Facing bankruptcy and attending Trinity: How I started my new life

On the verge of losing everything and being declared bankrupt, Matthew Moore walked up a stairway in Trinity to do a college interview – they were the stairs to a new life

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As I walked up the stairs of the School of Law at Trinity College Dublin, I wondered was I perhaps one of the greatest chancers to ever contribute to the gentle grooves that had been worn into some of the stone stairs over the last two centuries.

My last experience of full-time education was general tomfoolery, resulting in two expulsions.

An interview for a place on a law and business degree seemed an unlikely place to find myself. I entered a room that was a similar vintage to the stairs and met my five interviewers.

They included Senator Ivana Bacik, who I knew to be the deputy leader of the Seanad. Their reassurances that this was an informal chat fell on deaf ears.

In preparation for my interviews, I had been reading some nutshells. Nutshells are essentially moneyshot compilations of court cases without the judicial build-up.

I now know the absence of build-up is abhorred by lecturers.

Thankfully, I wasn’t given the chance to humiliate myself with my choice of reading material or my entirely misinterpreted scant legal knowledge.

Instead, the conversation probed my commitment and preparation for a full-time degree in law and business.

We discussed my past and how, leaving school after my Junior Certificate exam, I worked as a car mechanic for five years, before setting up a transport business when I was 20 which I ran for almost nine years until it failed in 2011.

I explained that, over the following two years, I had difficulty securing employment with significant enough remuneration to meet my huge debts.

Battling to save our house

My experience of managing over 20 employees was not enough to compensate for my lack of education or unusual work history.

The deliberations I had with my wife regarding my return to education were discussed frankly, including that we were battling to save our house and I was on the brink of bankruptcy.

The only thing I didn’t mention was that our first child was due a week before college was scheduled to start.

Close to the end of the interview, a professor threw a curveball at me. She asked how would I avoid the frustration that many business people face while attempting to study theories.

I paused.

I considered how anybody would become frustrated in such an environment. I could see it clearly then. I had survived, like many business people, for a long time on intuition.

My answer demonstrated some of the mistakes and successes I had experienced and how, often, I had little more than a hunch of why I got the results I did.

I now hoped that combining the practice and theory would enlighten and prepare me for the future. The interviewers gave each other approving glances. I knew I was in.

What I didn’t know was that my son would be born on my first day of college and also, how deeply I would extend the understanding of theories to my previous experience in both my personal and professional life.

Illuminating

The most illuminating experience so far has been a deeper understanding of power. My lecturer was marauding around the lecture hall, pointing a (handmade) gun at student’s heads to demonstrate that power was only handed over when you relinquished it.

I thought of experiences I had with power and how those situations had exerted a great influence over me.

They would shape my life for many years.

I remembered a cold hand around the back of my neck and a blood filled syringe being slid from a mugger’s cuff.

I was 12 years old and had gone fishing with my friend who was a similar age. The mugger was an adult and so were his three accomplices.

As he held the needle close to me, he explained that he would give me Aids if I didn’t give him the gold ring I had recently received as a present from my parents.

I remember clutching the knife I had in my pocket with my other hand.

The handle was plastic and had a line burnt into it as though it had been left against a hot pan.

My thumb running along this groove burnt into the handle, my heart pounded and mind raced as I considered whether to plunge the knife into him or surrender. I surrendered.

My father often told us, in a light-hearted way from a young age, that life wasn’t fair. How true I thought this was.

These four men had drug addictions that reduced them to threatening children with the prospect of Aids.

I was growing up in an area plagued with crime and drugs. As the four muggers walked away from their victims, one stopped and turned around. He told me I was lucky he was letting me keep my runners. Maybe he wanted to prove my father wrong.

Supportive

I was very fortunate that in all this unfairness, I had a kind, loving and supportive family. My parents sacrificed and saved to give my sister and I as much as they could. However, at the time, I couldn’t see it.

I saw a violent environment that threatened me. I was a relatively good child academically. As adults, we see the best way to escape such an environment is to leverage our academic abilities and build on the foundations my parents had worked so hard to lay down.

