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.
I’ve seen a couple of very moving films on this subject, and have family members who experienced the less kind aspect of the nuns here in England years ago – I hope such cruelty no longer goes on. I’ve read a few good notices of this novella- maybe too depressing at the moment.
Hopefully not, although stories of historical abuse are still emerging. I recall seeing Peter Mullan’s The Magdelene Sisters when it came out twenty years ago. Sadly, the reality of the life in these institutions was probably even worse than the version depicted in the film…
The last ones closed in 1996??? Goodness! To think this was still going on in my lifetime. I thought it was up to the 1950s or 60s at the latest. I love your description of your childhood holidays, am detecting quite a writerly talent there.
I know, right? It’s shocking to think that this was still going on when we were in our twenties and thirties. The Convent near my aunt’s home closed in the late ’70s, but the official investigation shows that the last Laundry was still operating until the mid ’90s…
I’m so glad you liked my reflections on childhood holidays in Ireland. It feels slightly scary to write something as personal as this, so I’m glad it struck the right note. As for the prospect of more stories from my past, I haven’t even mentioned my uncle’s spinster sisters who lived in the house next door – much to my aunt’s annoyance. They’re straight out of a Barbara Pym novel, a little like Belinda and Harriet Bede from Some Tame Gazelle!
That sounds fabulous – would love to read about them! (I can relate to Irish characters so much – they feel like the Latins of the English-speaking world and remind me of my own aunts and uncles).
Haha! The Latins of the English-speaking world – I love that! There’s something in your description, for sure – an eccentricity and passion (albeit frequently suppressed). I’ll have a think about more stories from my childhood as some of those memories are still quite vivid – especially the ones connected to that house!
The storytelling, the extended families, the tendency to overfeed and interfere in your life…
Definitely. All of these things, especially the food! Such an important aspect of family life in Ireland.
Such a moving and beautiful piece of writing. Thank you Jacqui. My relatives came from Cork and I have visited there. I have worked with young unmarried mothers’ as they were called in that day. So often their pregnancies came from abuse by more powerful people or family members and they were poor naive young women. This book is very timely; this topic is still very current in Ireland.
Thanks so much, Gert – that means a lot coming from you. I’m glad you found it moving and affecting…
Your work with young unmarried mothers must have been upsetting for you but very valuable to the individuals concerned. As you say, these abuses were often committed or facilitated (either directly or indirectly) by the most powerful members of the community. People looked up to the Catholic Church, taking their words and behaviours as ‘gospel’, to be followed / obeyed. It’s horrendous to learn how this trust was abused over the years…
And I think many people in Ireland have turned against the Catholic Church because of it.
Beautifully done, Jacqui, and all the better for being more personal.
Thanks so much, Jennifer. That’s lovely of you to say. X
Wonderful review of a powerful book.
Though I’ve been noticing this book, I haven’t yet gotten down to reading it. Another book I recently read did however, have a character who found herself in one such place and it was heartbreaking reading about her and other girls’ experiences (besides the obvious anger one feels)
I must get to this one soon.
Many thanks, Mallika. What’s the name of the book? It sounds similarly powerful and affecting. It’s interesting how fiction can touch us in these ways, perhaps more deeply or emotionally than news reports or factual accounts? I’m sure you’ll appreciate Small Things Like These. It’s heartbreaking but beautifully crafted, not a word wasted or out of place.
The book was oddly The Christie Affair; it’s a bit of a spoiler but the Magdalen Laundries thread was explored in the story of one of the fictional characters in the book. I felt it was well done and moving but shouldn’t have been tacked on to the story of Agatha Christie’s disappearance.
Ah, that’s interesting. Thanks for that. Even though I don’t know very much about the Christie novel, I can appreciate why you felt that particular aspect was somewhat out of place…
Sorry about the confusion. The book is set around Christie’s disappearance for 11 days. The author’s mixed fictional and real characters and threads and while she gives us an imaginative and well written book, she took too many liberties with facts for my liking plus I felt this thread around the Magdalen laundries didn’t really fit though it would have made a good story on it’s own.
