When she was a teenager, Joan Didion studied the opening to Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, a paragraph of “four deceptively simple sentences, 126 words, the arrangement of which remains as mysterious and thrilling to me now as it did when I first read them.” A young writer today could study with similar pleasure the opening paragraph of Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, a novel set in a 20th century town that includes a Magdalen laundry, one of Ireland’s imprisoning institutions for unwed mothers:
In October, there were yellow trees. Then the clocks went back the hour and the long November winds came in and blew, and stripped the trees bare. In the town of New Ross, chimneys threw out smoke which fell away and drifted off in hairy, drawn-out strings before disappearing along the quays, and soon the River Barrow, dark as stout, swelled up with rain.
Keegan’s short novel, which could just as well be called a long short story, is stylistically lovely and imbued with her passion for seeing. Yet the subject of the novel is often painful. The plot follows Bill Furlong, a New Ross family man and merchant who is troubled as he becomes aware of what occurs in the local Magdalen laundry. After he encounters an abused woman there, he must decide whether to help her at the expense of his family’s well-being.
Few readers of Small Things Like These can be certain they would reach the same decision Furlong does. Keegan has written a novel in large part about us.
In 20th-century Ireland, Magdalen laundries were in effect religious penitentiaries. Most of the inmates — unwed mothers, including victims of rape and incest, as well as other “fallen” or “feeble minded” females — were placed there by their families. Some were confined for years, or even lifetimes, with government collusion. Their hair was cropped, they were required to wear formless clothing, some were given new names, and contact with their families and verbal reminiscing were discouraged or prevented. They worked without pay, profiting the convents and religious orders that ran commercial laundry operations. Often the nuns who supervised the laundries took babies from the inmates to be raised in orphanages or put up for adoption. The last of the Magdalen laundries in Ireland closed in 1996.
In Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment, author James M. Smith notes that a full history of the laundries cannot be written until the religious orders that owned them open their archives to scholars and the public, which few have done. He emphasizes that the extant history of 20th-century laundries, such as it is, has been told mostly through subjective stories within documentary, memoir, film, fiction, poetry and visual art.
Set in the 1980s, Keegan’s novel adds to the collective narrative about the Magdalen laundries, but with a somewhat different perspective. Little of the story takes place within a laundry, instead evoking conscience and callousness in a surrounding community and in the inner life of a man who at first has little personal connection to the laundry except that he sells heating fuel to the convent and sends his daughters there for music lessons.
Small Things Like These prompts its readers to consider why host communities long supported the laundries and ignored the enslaved fate of the women — and, in part by making Bill Furlong her central character, Keegan leads us to wonder about ourselves. If you’d had a Magdalen laundry in your community and saw the truth about its abuse of women, if finally you admitted what was occurring there, but you knew also that many people in your community believed that the punishment was beneficial and an extension of God’s will, and that many others were afraid to object, what would you have done? If you can imagine yourself in Furlong’s place, the question might be difficult to answer with honesty.
Furlong works long weeks to keep his coal and timber business solvent and his family comfortable. Daily he encounters economic suffering: He sees dole queues “getting longer,” families “living in houses no warmer than bunkers,” a schoolboy “drinking the milk out of the cat’s bowl behind the priest’s house.” He knows “it would be the easiest thing in the world to lose everything.” One way he could lose everything would be to challenge the sanctimony and economic importance of the nuns who oversee the laundry and who, in the convenient view of townspeople in novelistic New Ross, are all-powerful. His precarious financial position means his business cannot afford to lose the convent’s patronage or the sales he makes in town — which a diner owner has in mind when she warns him the nuns “have a finger in every pie.”
Furlong begins to see the punitive nature of the laundry, and asks his wife, Eileen, what she knows about the treatment of the Magdalen women. She dismisses the question. He asks, “But what if it was one of ours?” — one of their own daughters. She replies, “This is the very thing I’m saying,” and adds, “’Tis not one of ours.”
Later, making a delivery of heating fuel, Furlong enters a windowless coal house on the convent grounds and discovers a laundry inmate who is cold, shoeless and surrounded by excrement. Although her birth name is Sarah, the nuns have given her the masculine name Enda. To Furlong, the mother superior claims the nuns have been searching for “the child” and suggests absurdly that Sarah was playing hide and seek, but of course he gathers that she is being abusively punished. Sarah’s fate will remind some readers of an Ursula K. Le Guin short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” in which all happiness in a community depends upon keeping a sacrificial child — “it” — confined in the filth of a small windowless room in a basement. Keegan perhaps intends readers to notice the parallel.
The novel concludes on Christmas Eve, when Furlong, haunted by his encounter with Sarah, walks to the convent and finds she is still confined in the coal house. If he rescues her, he and his family will be made to suffer socially and financially. And yet he will suffer in guilt if he declines to save her.
Snow is falling, Keegan’s likely reference to the snowy final paragraph of the James Joyce story “The Dead” — and Furlong, like Gabriel Conroy, has a Christmas Eve epiphany: “They’re all the one.”
He realizes he isn’t living in the kind of community that he liked to believe, and the nuns are not the kind of people he once thought; and that he has been one — one of the community and one of the nuns, all of them nearly blinded by the culture, all of them fallen. He also sees that in a sense the laundry inmates are his daughters. And yet, he has actual daughters who will be made to suffer if he rescues his figurative daughter. What kind of person is he? He can’t know until he makes his decision, a reminder that once when he was driving his lorry onto the convent grounds, “the reflection of Furlong’s headlights crossed the windowpanes and it felt as though he was meeting himself there.”
The brilliance of Small Things Like These is that its readers can feel as though we are meeting ourselves in it.
Mark Phillips lives in southwestern New York. He is the author of a memoir, My Father’s Cabin, and a collection of essays, Love and Hate in the Heartland. His most recent contribution to our print edition is "The Longest Kiss" (Winter 2021-22).