Back in the 1970s, when I was a young girl, my mother and I would travel to Ireland every summer to visit my grandfather and his family. Sometimes we stayed at his house in Cork, but more often than not, we ended up with my mum’s older sister, B, in the city’s suburbs. Aunt B and her husband, K, had two daughters – both slightly older than me, but close enough in age for us to play together quite happily.
Their house was in an unusual location – built into the side of a steep hill, so precipitous and sheer that it was practically a cliff. There was no back garden – all you could see from the rear of the house was the cliff face, literally within touching distance of the building. The kitchen and back rooms were dark and oppressive, with virtually no natural light all day. My lovely grandfather disliked the house quite strongly and rarely set foot in it. Luckily, we rarely visited in winter; but even in summer, when the days were long and the sun was bright, it was a strange, shadowy place – a stark contrast to the warmth of the family within.
Heightening this ominous atmosphere was a Convent – a large gothic monstrosity, both physically and spiritually, aptly situated further up the hill. The Convent included an orphanage, an asylum, possibly even a prison – we never knew for sure. Naturally, when you’re young, all sorts of rumours swirl around, especially when a place seems so mysterious and foreboding. All I really understood at the time was that ‘bad people’ were sent there, girls who had committed sins or disgraced their families. On the odd occasion that my cousins were naughty, Aunt B – a formidable woman when crossed – would shout, “If you don’t behave yourselves, the nuns will come and get you” or words to that effect – the nuns being those from the Convent on the hill. Naturally, this threat was enough to nip any misbehaviour in the bud. The Convent was seen as a sinister place, and my cousins were afraid of it.
Years later, when I was well into my twenties, I heard that the Convent had closed down. By then, my cousins had moved away, having married and started families of their own. The old family home on the hill had been sold, and Aunt B was living with her eldest daughter in a different part of Cork. The Convent, it transpired, had been a Magdalene Laundry, one of several such institutions run and financed by the Catholic Church with the support of the Irish State. For some two hundred years, several thousand girls and women were incarcerated in these institutions, typically against their will, forced to work in brutal conditions for little or no pay. Many were unmarried mothers, disowned or rejected by their families, their babies subsequently adopted, sold or even killed – hidden away and suppressed by the powerful Catholic Church. Other women or girls were simply locked up for being ‘morally wayward’, a term that covered a multitude of so-called sins.
I mention this here because of its relevance to Small Things Like These, a profoundly affecting novella by the Irish writer Claire Keegan. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking book about the importance of staying true to your values – of doing right by those around you, even if it puts your family’s security and aspirations at risk.
Keegan’s story is set in New Ross, a town in the southeast of Ireland, in the raw-cold days of the run-up to Christmas. The year is 1985, and times are hard for many of the town’s residents; the nearby shipyard has closed, local businesses are issuing redundancies, and many people are struggling to pay their bills.
Bill Furlong, a hardworking coal and timber merchant, tries to help his clients where he can, dropping off bags of logs to loyal customers, even when they can’t afford to pay., Furlong knows he is lucky, having worked his way up in the business over the years. He and his wife Eileen have five daughters – good, hardworking girls, all still in school, quietly going about their days. As a family, they take comfort from the small, significant things in life, the simple pleasures and personal achievements that constitute their world.
Nevertheless, despite his relatively secure position, Furlong feels a sense of restlessness, an uneasiness about his life and the things he sees around him. He worries about his work, finding it difficult to switch off and relax. The long days stretch out ahead of him, prompting various reflections on the relevance of his life. Apart from supporting Eileen and the girls, what is it all for? Where is the meaning and purpose, his reason for being alive?
What was it all for? Furlong wondered. The work and the constant worry. Getting up in the dark and going to the yard, making the deliveries, one after another, the whole day long, then coming home in the dark and trying to wash the black off himself and sitting into a dinner at the table and falling asleep before waking in the dark to meet a version of the same thing, yet again. Might things never change or develop into something else, or new? (p. 32)
From a moral standpoint, Furlong has been strongly shaped by his childhood, having grown up in Mrs Wilson’s house, a few miles outside New Ross. At sixteen, Furlong’s mother, Sarah, fell pregnant while working in service for Mrs Wilson, a wealthy Protestant widow. While Sarah’s family wanted nothing to do with her, Mrs Wilson adopted a more compassionate approach, allowing Sarah to keep her job and the baby – quite an unusual response at a time when many employers would have rejected an unmarried mother, distancing themselves from the inevitable scandal and shame. As a consequence, Furlong knows he owes everything to Mrs Wilson – a kind, open-minded woman who encouraged him with his reading, treating him modestly yet fairly, despite his illegitimacy.
One day, in the run-up to Christmas 1985, Furlong reaches a turning point in his life. While delivering coal to the local Convent, he sees something genuinely alarming – clear signs of child abuse that prove hard for him to ignore. Naturally, the nuns are frightened that Furlong may prove troublesome to them, should he decide to take the matter further; so they try to pass the incident off as child’s play – an unfortunate misunderstanding when it’s clearly anything but.
The Mother Superior makes it known to Furlong that she has the ear of the adjacent school, the only decent one for girls in the local area. Two of Furlong’s daughters are currently studying at St Margaret’s, with the other three due to follow in time, should places be made available to them. Implicit in this discussion is the suggestion of blackmail, that Furlong should keep quiet if he cares about his girls’ education – a feeling only strengthened by the generous Christmas bonus (or hush money) that is slipped into his Christmas card.
When Furlong mentions his concerns about the Convent to Eileen, she urges him to ignore it. Their lives are stable and secure, so why get involved with something that doesn’t concern them, especially if it puts their children’s futures at risk? Mrs Kehoe, the landlady at the local pub, also warns of the Convent’s network of influence, reminding Furlong that the ‘nuns have a finger in every pie’, so to speak – their power extends far and wide, further than one might realise at first sight.
‘They belong to different orders,’ she [Mrs Kehoe] went on, ‘but believe you me, they’re all the one. You can’t side against one without damaging your chances with the other.’ (p. 95)
As Christmas approaches, Furlong must wrestle with his conscience, weighing the stability of his family against the urge to intervene…
Keegan has written a beautiful, deeply resonant novella here, one that highlights the complicity that existed within the Catholic Church and surrounding community for several decades. It takes great courage to speak out against such a powerful institution, to stand up and take action when it would be so much *easier* to a blind eye – a spirit that Furlong embodies in the face of hostility and uncertainty. There is a particular poignancy to the story too, set as it is in the week before Christmas, the season of peace on earth and goodwill to all – a time of kindness, generosity and compassion. Keegan’s prose is simple, pared-back and unadorned, a style that seems fitting given the nature of the story. Nothing feels superfluous here – every word has just the right weight and meaning.
As far as I’m aware, no members of my mother’s family were sent to the Magdalene Laundries or similar mother-and-baby homes, but sadly they knew of others who were affected more directly. Fittingly, Keegan has dedicated the book to the women and children who suffered in these places over the years, the last of which was closed in 1996. For the interested, you can find more about the Laundries here, following an official inquiry in 2013.
If you’re still with me, thank you for reading this piece – it’s clearly somewhat personal. I love this novella for some many things: its simplicity and beauty, the spirit it embodies, and the memories it evokes. Ultimately, though, it’s a story about how important it is for us to speak out and take action when faced with cruelty and complicity, a valuable reminder for us all.
Small Things Like These is published by Faber & Faber; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a copy.