Deprived and vulnerable

I can still hear the echo of her steady early morning footsteps in my memory. And the early morning for Mrs S, our neighbour in the street where I lived as a child, was very early: 5.30am. This was the time she started her long working day.

I can still hear the echo of her steady early morning footsteps in my memory. And the early morning for Mrs S, our neighbour in the street where I lived as a child, was very early: 5.30am. This was the time she started her long working day.

"Rain or shine", my mother would say, "you could set your alarm by Mrs S." And she was right; punctuality, reliabilty, stedfastness, persistence, all were imperatives in her life.

I would hear the footsteps in the street again, as she returned to her home just before 8 o'clock. That was the final signal for me that I had to get out of my warm bed and prepare for school.

Mrs S would not recognise the words which would be used to describe her today: deprived and vulnerable, nor the political capital which bleeding hearts would make out of the circumstances of her life.

I did not know of these circumstances until I was an adult, by which time Mrs S, her early morning footsteps, and school, no longer had any relevance. But I attended her wake when she died and it was there I heard old neighbours retrace the pattern of her daily timetable. She had 'great pride in herself', they said, and she 'brought up a lovely family'.

From what I then heard, Mrs S was in her mid-thirties and it was the mid 1930s, when her husband died. She had five children. After she paid the funeral expenses, she was penniless and pensions for widows and orphans were, as yet, a distant political promise.

Mrs S left school when she was fifteen. She married when she was quite young. She did not have what would now be described as 'career training', so she did what she was good at, and she was good at cleaning. So she became a cleaner.

She cleaned offices and schools. At that time few offices were centrally heated so her early morning task involved cleaning fireplaces, setting and lighting fires, hauling coal from a store and leaving sufficient supplies so that the fire could be maintained throughout the day. The fires lit, she would then sweep and dust.

At about 8 o'clock she would return home, prepare breakfast for her children and get them to school. The she did her own housework; waashing clothes in a tub and washboard, rincing, blue-ing, starchinig, drying, airing. (Hands up any reader who now knows what 'blue-ing' entailed).

She would black-lead her kitchen range until it shone like silver. She had a little altar in the corner of her kitchen, with a blue lamp or a red lamp, depending on the time of year and church feastdays. This altar was decorated with flowers and a white embroidered cloth with lace edging.

Mrs S 'had great faith', the neighbours said at her wake.They all agreed that she 'trusted in God'.

When her children came home from school, and had been given a meal, Mrs S walked down the street again to the schools and to yet another marathon of cleaning. The neighbours kept what they would describe as 'an eye' on her children as they played with their children.

And that was her life for many years, rising before dawn, walking down our street in the rain and wind and frost, battling with dust and ashes and smudgy windows and stained floors.

Decades later, the wake-talk told me that her later years were relaxed and comfortable. She did get a widow's pension. Her children grew up to become responsible, fulfilled citizens.

Today, the life and times of Mrs S would be a godsend to modern political-speak of the leftie kind. Underprivileged. Impoverished. Discriminated against. Exploited. Mrs S would not have recognised that description of herself. She would say that she did what she had to do in the circumstances of her life.

And she was not alone. In every street in every Irish town, at the time in which she lived, there would have been a Mrs S or two.

These were women who found themselves widowed, deserted, without money, who bravely took on the task of rearing their children, by working very hard in conditions that were not always attractive. And who did it with an uncomplaining pragmatism. In the latter-day pantheon of feminism they have never been given their due recognition.

And though Mrs S has come into this column on a previous occasion (and I have spoken about her life and times to some women's groups) she make a return this Christmastime.

She was an ordinary woman in a street of ordinary women, whose contribution to doing the ordinary thinigs of life kept an economy functioning. But their contribution has never been acknowledged.

So, before the echoes, the dependability, the steadiness of those early morning footsteps fade, Mrs S than ks for the memory!

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