Friday 18 August 2017

The great survivor - there is life after bankruptcy

Jillian Godsil went from the woman who had it all to the woman who lost almost everything, following a divorce and the collapse of her business

Jillian Godsil outside Raheengraney House, Wicklow
Jillian Godsil outside Raheengraney House, Wicklow
Jillian Godsil

Ciara Dwyer

'I'M VERY lucky. Although I've lost my life savings and everything is gone, I'm very happy," says Jillian Godsil. "I count my blessings every day." I look at her in amazement. The 49-year-old bankrupt, divorced mother of two tells me she has always looked at life through rose-tinted glasses. She knows it's not a bad way to be. But that's not to say she is in denial about her situation in life. On a Jobseekers allowance of €200 a week and living in rented accommodation with her two daughters after her house was repossessed, she can hardly lose touch with reality.

"It's a hand-to-mouth existence. When you're balancing stuff, bills become more important than they should be. I live quite cheaply. I was always a Penneys' girl, but now I shop on the sale rail in Penneys," she says with a big laugh, then boasts that one of her garments cost only €4.

I am astounded at the way she can laugh at adversity and am full of admiration for such fighting spirit. Jillian Godsil's life wasn't supposed to turn out this way. In the past, this high achiever never had trouble finding jobs, and no wonder, for she is bright, articulate and a serious grafter.

"I suppose you could call it the Protestant work ethic," says the Church of Ireland-born woman who grew up in Rathfarnham. Her late father, Dick, had his own business selling car parts and even though her mother, Mary, was busy rearing her six children, she saw potential in her knitting skills. Full of initiative, she set up a small business supplying Brown Thomas.

"In our house there was never any such word as 'can't'," says Jillian, "but we weren't raised to be entrepreneurs. It was a loving, non-judgemental environment where we were instilled with confidence and told, 'You can do whatever you want to do, as long as you work hard'."

Her upbringing stood her in good stead. "I have this inability not to work," she says.

With a degree in History and English from Trinity, she headed to London in the Eighties where she worked as a systems analyst, even though she knew nothing about computers. Then she cleverly branched into high tech PR as she knew her strength was more suited to promoting technology. She had a great time in London and while there she met Mike Izatt, who worked in the financial sector. They married in 1991 and went to live in Australia and later Singapore. Jillian tells me they had a great time. After three days in Sydney she got a job and it was pretty much the same in Singapore.

In 1994, they came back to Ireland. By then their first daughter Georgina was born and they went on to have a second child, Kathryn. They lived in Rathmines before moving to Wicklow. Life was good.

Jillian had it all – a successful PR company, and Raheengraney House, an eight bedroom stately pile in Wicklow which she and her husband bought and restored with the intention of running it as a guesthouse. Neither was suited to the hospitality industry, but it wasn't the end of the world. Jillian's business was thriving.

"I thought I had it made at one stage – the big house, the kids, the ponies," she says.

Then there was double trouble in the shape of the recession and the breakdown of their 16-year marriage. They divorced. Mike returned to the UK where he was declared bankrupt. Simultaneously, her PR business plummeted. The value of their property took a nosedive. In 2011, in a desperate attempt to sell the house, Jillian posted a video of it on YouTube. Many people will remember this hitting the headlines. It went viral and succeeded in getting a €500,000 cash buyer which the bank refused as it didn't match her debts. Eventually the house was repossessed and Jillian ended up in a rented cottage with her two daughters, where she still lives. This February, she became bankrupt in Ireland.

"I contemplated going to the UK to become bankrupt, as many people do, but I couldn't afford it. I couldn't leave my kids behind. There are a lot of people like me who don't have money in an account in the Cayman Islands and have family circumstances so they can't just up and leave."

Jillian speaks in such a matter of fact way that it almost sounds like it didn't cause her any grief. Not so. This is a new-found strength which came about once she changed her mindset. In the beginning, she despaired. "I was a debt zombie for six months," she says. "It was horrendous and I'm never going back there. I never contemplated doing myself in, but there was no hope. It was like I was in a desert. It's a very small step from there to thinking that the world is better off without me. I had chronic insomnia but then some switch went on in my head. I decided to stop looking at that stinking corpse of debt and look at my kids. I realised that I was no good as a zombie mum.

