can show thousands of times. You can advertise your rolling news channel showing these explosions over and over again, interspersed with shots of boats on rooftops and oil refineries ablaze, and then lead into the ad break with a tag something akin to ‘Sky news - Closer to the suffering’. 

Murdoch makes me nauseous. Suffering is not a product. It’s an emotion. Try one, Rupert. You might like one.

But my petty and peculiar dislikes are not the story either. The story is that man-made things will break down, and so it’s never a good idea to build a nuclear power plant, because as sure as you farted today, it’ll break down tomorrow.

Over the last couple of years Europe’s centre-left parties and some Greens have begun to ‘accept’ that nuclear energy is a clean environmentally friendly way to go. All of a sudden, nuclear power is all zippetty-dip sparkly efficient and really it saves trees, yes it does.

Oops, I farted. 
Here comes a meltdown.

Wednesday 2 March 2011

A Tale of Two Bars.

Driven by a simple desire for a quiet pint of Guinness I slip into the bar of the hotel round the corner.

The Snapper is waiting there, sitting on a barstool facing a dark middle-aged man, who stands with his elbow on the bar, his other arm waving as he talks at her.

She turns to look at me with a forlorn expression.

In the Pain In The Arse Premier League, this gobshite is Manchester United. He’s the New York Yankees making kissy-kissy with the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby team. Also, he’s fairly drunk, but I don’t think that makes any difference. He just knows everything. He knows Londoners better than this Londoner. He knows that I don’t know a good pint of Guinness from a bad pint of Guinness. He knows that he is always right and everyone else is always wrong.

Contrary to his opinion, my pint is glorious, going down smooth and creamy like a country pint. A rare find in the city. I turn to him.

“Must be a fantastic place to live.”
“What’s that then?”
“The Land of Always Being Right. Very safe, very lovely, knowing that whatever happens, you’re always right.”
“’Tis, ‘tis, ‘tis a great place. I like it ver’ much.”

As I drain my pint, move towards the bar and order another, yer man yells to the barmaid that he’s getting this one for me. I look her in the eyes and tell her I want to pay for it myself.

While the Guinness sits on top of the bar waiting for its 2nd fill, Captain Painhole carries on ranting, this time to the barmaid. Evidently she knows him and dislikes him as much as any decent person would. He’s been locked out by his wife but ‘showed her’ by staying in a 5 Star hotel. The barmaid is upset with him because he left his dog in the car for 2 days, but of course as he explains, she is the cruel one because she can’t even look after her cat.

My pint is ready and I offer her a fiver, but Captain Painhole yells again that he wants to pay. On the bar is a pile of his cash and a tab. I look her in the eyes and tell her I want to pay for my own pint. She holds my stare and slips some money off the pile on the bar, trying to tacitly say

“Just take the prick’s money.”

I’m certainly not going to argue with her, but as she hands over my pint I say calmly and gently

“Thanks, but you should have let me pay for it.”

In a misguided attempt to do me a favour she has now put me in a position where I must raise my glass to Captain Painhole and say thanks. Doesn’t matter who he is or what he’s like, if somebody buys me a drink I cannot completely free myself from debt until I thank him and buy him one back. Tonight I leave in debt to him, because we cannot stand his company for one second longer than it takes me to skull that Guinness, and because I know that he’ll never accept a drink from me.

For some reason this episode irks me. I just wish she’d let me pay for my own drink.

The week before I sat at the bar of another hotel, in the village of Cong. Despite having driven though the place a thousand times I’ve never stopped, because between the world-renowned Ashford Castle Hotel and the marauding hordes of Irish-American fans of the ‘Quiet Man’ movie, the wee place feels like a theme park for 8 months of the year.

But on a Monday night in February the village is lovely. The roads are empty, the cold night air scented by burning wood and turf. I’m sitting at the end of the bar, with a young wiry T-shirt and jeans American lad two stools down from me, and an older barrel-shaped local gent in a jacket, ironed shirt and tie at the far end.

We are all siting quietly, but I can feel excited energy pumping from the lad to my right. I suspect that he’s not used to being drunk.

Behind us, an older man leaves the pub with a much younger woman, and inexperienced in the ways of quiet Connemara bars, Wiry seems to deem it worthy of note. Unfortunately  his voice pierces the air like a discordant bow stroke on an out-of-tune violin.

“Wife or daughter? Wife or daughter?”

I refuse to engage, so he turns to BarrelShirt.

“Wife or daughter?”

Sitting silent and immobile, my mind wanders off to the scene in Bill Forsyth’s wonderful film, ‘Local Hero’, in which an American arrives in a tiny Scottish village. Seeing an infant surrounded by a crowd of local fishermen, he asks “Whose baby?”, to be greeted in response by seven silent staring faces.

Wiry is making me cringe for him, still adamant that he gets an answer, and finally BarrelShirt offers

“Girlfriend, as it happens.”

There follows an uneasy routine in which Wiry asks BarrelShirt a series of personal questions, to which BarrelShirt replies openly and honestly. Trouble is, because of the local accent, Wiry doesn’t understand a single word that BarrelShirt is saying.

As a compassionate man who has sat at the bars of many foreign countries (even though Ireland is my home, it’ll always be a foreign country to this Englishman!) I feel it’s only fair to offer Wiry a translation of the Connemara man’s responses. So we have a 3-way conversation, in which I feel a little like a United Nations interpreter. 

Once in a while I point out to Wiry that he already asked that question a few minutes earlier, to which he insists that he’s drunk so he doesn’t know. Gradually I grow to gently enjoy the dynamic, filtering the idiom of the local man into a wit which the New Yorker might appreciate. The conversation inevitably drifts towards Ireland’s current predicament: being bankrupt.

BarrelShirt raises his pint of Smiddicks and turns to us both. Speaking loudly and slowly, with self-confidence and assurance, he states

“A country, a whole country doesn't fail. A whole country cannot fail, because it has people, good people in it.”

On that admirably philosophical note he says good night and leaves.

Now that it’s down to Wiry and me, we talk easily and I discover to my delight that he is, like myself, an atheist Jew. He’s working in on a medical scholarship in Israel, because apparently the health system there is the best in the world.

I tell him that it’s rare to have a secular Jewish man at the bar beside me in the West of Ireland. He admits he was really hoping the pubs would have more life in them. I tell him, much to the barman’s amusement, that having 3 of us at the bar of a country pub on a Monday night in February was two more than I expected.

We buy each other several whiskies along the way, as is my pleasure. Even the most raucous of catgut strings can make sweet music when tuned well, and both of us is willing to listen to, learn from and enjoy the company of the other.

Captain Painhole must be very lonely.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

Self-indulgent and bleedin' obvious.

The house is empty save for myself on the sofa. It’s Sunday afternoon and there’s Cup Final football live from Wembley on my tele and election results on the laptop. Whatever skewed confused cocktail it is that makes me up, this is about as good as it gets.

I pick up my phone and leave a reminder to myself to write about it; to write what this nerdy and essentially me moment felt like.

And then I stop and think and breathe a sigh of relief. 

One of my trite aspirations is to appreciate the good times as they happen. Bad times hit you over the head with a metal bar. There’s no missing them, but good times, be they moments or years, often pass without ever being consciously appreciated, only then to slip through the memory net so easily. That’s why you have to notice them, mentally snapshot them and of course, enjoy them as they happen. 

Yet with all the footie and political nonsense I could ever want at my fingertips, all I think about is writing. Through all the recent months of self doubt, it’s been there as it always is. I love the footie and I love the election count, but what I do is write. 

Sometimes it’s good just to be shown the bleedin’ obvious.