Clodagh Finn: An ode to Connell’s mam – and the nation’s cleaners

The real star of ‘Normal People is Lorraine Waldron, a forthright, warm, and smart (and badly paid) cleaner from a sector that needs to be in the spotlight now, writes Clodagh Finn
Clodagh Finn: An ode to Connell’s mam – and the nation’s cleaners
Sarah Greene as Lorraine Waldron in Normal People

The real star of ‘Normal People is Lorraine Waldron, a forthright, warm, and smart (and badly paid) cleaner from a sector that needs to be in the spotlight now, writes Clodagh Finn

When they are handing out awards for Normal People, I hope the gong for the show’s most ‘normal’ person goes to Connell’s mam.

Lorraine Waldron, played exquisitely by Sarah Greene, is smart, warm, determined, straight-talking and very badly paid — just like many of Ireland’s contract cleaners who are now fighting to get a 40-cent per hour pay rise even though they are risking their lives on the frontline.

If only we could send Lorraine out to bat for them. Although, for all her pluck and delicious bluntness, she doesn’t seem to have been able to negotiate better wages in her own cleaning job at the house of her son’s on/off girlfriend, Marianne Sheridan.

At one point, son Connell confesses to Marianne that her mother pays his mam feck-all.

No wonder the two of them are trapped in a heart-rending (and infuriating) on-again, off-again dance that has left a nation wearing its nerve-endings on the outside. (Please, please, just sort it out)

Despite the physical and emotional candour of the couple’s exceptional performances, the character I’ll miss most after the final instalment airs next week is Lorraine, single parent, decent human being, indecently paid cleaner.

Strangely enough, the scene that sticks in my mind is the one where she peels off her pink rubber gloves to

comfort Marianne, who is ignoring her son’s texts. “Good for you,” she says.

Later, she reads her son the riot act for publicly shunning the young woman he is sleeping with in his teenage single bed in the late afternoons. It makes you wonder about Lorraine’s own experience with men and her “teenage mistake”, as she half-jokingly calls her son.

When you see her at work in her employer’s fancy kitchen, you also wonder if it can really still be the case that behind every successful businesswoman, there is another woman doing the washing-up in pink rubber gloves.

Not that Lorraine, or the thousands of women like her, are victims. She is visible, at least, because too often the hard work of the ordinary women (and men) who built this country is invisible.

It matters that a hit TV series goes to the trouble of showing us the very real woman behind the cleaning job.

If only we could do that more in real life.

I’m often struck by the ghostly appearance of high-rise offices that are lit up at night like abandoned ships as cleaners go about their hidden business of restoring order, as if by magic.

Many others, such as Lorraine, work part-time and informally for little pay and less recognition. How wonderful, though, to see that her son not only goes to Trinity College but excels there, academically at least.

The connection between Trinity College and cleaning has a particular resonance as I used to work with a woman who was the first grandchild to study at that hallowed institution, although the family had a long connection with it. Her mother, aunt, and grandmother had all worked there as cleaners.

The latter, Jane McArdle, was Brendan Kennelly’s ‘skip’, a term given to cleaners who looked after the academics living on campus. Jane and the Kerry poet got on so well that he invited her to his wedding. She went too.

We seldom hear the stories of the women who cleaned and scrubbed and charred and skivvied to support their families, although that is slowly starting to change.

Historian Ciarán McCabe has carefully mined several sources to uncover the lives of Dublin charwomen who were one of the most important elements of the city’s informal economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

He mentions Lizzie Talbot, mother of pioneer and deeply pious layman Matt Talbot, who was a charwoman until the final years before her death in 1915.

Her life was characterised by the twin uncertainties of short-term leases and casual work. She moved at least 18 times in her lifetime.

The experiences of many others are outlined in Dr McCabe’s important paper on charwomen, which has just been published in the journal, Social History.

The reason I’m looking to the past first is to try to find some kind of explanation for our inexplicable disregard for the thousands of contract cleaners who work in our hospitals, public transport, schools, colleges, factories, and offices.

This week, one newspaper claimed there was “uproar” when the cleaners who risk their lives in hospitals were refused a pay rise of 40 cent per hour, agreed in March.

The average hourly rate for a cleaner in Ireland is €11 an hour, well below the living wage of €12.40.

But there hasn’t been any “uproar”, or have I missed it?

Where was the uproar following the Covid-related death of Dorel Giurca, a 53-year-old cleaner at St James’s Hospital in Dublin? This man died after keeping people safe for €10.80 an hour.

One hospital cleaner hit the nail on the head when explaining the lack of outrage: “The cleaners are also frontline workers, risking their lives as well, but nobody looks at us like valuable staff.”

There is the crux of it.

Trade union Siptu has been running a fair deal for cleaners campaign to garner respect for the hard work that cleaners do, but employers (and the rest of us, if truth be told), don’t take the time to recognise or value a contribution that stretches back centuries.

The coronavirus has, at least, shone a partial spotlight on the nation’s cleaners.

It’s also important to write their contribution into history and to see it represented culturally in shows with true global reach, such as Normal People.

Apparently a second series is not on the cards, alas.

Personally, I’d prefer any second outing to focus on Lorraine Waldron, a woman who has a lot more to tell us.

If not that, what about a new docu-drama about the hospital cleaners who saved lives for €10.80 during a global pandemic? Maybe not. Who would believe they were paid so little?

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