Not at all! Many thanks for taking the time to explain it. I can see why you would feel this way about the blending of fact and fiction, especially given the difficulties you’ve described. I tend to shy away from novels that take a fictional view of real-life events for this very reason. It’s always so difficult to differentiate between the real and the imaginary. Plus, in this instance, it sounds as if the Magdalene element was a step too far…
I appreciate your very personal review, thank you. For once I’m ahead of you as I read this a few weeks ago, I couldn’t add anything to your thoughts. A beautifully written book with not one superfluous word. The next time I’m in an independent bookshop I’ll certainly purchase her novel Foster. Interesting to hear her on BBC R4 Open Book.
Oh, that’s lovely I’m glad you enjoyed Keegan’s book so much – and my personal reflections, too. That’s really good to hear.
I think I may have caught the same interview on Radio 4, the one where Keegan mentions having written more than forty versions of the novella before settling on a final draft. That’s an incredible degree of dedication to her craft!
I very much enjoyed your opening setting the context for the novel – I think it added to the review. It’s one I have seen a few people praise and, whatever the particular situation, the dilemma of whether to speak out, even at personal expense, is one that might affect anyone (e.g. if you went to one of the many Downing Street parties!). There’s an interesting novel by Ron Butlin, Ghost Moon, about the consequences of being an unmarried mother In Edinburgh – though that is set in 1950.
Thanks, Grant. That’s a very interesting (and timely!) comparison to the politics of today. It’s what struck me the most about Keegan’s novel – Furlong’s need to speak out and take action against those in power, even thought it meant putting his own family’s future at risk. I guess we all like to think we would do the same in his position, but it’s an incredibly brave step to take when you’re up against such a powerful institution.
I’m not familiar with the novel you’ve mentioned but will look it up. Thanks! As you know, the 1950s is just my kind of era!
Such a beautifully expressed post, Jacqui. I remember you mentioning that this might be a difficult read for you when I reviewed it and now I understand why. I found Keegan’s novel profoundly moving, all the more so for that simplicity you mention.
Thanks, Susan. I think it got to the point where so many writers had recommended it as a 2021 reading highlight that I needed to read it for myself! It’s such deeply affecting book. I’m glad it’s getting so much attention.
Fabulous review Jacquiwine, and all the more powerful for your personal connection to the novella. Isn’t it amazing, how these childhood experiences connect one to literature? I, too, wouldn’t at all mind hearing about those spinster aunts.
I’ve been seeing great stuff about this novella, so much so I finally got my own copy which I haven’t yet read. I’m afraid the subject of the Magdalene laundries is the stuff of my nightmares (I read quite a bit about them, when the silence started to break. “Bad girls do the best sheets,” I believe was the general feeling in many communities as they enjoyed their cheap laundry service); so it’s difficult for me to handle this subject matter. But still, I’ll manage at some point.
Have you come across Maggie O’Farrell’s “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox”? It revolves around a rebelliious young woman who was committed to a mental hospital for life, on the basis of her family’s acquiescence (father’s signature was sufficent in 1930s Ireland), simply because she didn’t conform to her family’s expectations. Not exactly the Magdalenes, but not totally different either. Always the need to make sure the women-folk are behaving . . .
Many thanks, Janakay, that’s really lovely of you to say. Yes, as soon as I heard about the focus of Keegan’s novel I knew it would likely resonate with me on a personal level due to those memories from my youth. I guess we often make these types of connections with the stories we read, either directly or more loosely, depending on our experiences.
As for Maggie O’Farrell’s Esme Lennox, yes, I have read it – with my previous book group, I think! It gave rise to quite a detailed discussion, IIRC. As you say, there are similarities between the two books, certainly in terms of broad themes. I couldn’t help but think of Brian Moore’s The Doctor’s Wife, too – especially the bit where one of the male characters tries to imply there are mental health issues behind a married woman’s affair with a younger man…
Lovely post Jacqui, thank you so much for sharing.
This novella sounds really powerful, I’ve enjoyed Claire Keegan’s writing previously and I’ve read so many positive reviews of this that it’s definitely on my radar.
It’s such a traumatic subject. Peter Mullen’s film has really stayed with me all these years, and as you say, the reality was probably worse.
