Claire Keegan’s much anticipated new novella is framed by two historical events: an excerpt from The Proclamation of the Irish Republic which declared the resolve of the signatories, ‘to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally.’ The second historical event is the fulsome apology made in the Dáil in 2013 by the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny admitting to the State’s abject failure to follow through on its earlier solemn promise.
In January 2021 further apologies were issued following the publication of the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into some of the Mother and Baby Homes. It concluded that ‘for decades, Irish society was defined by its silence, and, in that, its complicity in what was done to some of our most vulnerable citizens.’ In television and radio interviews Taoiseach Michéal Martin repeated the idea that as a nation we all shared in the blame. It seems to me that Keegan has taken that idea to heart and in Small Things Like These her hero, Bill Furlong, shoulders this heavy responsibility on our behalf in an exercise of ‘what might have been’.
The treatment of women and young girls in the Magdalen Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes was horrendous and no amount of redress or restitution or official report can assuage it. One of the most notorious of those institutions was Sean Ross Abbey outside Roscrea in County Tipperary. It opened its doors in 1931 closed in 1969 and was run by the nuns of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary. One of the 6,414 admitted there to have her baby was Philomena Lee from Newcastle West in County Limerick. Her baby son was forcibly taken from her and adopted by US parents in the 1950s. Her experience in Sean Ross was later turned into the award-winning film, Philomena.
Ironically, or maybe not so knowing Claire Keegan, Small Things Like These is set in New Ross (as opposed to Sean Ross – the word ‘sean’ in Irish means ‘old’). We get the weather, the season, the name of the town, the River Barrow ‘dark as stout’. It is ‘raw cold’ and relentlessly bleak in the lead up to Christmas 1985 and “chimneys threw out smoke which fell away and drifted off in hairy, drawn-out strings”. The country is in the grip of recession and everyone is struggling to make ends meet. Many businesses are closing and being boarded up; redundancies are common even in large firms such as Albatross. Those still in business are walking a tight rope and carrying out delicate balancing acts each working day.
The setting is Dickensian in many ways and despite being set in 1985 it does have a much earlier feel to it – for me, it is closer to the Ireland of the 50s and 60s. Bill Furlong, the main protagonist, has been raised on Dickens – he received a copy of A Christmas Carol from Mrs. Wilson one Christmas and learns to read using the book as a guide. When asked by his wife Eileen what he wants for Christmas he asks for a Walter Mackin novel or maybe David Copperfield. This novella has many of the Dickensian traits of a morality tale and if you look closely, and if you are wise you will, you will also hear echoes of McGahern’s love of small details in That They May Face the Rising Sun.
It is a story we think we know well. Claire Keegan sets it in 1985 to give us a jolt into realizing that the Magdalen Laundries, and the wrongful incarceration of women, is not something shameful from another century but is still a reality in Haughey’s Ireland. Small Things Like These is yet another attempt to shine a light on an awful period in our collective history. Despite its extreme brevity, it is insightful and written with a striking economy of language; it is, in fact, a tightly edited narrative of fear, uncertainty, hope, heroism and love.
Keegan captures a particular time and place, while also setting out the pitfalls that lie ahead. Furlong and his wife Eileen have just enough money to keep their family going. Many of their customers can’t afford to settle accounts. The wealthier ones, such as the priest and the local convent, are a lifeline. The Christmas envelope from the Good Shepherd nuns, one of Furlong’s biggest accounts, is anticipated and appreciated. Eileen is a great character, not quite shrewish, but canny and practical, a mé-féin mentality that represents the community as a whole. Her motto is, “Stay on the right side of people and soldier on”. She tells her husband that it is “only people with no children that can afford to be careless,” a line that has stunning resonance in a book about the laundries.
Bill Furlong sells ‘coal, turf, anthracite, slack and logs’ and is the kind of man who lies awake at night reflecting on the small things. He is plagued by doubts about his own humble origins and almost feels like an imposter because of his good fortune and his success in business.
Furlong has a wife and five daughters to support. Like the rest of the town, he has plenty of worries, but over the course of this short novel, it is his concern for the welfare of strangers that sets him apart. His wife, Eileen, chides him because he gives away the change out of his pockets to the young boy of the Sinnots. He feels that he has been consigned to knock on doors, particularly back doors, to see into warm, homely kitchens and well-to-do sitting rooms while also witnessing at first hand the poverty and misery brought about by the economic recession.
