Forensic cleaner Micheál Holahan from Ratoath, Co Meath and his business partner provide specialist cleaning for everything from crime scenes and hoarding to flood and fire damage
‘Myself and my business partner Brendan Reilly started out in the fire and flood damage restoration industry. It kept us busy — and it still does — but I always wanted to do crime-scene cleaning.
I thought about it for a good few years and then, eventually, I said it to Brendan. We formed our company, Forensic Cleaning Services Ireland, in 2011.
In a normal week, we provide specialist cleaning for crime scenes, hoarding, fire and flood damage and cell decontamination in Garda stations. Some weeks we do clearances of properties that were derelict for a while and might have been used as drug dens.
Some of the jobs are a bit gory. They’re not for everyone, let’s put it like that. There are jobs that nobody would go near but then we get recommended and say, ‘No problem, we’ll do it’.
I grew up on a farm in Leitrim and Brendan grew up on a farm in Galway, so we’re not afraid of hard work. And while the first job is always the worst one, we’ve become used to it over time.
We wear full PPE, with masks, on every job. We sanitise everything first for our own safety and for everyone else working with us, and then we get going.
Some of the jobs we do can go on for a few days. With hoarding jobs, for example, you’re dealing with a lot of rubbish. And we’re not just clearing out, we’re cleaning as well.
There is a lot of hoarding happening across the country and it’s very sad because it could happen to anyone. It’s often people who have lost a loved one and couldn’t handle it. And it’s gone so far that they’re embarrassed to ask for help.
Family members or health services usually get in touch with us but you do get the odd hoarder getting in touch themselves to ask for help, although it’s very rare.
When we arrive at the property, we iron out the process with them before we begin. We explain how we’re going to approach it and we say, ‘If there is anything of sentimental value that you need, or any objects you’ve been looking for and can’t find, just let us know’.
Sometimes we find money hidden around the house. We once found thousands of euros tucked under the coving in a room. Obviously we hand in anything of value that we find. We run our business on trust and you wouldn’t have any luck keeping something like that. That’s the way I was brought up, anyway.
Hoarders, in my experience, tend to live alone. And there’s often some kind of grief involved. Many of them have lost a loved one. I’ve seen some cases where they’ve lost two loved ones in a very short period of time, and I can’t even imagine how hard that is.
When we first started the business, it was hard seeing sentimental pictures around the house. It would give you a chill. But now we block it out — we have to, otherwise it’s not good.
At the same time, it’s very rewarding work. We’re giving people a fresh start. They don’t know where to go or what to do and then we come in and clean and clear for them. It makes us feel really good as well. You feel like you’re helping people, I suppose.
In rare circumstances, we might get a call to come out again because the person has fallen back into old habits. But for the most part, a fresh start will help people develop better habits.
Trauma cleaning is another service that we offer. It could be a crime scene where something vicious or violent has happened; it could be the aftermath of a suicide, or it could be a decomposed body that wasn’t found for weeks or even months.
Neighbours are sometimes aware that they haven’t seen the person for a while but they usually assume that they are on holiday. Those sorts of jobs definitely make you think about yourself and the future. They can make you think, ‘Could that happen to me?’
It makes you appreciate life and appreciate your family, and it makes you do the best in life that you can for everyone. It also makes you remember that you don’t know what’s going on in someone’s life or what thoughts are going through their head. It makes you think a little bit more about other people.
Cell cleaning is another big part of our work. We go into Garda stations and prisons to make sure the cells or communal areas are decontaminated and disinfected. There could be blood or excrement to clean. We start at the door and then we sanitise the walls, floors, ceilings, doors and toilets.
Sometimes we clean properties that were used as drug dens or grow houses. We usually get a call from the property owner so we go in and sanitise and then we check for needles. We have to be very careful on these sorts of jobs.
At the start of the pandemic, we did a lot of Covid cleaning. Sometimes we’d disinfect family homes while one person was self-isolating in an ensuite bedroom. We’ve also done businesses, radio stations, Garda stations and vans.
We still do a lot of fire restoration work and it’s something that people don’t really think about in terms of the impact it can have on people. Okay, they survived and they can get their home done up again, but you have to remember that they’re out of their home for a long time, too.
Sometimes the homeowners aren’t in great form, which is totally understandable. Their home is turned upside down. And then they might have lost something like a sentimental photograph. It could be a photograph of a late parent that was on their mantle piece and nobody else has a copy. It might seem like a small thing to you or me but, to them, it’s priceless.
In my experience, people aren’t upset about their clothes or their furniture after a fire. They’re upset about the things that were passed down from generation to generation or something that a late parent gave them. It could be something so little that you or I might think it has no value at all.
We’ve also done a few jobs where it transpires that the person has no home insurance. They usually don’t tell us when they call because they’re afraid we won’t come out. But then they tell us when we arrive and we help them as best we can.
It’s a job at the end of the day but we have great empathy for people. And if we can help them out, we will help them. That’s the way we were both brought up.
And when you see that you’ve made a change in someone’s life, it makes you remember that we don’t know what’s going to be thrown at us in life. We go into every job thinking that.”
As told to Katie Byrne