You’re very welcome, Madame Bibi. I’m really glad you found it interesting and hopefully not too OTT! As you say, it’s a highly emotive subject, but Keegan strikes just the right balance of notes. Oddly enough, I’d never come across her before the publication of this novel. But now that I’ve discovered her work, I’d like to go back and read Foster – which may well be the one you’ve already read?
Not OTT at all Jacqui! I’ve read Antarctica, which is short stories. I’m looking forward to reading her longer work.
Cool! Ah, Antarctica – I’ll have to look it up. Great to hear that you’d recommend it – always useful to know.
I really enjoyed this piece with your personal memories, thank you for sharing them! This sounds like such a good book; I’m sure I’ll come across a copy in good time and am definitely leaning towards reading it more and more.
Thanks, Liz. I hope you manage to find a copy. It’s a very powerful book – beautifully written, too.
What a wonderfully moving post, Jacqui and I can really see how this book would have touched you so personally. I have heard many good things about the book and the story it tells is heartbreaking. And I completely agree that it’s shocking this was going on until nearly the 21st century though unfortunately I feel that in the world in which we live, many evils are perpetrated in the name of religion, and often against women. I think a book like this might be something I could cope with rather than factual books or documentaries on the subject – seeing it through the lens of characters involved and having to make moral decisions might make the awfulness easier to handle.
Thanks, Karen. That’s really lovely of you to say. The more I read about the Magdalene Laundries, the more disturbing they seem. As you and Marina have mentioned, it’s absolutely horrendous to learn that these abuses were still taking place in the latter decades of the 20th century – and being perpetrated by the Catholic Church at that. It’s like something out of the 1930s – or maybe the 1950s/‘60s in a conservative Western society.
As for the book itself, it’s a really impressive piece of work. Apparently, Keegan wrote more than forty versions of it (in full) before settling on the final draft. Such levels of dedication to her craft!
I loved your reminiscences of those Irish family holidays. I can see why this novella brought that time and place back so strongly, it’s a hugely atmospheric piece. I had a feeling you would enjoy it. It is very powerfully emotional I think it’s a book that will stay with me in some way. To think those dreadful places were kept open until so recently! It’s heartbreaking but it makes me so angry too.
Thanks, Ali. I’m so glad you enjoyed my memories of those family holidays in Ireland. It’s a bit of a leap of faith to write something so personal, but it just seemed an appropriate way of putting my responses to the novel into context. I absolutely loved Keegan’s book, as you rightly predicted I would! Her style seems so straightforward and pared-back on the surface, but the story itself feels full of depth. That’s a testament to her skill as a writer – the ability to craft something so meaningful and true. I’m not surprised to hear that the story made you angry. It’s very much that kind of scenario, isn’t it? How could the nuns be so heartless and cruel…
A beautiful post with your memories adding depth to the review of the book. Children are so often sensitive when something just isn’t right without understanding the reason why. The grip of the Catholic church in Ireland is so heartbreaking to learn about, sometimes I wonder how Irish people survived at all in earlier centuries unless they emigrated, caught between the church and English landlords.
On a more cheerful note, the book was published here a couple of weeks ago and is one I’m very much looking forward to reading. And thank you for sharing your childhood memories.
Thanks, Jule. That’s such a good point about children’s sensitivity to these things. We could tell that something awful was happening in that place, despite its status as a Convent. Funnily enough, my grandfather was particularly wary of it. I remember his warnings quite clearly…
As for the book itself, I’m so glad you like the sound of it. Keegan strikes just the right balance between poignancy and hope, while never losing sight of the novel’s underlying values. I really hope you enjoy it.
Thanks for writing this, Jacqui! I vote you bring the personal into more of your reviews!
I love how the novel leaves it open as to whether Furlong will be able to continue to do justice. The possibility of his failure–or, also difficult, the cost of his decision–looms over the end of the book.
Haha! Thanks, Dorian. I can’t promise you many review like this as the connections might not be relevant – but if the right opportunity presents itself, I’ll definitely consider it! As I mentioned to Marina above, I haven’t even touched on my uncle’s spinster sisters in the house next door. They were forever calling on their brother for favours, much to my aunt’s annoyance of course!