"The following year, 2013, I started living again and being joyous. I began to have laughs again and all of a sudden I had energy. I'm very involved with things in the community and I sing now. I sing with Tullow Choir and The Omagh Peace Choir. I'm a crap singer but I love it. The camaraderie is great and you release all those endorphins when you sing. I also do hill-walking. I went to this wonderful priest who does counselling and he taught me to live from my gut. As a single mum of girls, sometimes it's very difficult to figure things out. He said, 'Stop reacting with your head and respond with your core.' So I'm out and about in the fresh air. It doesn't cost anything. And I'm involved with horses in the riding club. I help out marking fences. It's great craic."

But still, there is the serious matter of her far from ideal financial situation. She knows she is not the only one in this sort of mess. "I'm talking about what happened to me and I'm not ashamed of it," she says. "I worked very hard but I didn't commit a crime. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Yes, it's horrible but I didn't forge cheques.

"People say to me, 'I was brought up to pay my debts', well, so was I. There are 300,000 people in arrears in Ireland and the vast majority of them did not borrow money with the intention of not paying it back. It's a global financial crisis. I don't care that I've lost all my stuff but I do care that I'm not allowed to work. If I get a job within the next three years they'll take my salary, so that takes away any incentive to work. Does it mean that I have to live off the State? I can't do that because there are too many things I want to do. Let me work, create wealth and employ people. As a human being I need to work. It's who I am."

She knows that she is not the only one in trouble. "People are suffering and that is wrong. Can you imagine people at home who can't make the mortgage and they are too ashamed to talk about it? They are miserable and their kids are growing up in a household of misery. I know what that's like. The pressure on people is horrendous and we should have a dialogue about it. 27,000 people are going to lose their homes this year. It's like the Penal Times." Her eyes fill at this thought.

She tells me she has often been approached by television stations to tell her story. She has happily done so but of late there has been a new twist. Foreign television crews have asked her to talk about how Ireland has turned a corner and everybody's financial situation has improved. When she tells them this isn't so, that in fact things are getting worse, that everyone is struggling and the coping class is no longer coping, they are not interested.

Defiant and undeterred, she is in the process of making her own documentary about Ireland's financial situation, called An Uncomfortable Truth. They are trying to get funding for it.

So incensed is she with the debt issue in Ireland that she decided to run for both the local and European elections. Initially she was prevented from running because of her bankrupt status, but she took a case to the High Court and changed the law. She tells me she is not a politician at all, but she felt "a moral obligation" to do something. "People say, 'Somebody should do something' and then I thought, I should be that somebody."

She wasn't successful in either election. "Every vote I got was humbling and every vote I didn't was equally so," she says.

She confesses she doesn't know too much about what goes on in Europe but, had she won a seat, she planned to broadcast a programme called The Gravy Train where all the Irish MEPs, who many people may assume are on the gravy train, sit down every fortnight and tell everyone what happened in Brussels.

Jillian Godsil thinks big ideas. She does not know how to sit still. If she sees a problem, she tries to find a solution. When she couldn't get a job after her business collapsed, she decided to write to make money. Given the huge commercial success of the erotic series Fifty Shades of Grey, she decided to write an Irish version under the pseudonym of Aoife Brennan, using the crumbling economy as a backdrop. She put her trilogy, The Cougar Diaries, on Amazon. She hasn't made any money from them, but she had fun doing it. She talked to lots of people to get kinky sex stories.

After her marriage ended, she started dating again. "After a long, fallow period where I didn't feel particularly loved or attractive, I was on the market again. It was quite shocking to be naked with another man. I tended to date younger men, simply because they asked me out."

"I met some men and it wasn't all missionary position sex. We did have fun and games and I was tied up but I remember thinking I wouldn't do this every Saturday night. It's a lot of effort."

Jillian tells me her daughters are embarrassed by her sex books. "I ask them if they'd rather I wrote about psychopaths killing young girls and they say yes." She laughs at this and the way that so many Irish people see sex as shameful when she believes it is simply part of life. Unfortunately, it's not part of her life right now. Between politics, trying to get this documentary made and her new passion, writing, she has no time for a man.

"Now I have big dreams and I am writing at the speed of knots. I have written a memoir and I want to do a proper fiction book. I like challenging myself. I only have one life and I want to shake the guts out of every day."

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