Claire Keegan pays a glorious tribute to the thousands of tormented mothers – employed by the infamous Magdalene Laundries, also known as the Magdalene Asylums in Ireland – whose lives were nothing short of an inferno. “Small Things Like These” is an achingly emotional fictitious story that highlights in equal measure the paradoxical traits of cruelty and altruism, which unfortunately are an inevitable prerogative of mankind. The Magdalene Asylums were institutions operated by the Roman Catholic orders. Claiming to have been established to provide support and succour to “fallen women”, these institutions confined a whopping 30,000 Irish women whose babies were separated by being forcibly given away for adoption. Worse, a Mother and Baby Home Commission Report revealed that in just eighteen of such institutions, nine thousand babies had lost their lives due to various reasons. In 1993, a mass grave containing 155 corpses was uncovered in the convent grounds of one of the laundries.
Keegan’s protagonist, Bill Furlough is a hardworking devout Protestant inhabiting the quaint town of New Ross. Furlough supplies coal, turf, anthracite, slack and logs to the townspeople. A stickler for punctuality, Furlough does all the deliveries himself. Waking up at or even before the crack of dawn, Furlough painstakingly fills his truck with the logs cut up by his employees before personally depositing them at his customers’ locations. Born to a single mother, Furlough has memories of being bullied at school, called names, and once even having come home with the back of his jerkin inundated with spit. However a timely magnanimity of a widowed benefactor Mrs. Wilson and her caretaker Ned ensures not only a roof over the heads of Furlough and his mother, but also a life of self-esteem and respectability. Mrs. Wilson takes Furlough under her tutelage and complete care when his mother suddenly keels over on the cobblestones one day, in the process of wheeling a barrow of crab-apples, and dies.
Determination, resolve, and resilience see Furlough go to technical school, establish a footing for himself in life and also be the provider of a happy household comprising a wife and five fine daughters. But just before the Christmas of 1985, when Furlough drives up to the “training school” run by the Good Shepherd nuns in charge of a convent, to deliver a stack of logs, an incident shocks him to the bone and alters his life forever. Ms. Keegan sets the stage for the seismic upheaval in such an unsuspectingly innocuous manner that the reader is just blown to smithereens when Furlough comes face to face with a life altering dilemma. The training school a euphemism for a launderette is the hotbed of conjectures and surmises. “Some said that the training schoolgirls, as they were known, weren’t students of anything, but were girls of low character who spent their days being reformed, doing penance by washing stains out of the dirty linen, that they worked from dawn till night. The local nurse had told that she’s been called out to treat a fifteen year old who had varicose veins from standing so long at the wash-tubs.”
Oblivious to all of these rumours, Bill Furlough’s truck sputters and complainingly creaks its way up a hill where the training school is located. Not spotting anyone in the front of the building, Furlough hesitatingly makes his way to the back of the training house. Finding a padlocked coal house door, Furlough instinctively forces the door open. “As soon as he forced this bolt, he sensed something within but many a dog he’d found in a coal shed with no decent place to lie.” Only that in this case it was not a dog but a young woman instead. Lying on the floor in her own excrements and with the front of a gown tainted with her own breastmilk. A shocked Furlough gently guides her to her feet before handing her over to a surprisingly remorseless Mother Superior who just wants Furlough to be off her premise.
This incident shakes Furlough’s conscience and just when he is coming to grips with it, a devastating fact about his parentage rattles the very foundations of his belief. Now burdened with not just one, but two startling revelations, Furlough decides to take matters into his own hands. What he proposes might turn out to ruin not just his own life but the lives of Eileen his wife, and also his five daughters all of whom have promising futures ahead of them.
Will the Christmas of 1985 bring Bill Furlough ecstasy, or would it consign him to an existence of infernal ostracism and rebuke? Claire Keegan has delivered an absolute “one sitting” masterpiece. Even though the book can be devoured in a sitting, the aftereffects of it will continue to haunt the reader long after she has finished lopping off a thousand other books.
Incidentally, no apology was issued by the Irish Government over the Magdalen laundries until 2013, when Taoiseach Enda Kenny finally deemed it worth to do so.
(Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan is published by Grove Atlantic/Grove Press and will be released on the 1st of December 2021)