• West Cork Literary Festival 8-15 July 2022

Finding a Niche and Personalising ‘Success’ by Kevin Foley

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Kevin Foley

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‘Nobody moves or the goat gets it’; finding a niche and personalising ‘success’.

My writing was first published when I was twenty-three; The Extent of Benefit-Induced Unemployment in Great Britain: Some New Evidence’ made it into Oxford Economic Papers in 1977. It is still out there in the ether if you have trouble sleeping. Forty years on I no longer understand the half of it, but for a young fella from a working-class Salford-Irish background it felt very much like ‘success’. I was the first in the family to attend secondary school let alone University. The next few decades were spent earning a crust from teaching Economics.

Alongside the teaching I tried my hand at short stories. I was hardly prolific – one a year for the Irish Post short story competition. I was dead keen on securing a week in Listowel. Nobody moves or the goat gets it’ was acclaimed as the finest opening line one year. The judge was less taken with the lines that followed. Thirty years on it probably remains my finest bit of dialogue; I’m not great at dialogue. Another year the judge said, ‘Had there have been a second prize it would have gone to…’. I am sure she never meant to draw blood with that double-edged sword, but I still have the scar.

With the stars refusing to align above John B Keane’s pub, my creative side took an unexpected turn in 1991. The writing may have been on the wall for the short-story career, but the writing was also on the wall – literally – by way of a memorial to our Dad; Patrick ‘Paddy’ Foley of Keel, Co, Kerry. He had headed for Holyhead in the year of ’39 when the air was full of lead; feel free to sing the rest of the song.

One legacy of the 1962 film version of the Playboy of the Western World still stands on Inch beach. Co. Kerry. The building was not always the fine venue it is now. On trips back ‘home’ Dad would point out the poem which had been painted on the gable wall. Adapted from Robert Frost’s poem ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ a passing traveller had shared their affection for the beauty of Inch….

Dear Inch must I leave you

I have promises to keep

Perhaps Miles to go

To my last sleep.

In 1990 the poem was painted over with the slightly less emotive ‘Burger Bar’. Appalled, a crack team of anarchistic painters headed for Kerry intent on restoring the tribute. Plan B was to do it one dark night in balaclavas had permission not been granted. Permission was granted and after three days of unbroken sunshine, paint and beer the restoration was complete. Thirty years on the poem is still there (albeit in its fifth incarnation). Despite the success, I failed to see the full potential in this niche; Banksy did.

A decade later I found myself back in Kerry, operating as a sole parent and home-educating my son. Sean is Autistic and Depression had also come calling as he entered adolescence due to the mismatch between his neurological endowment and an exacting mainstream secondary school system. One generation after accessing ‘the system’, we said thanks and farewell. I self-published a book, Asperger Solution’ analysing my journey from pure ignorance to solution-focused home education. It also charted Sean’s passage from traumatised teenager to mentally healthy adult. The book proved a big success in a cathartic way, a modest success in a didactic way, and a break-even success in a financial way.

My son did well in a low-stress environment with a tailor made curriculum. So much so that when he was 21, I felt confident enough leave him to live independently and head back to the UK to earn some money.

On retirement I headed back to Kerry and the ‘Holy Grail’ once again became Listowel Writers Week. The ‘Humorous Essay’ competition caught my eye, though I had to research the genre from scratch to get a handle on what to do. I gave it a lash with an ‘ Essay on the merits of winking in January’ – the core idea being that winking in Mass might spread less winter bugs than shaking hands.

In late May 2018, I found myself sitting in the posh seats at the front of the Listowel Writers’ Week opening night ceremony adjacent (ok – the row behind) the legendary Edna O’Brien. The great lady was captivating and effortlessly eloquent as she accepted her Lifetime Achievement Award. Not knowing the drill, I also had a speech prepared. They just handed me a cheque and took a photo. I did the reading next morning. It was all a wee bit surreal. I was on a high for a week.

In late May 2019 I was back in the fancy seats, having won the humorous essay prize again with ‘The Siege of Venice’. This time my son was sat there with me. He had won 1st prize in the Adults with Special Needs writing for the tale of his trip to his Grandmother’s funeral in London. Joseph O’Connor was the very entertaining guest speaker. Knowing the drill, I hadn’t prepared a speech. They handed us both a cheque and took the photos. We did the readings next morning. It was more than a wee bit surreal. We were both on a high for two weeks.

Six months on I am getting the impression that a collection of humorous essays isn’t going to have too many agents/publishers falling over themselves, but that’s fine. I have learnt that ‘success’ can take on many forms. For those of us who are not using our writing skills to pay the bills, it is ‘ok’ to take a bit of time to personalise our definition of success and find a niche that ticks that box.

2020 will see the writing of more humorous essays; a good antidote for Brexit and Johnson. It may also see the writing of a (dialogue-free) play relating the painting of a poem on a wall in Co Kerry. And there is still an itch to write something good that begins… ‘Nobody moves, or the goat gets it…’ Any notions for how things might proceed from this award-winning opening line can be sent to…. kevinfoley516@gmail.com

(c) Kevin Foley

About the author

Kevin Foley is a retired teacher who was born in the ‘Dirty Old Town’ of Salford but now resides in the beautiful county of Kerry where his Dad was from. He has dabbled with short stories in the past but, according to his totally unbiased partner, Sharon (who hails from ‘The Town I Loved So Well’), truly found his voice in the genre of the humorous essay. Kevin won the Listowel Writers Week ‘Original Humorous Essay’ competition in 2018 and 2019. He will shortly be publishing both winning essays in an ebook, which will also contain one entitled ‘The Dirty Old Town I Loved So Well’.

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