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Small Things Like These: Tender tale faces up to the shame of our recent past

Claire Keegan is pitch-perfect in this novella about a mother and baby home and one man’s dilemma about whether to break the wall of silence around it

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Normalising the abnormal: Infants and nuns in Bessborough Mother and Baby home in Co Cork

Normalising the abnormal: Infants and nuns in Bessborough Mother and Baby home in Co Cork

Author Claire Keegan. Photo by Frédéric Stucin

Author Claire Keegan. Photo by Frédéric Stucin

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

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Normalising the abnormal: Infants and nuns in Bessborough Mother and Baby home in Co Cork

How do you make a stand against the wilful blindness of your community? Or to put it another way: “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?”

There lies the dilemma for the quiet hero of Claire Keegan’s elegiac novella Small Things Like These, which reflects on how girls who ‘got in trouble’ were dealt with in Ireland. She dedicates her book to the women and children who “suffered time” in the Magdalene laundries.

But this is first and foremost a story rather than a polemic. Its power lies in its simplicity — it almost reads like a fable, consciously laced with nativity references.

Geographically, we’re in small-town Ireland, a place Keegan understands well. The setting is New Ross, Co Wexford. It’s winter 1985, the river “dark as stout, swelled with rain” and children pull up their hoods before leaving the house for school, while mothers hardly dare to hang out the washing.

As Christmas approaches, the town’s coal and timber merchant Bill Furlong is kept busy. His customers include the local convent, “a powerful-looking place” which runs a laundry and training school for girls. The talk about town is they aren’t students, but females of low character being reformed — doing penance by washing the town’s dirty linen. And, indeed, it turns out to be a mother and baby home.

Making deliveries to the convent, Furlong sees frightened girls polishing floors. Locked in, hair shorn. One of them begs him to take her home with him, offering to work her fingers to the bone. “Mister, won’t you help us?”

Troubled, he confides in his wife, but she says it has nothing to do with them. “If you want to get on in life, there’s things you have to ignore, so you can keep on,” she advises. The nuns have a finger in every pie and aren’t to be challenged, he is told. Surely they have only as much power as we give them, he counters. But he is aware, too, that staying “on the right side of people” is sensible for someone in business. A troubled Furlong’s moral framework feels the pressure.

Just before Christmas, he arrives early in the morning at the convent and opens the coal house door to make his delivery. There, he finds a barefoot girl locked in overnight. “Won’t you ask them about my baby?” she begs, breast milk leaking. “They’ve taken him from me now but they might let me feed him again if he’s here.”

He goes with her to the convent door, where the Mother Superior serves tea and cake, tries to normalise what he knows to be abnormal, and gives him a generous tip. Furlong doesn’t want to deal with this problem, yet he finds it hard to look away — as others are doing. Self-preservation and courage battle one another. And as he makes his way about the town jolly with lights and bustling with Christmas cheer, his past floods back.

He came from “less than nothing, some might say”; his mother became pregnant at 16 while working as a domestic for Mrs Wilson, a childless widow living in the big house outside the town. His grandparents disowned her, but Mrs Wilson stood by the teenager, and she was allowed to keep her job and have her baby with her there. There was food and shelter for both.

Furlong is under no illusions: Mrs Wilson (the “Protestant widow”) changed their fortunes. Status and money meant she was one of the few people who could do as she liked. Mrs Wilson took an interest in him, her patronage offered some protection against the ugly names he was called at school, and when he married, she helped to set him up in business.

Furlong has fellow feeling for others, a capacity to consider life’s what-ifs, and an appreciation for how chance plays a disproportionate role in outcomes. Without Mrs Wilson, his mother could have ended up in a mother and baby home. And what of his own daughters — how would they be treated if they became pregnant outside marriage?

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Such considerations echo in his mind, even as he remembers his wife’s advice, which mirrors that of Mrs Kehoe, who runs a small business also reliant on goodwill. Yet it strikes Furlong that to each is given days and chances that wouldn’t come around again. Has he the courage to make a modest stand here?

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Author Claire Keegan. Photo by Frédéric Stucin

Author Claire Keegan. Photo by Frédéric Stucin

Author Claire Keegan. Photo by Frédéric Stucin

Small Things Like These is a fictional work that meditates on a grimy chapter of Ireland’s recent past — Ireland’s last Magdalene laundry only closed its doors in 1996. These institutions, Keegan reminds us, were run by the Catholic Church in collusion with the Irish State.

In a note at the end, she reminds readers how an estimated 10,000 girls and women — although 30,000 may be nearer the mark — were incarcerated and forced to labour. No one knows how many babies died in these laundries and homes, or how many were adopted, because most of the records were destroyed or made inaccessible.

It is impossible to change the past but essential to face up to it. That’s precisely what Keegan does in this tender, condensed and pitch-perfect tale. As soon as I reached the end, I returned to the beginning to read it again.

Novella: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
Faber & Faber, 128 pages, hardcover, €14; e-book £5.39

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Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Martina Devlin hosts a regular books podcast, City of Books, supported by the Arts Council, Dublin Unesco City of Literature and the Museum of Literature Ireland


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