The Magdalen laundries, tool of the Catholic Church and Irish state, was closed down in 1996, to abject disgrace. In 2013 the Irish government gave a much belated apology to the women who had suffered in these prisons of forced labour. Women who had ‘fallen’ and needed to be removed from society. Some thirty thousand women are estimated to have been incarcerated, their babies adopted out. A shocking number of babies died.
Fallen. That word. Young women ‘fell’ pregnant. Their fault for being a bit clumsy, tripping up because they weren’t paying attention.
There are many horrific stories about these institutions. This one is different. Small Things Like These, by Claire Keegan, is a lovely book, full of empathy and kindness, about an ordinary man who knows the right thing to do.
I should say immediately that this is a short book. A long short-story of 128 pages, tight enough so that every, single, word accounts for a lot. I read it on kindle expecting a novel, and when it abruptly ended at the end of chapter one I did a little gasp before realising how perfect that was. It’s a story that knows exactly when it is told and leaves the future open for the reader to imagine.
In 1980s Ireland, Bill Furlong is delivering coal and wood during a particularly cold snap before Christmas. Bill’s mother was a young woman who ‘fell’, but the well-off Protestant lady for whom she worked kept her on and welcomed baby Bill into the household. He doesn’t know the horrors of the Magdalene laundries, just that there is a closed sort of school for girls on the hill above the town, but he does know that he was a lucky child and when he marries Eileen and they have five daughters, all healthy and good, he knows for sure they are fortunate.
Any more and I’d be telling you the whole story and you’ll want to be reading it yourself, no doubt, in the lovely lilt of Claire Keegan.
It’s a perfect short book about morality.