The persecution of “fallen women” is a well-documented phenomenon in Western history, stemming back to the story of the first biblical woman, Eve. Yet records of girls and women shunned into Magdalene laundries throughout Ireland have long been hidden and destroyed. Such institutions were run as late as 1996, usually by Roman Catholic orders with support from the Irish state, alongside mother-and-baby homes and industrial schools. Vulnerable individuals—those considered low in character, who fell pregnant outside of wedlock, were deemed mentally unwell, or were otherwise considered burdensome to their families—were sent to these church-state insitutions to receive discipline or “education,” but instead suffered brutal labor, cruelties, and abuse under the guise of charity. Even today, the country is in the process of becoming more conscious of what and how such atrocities occurred, prompting Irish authors such as Sally Rooney to debate whether Ireland is free from the Catholic traditions of its previous era. It is within this same context that Claire Keegan’s latest novella, Small Things Like These, examines the shameful underbelly of Ireland’s past.
The narrative centers on an honest-working father and husband in the Wexford town of New Ross in December 1985. Bill Furlong is a coal and timber merchant, initially born to an unwed sixteen-year-old who worked in a big house outside of town. His mother’s employer, a merciful Protestant widow named Mrs. Wilson, supported the disowned pair without judgement, taking young Bill under her childless wing, and encouraging him to grow, learn, and work his way up in society despite the circumstances of his birth. Furlong exceeded expectations, making a successful life in town, where he lives with his wife, Eileen, and their five daughters at the start of the narrative.
Furlong is keenly aware of the privilege that allows him to move through a daily routine, provide for his wife and daughters, and end the night in a warm bed wondering what errands need to be completed tomorrow. Although he must work overtime to survive, he cannot help but notice the desperation of others in his community: stray animals, long dole queues, and starved children begging for help on the street. Their misfortune is a reminder that “[i]t would be the easiest thing in the world to lose everything, Furlong knew.” The security of his family, like his upbringing and the lives of others, seems left to chance.
One evening, while out on a scheduled coal delivery to the local convent, Furlong encounters a dozen young girls and women who appear neglected as they scrub the chapel floors. “Little was known” about Good Shepherd church and the attached St. Margaret’s training school, though “the laundry had a good reputation.” Indeed, Furlong had previously ignored rumors around town speculating that the convent housed individuals who were “being reformed, doing their penance by washing stains out of the dirty linen” until a girl with a Dublin accent approaches him and begs to be taken to the river so she might drown herself. Before Furlong can respond, a nun ushers him outside. When he later relates the incident to his wife, she chastises him, saying “such things had nothing to do with them, and that there was nothing they could do, and didn’t those girls up there need a fire to warm themselves, like everyone? And didn’t the nuns always pay what was owing and on time unlike so many?” Then, on a cold, earning morning a few days before Christmas, Furlong returns with a fresh delivery and discovers a frail girl trapped in the coal shed. Before a nun appears, the poor child manages to ask about her fourteen-week-old baby, who was taken from her. Furlong follows the girl and the nun inside the convent and is promised by the Mother Superior that the girl will be looked after. To send him away, the Mother offers a Christmas bonus, which the coal and timber merchant reluctantly accepts. His wife is delighted by the extra income, but Furlong is unsettled by what he has witnessed even as he attends Mass with his family a few hours later.
Keegan may be telling a fictional story, but the complicit silence of an ordinary individual faced with a corrupt institution is an authentic scenario, particularly for those living in Ireland during the operation of Magdalene laundries. The author sketches with skill a quiet life for the protagonist, whose discomfort crescendos as more of his grim surroundings are revealed. Whether or not the general population was privy to the abuse, many individuals inadvertently supported the private side of these institutions by attending Mass and donating spare income to the Catholic church, who were able to sustain their business by refusing income to the young girls and women who were doing the work. In some cases, such as Bill Furlong’s, to interrogate the benevolence of a long-standing religious organization might also have meant risking the fragile well-being of his family by disrupting the order of a society that relies on the sanctity of its faith.
Since the early twentieth century, the Irish government has acknowledged that the girls and women in various types of Magdalene institutions were victims of abuse and has attempted to compile a full account of what happened in these places. In January 2021, the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes revealed that nine thousand children died within just eighteen of the mother and baby homes investigated, as referenced in the note at the end of the novel. This number shadows the conservative estimate of ten thousand girls and women who were hidden and enslaved in the laundries, while the total number of victims of church-state institutions remains unknown. Despite public knowledge, further investigations, and direct accounts of abuses, the wound has not been stanched.
In such a light, Keegan’s decision to portray the horrors of a Magdalene laundry through the exterior lens of an unassuming male character, rather than fictionalizing first-hand experiences, is a clever device which avoids shock value and instead questions how the morality of the everyman is shaped by culture. Though the protagonist holds power in a patriarchal society as a “man amongst women,” the traditional authority men hold over women becomes tenuous when an individual man confronts nuns who are supported by established, male-led institutions such as the Catholic church, the Irish state, and even affiliated schools founded by similar religious orders. As Bill is warned by a woman in town who learns of his run-in at the convent, “They’re all the one.” So, the impetus of Small Things Like These rests on the impact of an individual’s will to “do good” when what is “right” conflicts with an institution that upholds the moral tradition.
It’s no mistake that the events of the novel occur around Christmastime, a period customarily marked by material abundance for some and lack for others. Widely-observed holidays are a perfect time to examine how individuals form and function within wider society. Not only does this religious anniversary mark the birth of the most important figure in Christianity, but it also encourages customs such as worship and gift giving as a significant cultural practice. Families buy presents and decorate their homes, prioritizing personal displays of faith within the home. The primary exception to these private acts is to attend midnight Mass or church services, where individuals join together as a community to express piety in public. Christmas appeals, particularly from church-led charities, likewise offer the chance to be benevolent in an outward-facing act. For men such as Bill Furlong, however, other spontaneous acts of generosity outside of elected occasions may be viewed as taboo or perhaps irresponsible in a way that adding change to the church collection box or donating to a well-known foundation is not. That is not to say that monetary donations can’t or don’t contribute to worthy causes, but rather who or what is afforded charity is partly determined by what issues are prioritized in a given culture. Might it be that goodwill can go beyond performing compassion for destitute individuals by also challenging the cause of that suffering?
Bill Furlong’s story is a Dickens-esque tale of Christmas past, present, and future for Ireland. Keegan’s protagonist argues, “was there any point in being alive without helping one another? Was it possible to carry on along through all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there and yet call yourself a Christian, and face yourself in the mirror?” The consequences of the protagonist’s choices are left to imagination at the end of the novel, yet the conclusion effectively predicts how altering one’s routine might redirect history. Individual actions may not be powerful enough to change a system overnight, but questioning long-held beliefs and authority may very well cause the disruption necessary to bring attention to a larger issue.
In the midst of Christmas spirit and joy, readers are reminded that charity is not a substitute for justice. Small Things Like These is a slim yet evocative book that honors the small things that make a difference while also showing that communities determine which traditions to celebrate or reform, to uphold or rewrite.
Small Things Like These
By Claire Keegan
Published November 30, 2021
Caitlin M. Stout is a writer mostly found in Chicago. She holds an MA in Writing and Publishing and a BA in English from DePaul University. Her fiction has appeared in Motley. She is the managing editor of Arcturus, as well as a daily editor at the Chicago Review of Books. You can find her on Twitter @caitlinmstout.