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.....


Paz said...

And people wonder why the country is fucked. I need a rest after reading that

Charlie Adley said...

Aye, tiring it is, and yet, indefatigable (great word, even though it's impossible to say), I persist. As i said, some people can find that easy path through bureaucracy, while others like me are evidently just meant to cut their own swathe through life.

Ian said...

Great article, Charlie.
I was getting frustrated just reading it!
Josef K. salutes you.
Hang on, maybe he's not such a good example after all...

Charlie Adley said...

Thanks Ian - life is always interesting. As far as satire of bureaucracy goes, i was alwyas a bit more of a fan of Terry Gilliam's 'Brazil' than Kafka!

Ciaran said...

Amazing stuff, Charlie. Could you give a course in how to find out about courses? If ya know what I mean. Cripes, all that bureacracy would drive anyone insane.

Charlie Adley said...

Thanks Ciaran - though I'd say I'm the last one who should give advice about it! I know people who just instinctively understand the system, and the system loves them back- they wouldn't have gone on my mad journey!

Maybe I could give a course on being a dogged single-minded fool! One thing a lifetime of writing teaches you is the importance of never giving up.

Having said that, Iris my Israeli writing teacher told me years ago that my greatest failing is my inability to judge when to pull back, and that can cause me harm.

Happy medium? We're not too good at that in Galway!

Ciaran said...

We sure aren't good at happy mediums in this country, not to mind Galway. I was at Galway United with Hugo on Friday night and we were discussing how we are both currently 'off the drink'. That's such an Irish thing. Either we are raving alcoholics or we are totally healthy and we don't let a drop cross our lips. We tend to do things in extremes. And our bureaucracy seems to be the same way from what you're saying. As a race, we've never learned how to do things in moderation!

Charlie Adley said...

You are so right Ciaran, but I think the lakc of moderation might be down to self-perception rather than DNA.

I'm naturally drawn to extreme personalities, and when i was living in America I had just as many friends who were alcoholics as I have here, but the only reason I knew they were alcoholics was because they didn't drink. They sat in the bar or restaurant and said 'No booze for me, please, I'm an alcoholic."

Over here there is this 'on' or 'off' the booze state of mind, which offers only perpetual misery,whichever side of the fence you're sitting at any time, and has its roots in an image the Irish have of themselves as hedonists and drunkards ... and then again, maybe ye just are, and I'm missing the point!