Furlong is 39, and is a hero in the classical sense, flawed, uneasy, and afraid, but ultimately noble. He goes quietly about his business, in much the same way as John Kinsella does in Keegan’s earlier novel, Foster. The trouble that Furlong faces is introduced incrementally after we’ve gotten to know his world. His first meeting with the Mother Superior of the convent is all smoke and mirrors, beautifully choreographed by the author. The dialogue is full of tension and ice. The nun remarks on his daughter Joan’s participation in the local choir: “She doesn’t look out of place.” The words that go unsaid linger.
Essentially, however, he is a good man who will no longer stand by and see evil triumph – he gradually steels himself, despite being aware of the possible consequences, and eventually, he heroically takes a stand. Mrs. Kehoe and her distinctly Irish aphorisms are an example of the insidious pressure being applied by the people of the town when they sense that Furlong may be about to break ranks. She and the other townspeople have long been complicit in allowing the situation in the local convent to continue. Her attitude is like Heaney’s ‘whatever you say, say nothing’:
Tis no affair of mine, you understand but you know you’d want to watch over what you’d say about what’s there? Keep the enemy close, the bad dog with you and the good dog will not bite. You know yourself.
The cumulative effect of these pieces of advice is to show the silent complicity of all in the town, and the fear which has them all browbeaten into subservience.
It is possible to see that there are many similarities between Claire Keegan’s earlier novel, Foster, and Small Things Like These. Both are set in the South East of Ireland and while the sun shines continually in Foster, here the weather is anything but benign,
‘And then the nights came on and the frosts took hold again, and blades of cold slid under the doors and cut the knees off those who still knelt to say the rosary’.
For me, personally, the idea of people kneeling as a family to say the rosary in Ireland in 1985 is jarring and not credible. Both novellas have very strong male protagonists and indeed there are many comparisons that can be made between John Kinsella in Foster and Bill Furlong in Small Things Like These. Interestingly, the young girl who is fostered out to the Kinsellas in Foster lives in Clonegal while the young girl in this novel, Sarah Redmond, also hails from ‘Clonegal out past Kildavin’.
There are many unusual images throughout the novel – one of the early chapters begins, “It was a December of crows.” Later, Furlong again encounters these crows and he describes them as ‘dapper’,
‘striding along, inspecting the ground and their surroundings with their wings tucked in, putting Furlong in mind of the young curate who liked to walk about town with his hands behind his back’.
There is another troubling image used earlier when Furlong describes the level of poverty in the town:
And early one morning, Furlong had seen a young schoolboy drinking the milk out of the cat’s bowl behind the priest’s house.
Indeed, and I am saddened to say this, it seems to me that priests and nuns are caricatured here as malign and evil characters like ogres of old. I fear that this will be their lot in Irish literature for some time to come not least as a result of their role in the Magdalen Laundries and Mother and Baby Home debacle. Meanwhile, it seems the State has escaped the same level of opprobrium and has come away relatively unscathed.
Local politicians are on hand to lighten the gloom and arrive to ceremoniously turn on the Christmas lights in early December. In my mind’s eye, I visualized Michael Darcy or Brendan Howlin, or even Brendan Corish “wearing his brasses over a Crombie coat”.
Keegan uses another unusual image near the end as Furlong approaches the convent with its foreboding high walls topped with broken glass to repel intruders or maybe to deter those wishing to escape:
Turning a corner, he came across a black cat eating from the carcass of a crow, licking her lips.
The enigmatic Ned tells Furlong of a strange incident where he was giving a neighbour hay from Mrs. Wilson’s barn until one night, ‘something that wasn’t human, an ugly thing with no hands came out of the ditch, and blocked me – and that put an end to me stealing Mrs. Wilson’s hay.’
I hope I haven’t given away too many details, particularly of the cloistered world of the convent as this would spoil your enjoyment of the novel. And, believe you me, it is an essential stocking filler this Christmas.
The ending to this novel is not a fairytale happy-ever-after one. Indeed, as we approach the end we sense that Furlong’s troubles are just about to begin. We are encouraged to brood on the consequences of Furlong’s action. Keegan presumes that we too know how things work in our little Republic so we come away from the novel fearful for his family, his business:
The worst was yet to come, he knew. Already he could feel a world of trouble waiting for him behind the next door, but the worst that could have happened was also already behind him; the thing not done, which could have been – which he would have had to live with for the rest of his life.
To say that this new novel by Claire Keegan is long-awaited is an understatement. However, I would caution against believing all you read in the pre-publication reviews which are universally positive and exaggerated in their praise of her new novella. Small Things Like These will, however, follow the earlier Foster onto school syllabi and will be studied by generations of our young people in the coming years. It will hopefully help them answer this deceptively simple question relating to Ireland’s past: “Why were the things that were closest so often the hardest to see?”