Like you, I loved the novel’s ending, just on the threshold of hope vs damnation. I’d like to think that Furlong and his family find a way through this, riding out the inevitable storm that his actions provoke.
I want to hear about the spinsters!!
Not sure why, but I feel pessimistic about that ending. Like I’m unconvinced they will find that way. Not sure why, but I was a little shocked by his wife’s refusal to engage with him, telling him they need to mind their own business, etc. If *she* says that, others are likely to be even harsher…
Ha! Another time, hopefully. I’ll have to find the right context or connection for it to fly…
I wasn’t surprised by Eileen’s reluctance to hear any of Furlong’s concerns about the Convent. Lots of things like that were hushed up or never discussed, probably because the culture in Ireland was very conservative at the time. People didn’t talk about their feelings or worries – they kept things hidden or to themselves. Eileen’s primary concern is for her family – keep your head down, don’t rock the boat, and whatever you do, don’t criticise the Church, it’s too powerful an institution to take on. Still, she’s a good woman at heart, so I’d like to think they will find a way through…
Thank you Jacqui. Your piece did more than justice to a beautiful book. It also prompted memories of childhood holidays in Kilkenny.
Thanks so much, Barry – that’s very kind of you to say. It’s such a lovely book, full of hope in the face of such horrors. I’m glad it resonated so strongly with you.
When I was a young teenager, I read a book about a young woman who became a nun, struggled with the discipline, but was eventually sent to Africa as a nursing nun. I was inspired! The glamour soon wore off when I read Antonia White’s A Frost in May. The punishments they meted out were terrible. More recently I read another novel dealing with the dark side of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, Benjamin Black’s Christine Falls that was more along the lines of a mystery. This is my Goodreads review of that, in which I linked to one of those surprisingly thorough Daily Mail articles about the Magdalene Laundries: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2320637667
Ah, Frost in May! I must get around to reading it at some point. It’s such a classic, the sort of book that seeps into the cultural consciousness over time, a little like Rumer Godden’s Back Narcissus, which I only got around to last year. White’s novel does sound very powerful – quite an intense reading experience, I imagine, given the subject matter and style. Thanks for mentioning it – and the Benjamin Black, too!
What a beautiful review of a beautiful book Jacqui.
I loved it! The courage of one man to confront the abuses, even knowing the repercussions, is both rare and wonderful.
Yes, exactly. It takes so much courage to take on these powerful institutions. I’m so glad you loved it too.
Thank you for this post Jacqui and for your personal story – what a house! I have a friend who was one of those babies and sent for adoption, the cruelty of the stigma is heartbreaking.
Thanks, Jane. I wonder how many of us know someone affected by these institutions – either directly or indirectly? Quite a few, I imagine…
Both your post and Susan’s have made me really, really want to read this one!
Oh, excellent! I really hope you like it.
Such an evocative description of your family’s home! This book was already on my TBR. I didn’t know the last of the laundries closed in 1996 – that’s the same year that the last residential school closed in Canada, which is a similarly horrendous thing perpetrated by the Catholic Church (among others). and for which they still have not officially apologized.
Thanks, Laura. It was a bit of a leap of faith to write something so personal, so I’m glad it strikes a chord! That’s so terrible to hear about similar instances of abuse in Canada. It’s all so recent it? I think that makes it all the more shocking, as if the second wave of feminism had passed these cultures by…
Great review. I have been wondering why this book was attracting good attention and you have explained it and enticed me to read it. Thank you, as always.
Ah thanks, Caroline – that’s really lovely to hear. I think it’s a combination of the expertly-judged tone, the poignant subject matter and Keegan’s beautifully-crafted prose that makes it so impressive. I hope you get a chance to read it.
Fabulous review. I have just got a copy of the book. I have to say I’m unsure how I will find it, but that it has so much resonance for you is amazing.
Thanks, Janet. Yes, those childhood memories of my aunt’s house and the Convent on the hill definitely added to the story for me, but I hope you’ll find it interesting too. It’s such poignant novella, irrespective of the any personal connections. :)
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