As further incidents helped this threatening environment encroach further into my sense of safeness, I pushed back against this power.

Academic ability meant nothing to me. As I look back, I see how the ferociousness I developed was a direct result of my “fight or flight” response.

I’d accepted that life wasn’t fair and the best way to meet it was head-on. I wanted to gain the power.

By the time I reached my Junior Certificate, I’d been expelled from school twice. Throughout my teenage years and beyond, I remained aggressive, disruptive and riotous. I put my parents through hell.

I could circumvent the world with all the miles I took when they were giving inches. Though relationships were strained, their love for their prodigal son never wavered.

For this, I’ll always be grateful.

There is no doubt their love helped me to ultimately come back from the brink. Around a decade after my encounter with the syringe, I made a conscious decision to change my life and live it in a way that ensured the greatest prospect of longevity and liberty.

With a clear head, my attentions were now firmly placed on the business I had set up a couple of years earlier.

Up until this point, it was essentially a man and van operation that funded my lifestyle. Once I made a decision to live my life by different values and principles, I steered the business towards growth.

In 2007, I was able to buy a very modest house in Dublin for an embarrassingly high price.

As the recession struck, I continued to grow the business. I took on more staff, more equipment and more premises and, with it, more liabilities.

I built a great team and had an offering that worked for my customers. The trajectory continued upwards until 2011.

Customers were becoming increasingly price conscious and less focused on service. We lost a huge body of work to a competitor and finding replacement work proved almost impossible.

Cheques stopped

When the cheques stopped arriving, cracks in my business became quickly apparent. Probably one of the biggest mistakes was to remain a sole trader. While it was a failed business, in a legal sense, the failed entity was me.

Again, as I look back now, I realise that I misunderstood where the power lay as I grappled with it in my first tentative steps towards recovery.

By September 2011, I had entered arrears, contacted the bank, immediately returned any document they needed and met with a bank representative.

The representative had told me that it was unlikely I would hear anything until after Christmas.

Just a couple of weeks later, and shortly after I entered my second month of arrears, I received a letter from the bank.

They wanted a voluntary sale or surrender; no moratorium, no reduced payments, no alternative arrangement – at all.

I appealed the decision and prepared for battle.

Over the coming years we would try many options, none of them offering a mutually acceptable solution. With all these false starts it would have been easy to drift into cynicism.

I found the best antidote to cynicism was honest attribution.

I felt that acknowledging I got myself into the mess was the first step towards getting me out of it.

The truth, unpalatable as it was, is that the bank was indeed correct and, with my current income and debts, the mortgage was unsustainable.

Any minor dents we could make from our small earnings were soon consumed by interest. Despite my best efforts, I had had no power in the situation if I continued along the path I was trundling along.

At my current rate, the debts would exist much longer than me, even considering my new longevity seeking lifestyle. I would come to realise that my power lay in the most unlikely of places – my power was in my weakness.

Meaningful change

Acknowledging that weakness, but also acknowledging that the weakness was a result of the choices I had made allowed me to begin a journey of meaningful change.

Trying to pay my debts only made me slightly less weak. The energy would be far better spent making myself considerably stronger.

I would act instead of being acted upon.

Bankruptcy seemed inevitable. At the time, bankruptcy in Ireland was 12 years, with talk of reducing it to three. It seemed the trip to England to access the one-year regime was the “wet dream” of the indebted Irish.

We felt that it was better to stay where we knew the system and the supports that were available as we went through the bankruptcy process.

While we planned for the bankruptcy, it was reduced to three years. As Fredrick Douglas said “power concedes nothing without demand”.

We were ready for this, with a lot of pain and much help from family and friends – we would regain power over our future.

My wife and I decided that the three years of bankruptcy would be the right time for me to return to education.

While we knew there would be sacrifices, probably including the loss of our home, the longer term the benefits would be worth it.

I began to re-engage with education. I took some business courses in the day time and a Leaving Certificate course at night.

A few months later, I would be travelling up those stairs to my interview in Trinity College Dublin.

