There’s a moral dilemma at the heart of Claire Keegan’s haunting novella Small Things Like These. it’s a tale of one man’s courage and kindness; a lone voice in a small town whose residents have turned a blind eye to callous acts taking place on their doorstep.
Set in County Wexford, Ireland, Keegan portrays a gentle, loving father who counts himself fortunate in his marriage and his five healthy, well-mannered daughters. After his own inauspicious start in life as the illegitimate child of a young maid servant, through sheer graft Bill Furlong has become a successful coal and timber merchant. Though the family have little money to spare on luxuries, there is always a hot meal awaiting him at the end of a long day.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, 1985, Bill makes an unexpected discovery while dropping off a delivery at the convent on the edge of town. Locked inside the coal house, he finds a young girl with bare blackened feet who frets about her hungry baby.
The tension in Small Things Like These revolves on what Bill Furlong does next.
He’s familiar with the gossip that the girls are not being trained for anything; they’re really ill-used, poorly fed skivvies. He’s encountered some of these girls himself on previous visits, on their hands and knees “polishing their hearts out in circles on the floor”. One had asked for his help. “Just take me as far as the river. That’s all you need do,” she had pleaded with him.
Rumours abound about the kind of girls who live at the convent, attend its training school and work in its laundry. According to the townsfolk, they’re “girls of low character” and “common, unmarried girls” sent to the convent to do penance for shaming their families with illegitimate babies.
Bill’s conscience is uneasy over the girl in the coalhouse. But to challenge the nuns about the girls in their care cut put his own family at risk. It would be “the easiest thing in the world to lose everything” by going up against the all-powerful Catholic Church. As the friendly proprietor of a local cafe reminds Bill, “Those nuns have a finger in every pie” and he could be damaging his own daughters’ futures if he’s too vocal about what goes on at the convent.
His wife also cautions him to leave well alone. What he’s seen at the convent has nothing to do with them and anyway there was nothing they could do.
“If you want to get on in life, there’s things you have to ignore, so you can keep on,” she tells him.
But how can Bill stay silent when he knows that his own mother could have ended up as one of those girls, saved from such a fate only by her kind-hearted employer who provided a home for both mother and son.
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?
Keegan’s tale asks a fundamental question about our response to evil and wrong doing. Do we turn a blind eye because inaction is a form of self preservation? Or do we do take some action even if it just one small thing?
Small Things Like These is a thoroughly brilliant novel tracing the way one unremarkable man tries to deal with this question.
The prose is delightfully unadorned but in no way simple. Keegan deftly paints the contrast between good and evil. So we get the false kindness of the Mother Superior contrasted with the genuine warmth and affection in Bill’s home and a town that sparkles with Christmas joy while the convent sits brooding on the hill, enclosed by high walls and surrounded by a multitude of crows “in black batches”.
It’s a beautifully written tale of courage. At times it reads like a fable yet Keegan’s dedication to “the women and children who suffered time in Ireland’s Magdalen laundries” makes it clear its origins lie in a actual scandal. Up to 30,000 Irish women were apparently incarcerated in these institutions run by various branches of the Roman Catholic church between the 18th and 20th centuries. “Some lost their lives. Some or most lost the lives they could have had,” notes Keegan, but no apology was ever given by the Irish government until 2013.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan: Footnotes
Claire Keegan was born in 1968 and grew up on a farm in Wicklow. Her first collection of short stories, Antarctica, completed in 1998 was awarded the Rooney Prize for Literature. Her second short story collection, Walk the Blue Fields, was published to enormous critical acclaim in 2007 and won her the 2008 Edge Hill Prize for Short Stories.
Small Things Like These was published by Faber in 2021.