I started in September 2014. Around that time, an 11th-hour solution presented itself to save our home. I delayed the bankruptcy while it progressed.

Close to the end of the process, the charity who would buy the house and rent it back to us as tenants examined the house.

It was at that point that they pulled out. They didn’t have sufficient funds to bring it up to social housing standards.

There were no barriers to bankruptcy now so I prepared the paperwork myself and was adjudicated a bankrupt in April 2015, just days before my first end-of-year exams. It was around that time that the bank initiated legal proceedings to get an order for possession on our home.

A few weeks into my second year of college, I received the court date. The date for our repossession hearing was set for the 18th of December. I prepared for battle again so I could, at the very least, prolong the court proceedings, if not get them thrown out altogether.

I was slipping back into the mode I had been in while trying to service the debts, pushing against the tide.

Unbearably uncertain

My wife loves certainty and has just about come to terms with the certainty that life will be uncertain. I was making it unbearably uncertain for her.

While I saw what I was doing as fighting the side of our family, she saw it as heartrending ambiguity that was driving her crazy.

The collateral damage I was unwittingly inflicting was having a huge effect on her and our marriage. I felt I had power over the situation, but the truth was, I had none.

Again, my power would come from an unlikely place. It would not come from fighting but from surrendering.

On the night of the 17th, we sat up late preparing a plan. While we jointly accepted we would lose the house, we would try to maintain control over how long we could remain there.

My only way to successfully do this would be to influence the court. The next day, I was standing in the court in my shiny suit from Arnott’s bargain basement, attempting to read the scrawls I had prepared the night before.

My heart was thumping so loud in my jacket I was sure people could hear.

Finishing the notes on the Luas that morning was a pointless exercise. I can’t read my writing at the best of times.

Now my eyes were filling and my hands shaking. I outlined the steps we took in engagement and errors within bank’s documents. The lump in my throat was growing bigger, not from the loss of bricks and mortar – but more so from my systematic account of what I had dragged my wife through with my insolvency.

My aim in outlining our case and actions was a long shot to ask for a 12-month stay of execution. The case was adjourned for two months.

Real winners

My mam had wanted to come with me to the next hearing but before I accepted, I asked her would she be able to maintain her composure.

She cried and she was still crying when she rang me to wish me luck the following morning on my way to court.

It was being dealt with that day and it was looking likely that I would get the 12-month stay. While the going was good I outlined some additional new information and requested an extra three months stay.

Thankfully, it was granted.

In total, from the first hearing, it will be 17 months from the time I was first in court until the time we have to leave. Although we surrendered, I feel we were the real winners.

While I feel I have a better understanding of power now, I’m far from perfect.

Unlike first year, when my grades were very good, I actually came close to failing my exams this year. It was a challenging year both inside and, more particularly, outside of college.

This is not an excuse but a mere explanation of why I made a mistake. If I was to accept my poor grades were an inevitable result of my circumstances, I would also be accepting that next year’s results are out of my hands, too.

Acknowledging that the fault lies solely at my feet, when many would accept a feeble excuse that I was under a lot of pressure, means I also know I have the power to fix it.

I didn’t put the work in and didn’t get the results I wanted; nothing else matters. I have gained an amazing opportunity. I see myself as someone very fortunate who has made the most of many opportunities.

I learned lessons early that life is exactly as my dad said, unfair.

However, if I recognise the unfairness, I must also see the fairness. I must admit, I see my life as being immensely fair.

Over the last few years, we have lost almost everything of material value and, even more importantly, our financial independence.

But the stairs that I walked up to do my college interview turned out to be the stairs to another way of life.

I went on to discover they were stairs Samuel Beckett, who once lived in the law school, would have climbed.

A quote from Mr Beckett seems apt: “You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that”.

However, I also like to keep in mind something that Viktor E. Frankl said: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Education has given me a torch to shine on my path. The choices are all mine.

College Awareness Week runs until November 25th and aims to celebrate the benefits of going to college and support students to become “college ready”. For more, visit collegeaware.ie

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