Small Things Like These by the Irish novelist Claire Keegan is my Book of the Year. There have been several books especially by women authors that have 'spoken' to me but this one hit a deep chord. I am late to the party in the sense that this novel, published in 2021, has already been short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award back in May. There have also been several other gongs for this haunting work including the Orwell prize. It is less than 100 pages in length, so little longer than a novella but it throws such a powerful punch, and its graceful writing has stayed with me, resonating, taking me back to my own Irish childhood, looking at many of my memories anew.
The story is set late in the twentieth century in a small Irish town during a bitter December. Its principal character is Bill Furlong, a caring family man with five daughters who owns his own modest coal and timber business. A merchant of coal, anthracite, logs. These he delivers to his customers himself in his rather antiquated lorry. His yard is manned by a small crew of men who work for him. He is a kind boss and there are good vibes between them all.
Bill 'came from nothing'. He was born to a young woman, little more than a girl, who at the age of sixteen fell pregnant. She was a domestic servant in a big house on the outskirts of the town where Bill Furlong lives. The house was owned by a well-heeled Protestant woman, Mrs Wilson. Mrs Wilson took pity on the serving girl and did not dismiss her when she got pregnant. She kept her on and allowed her son to remain with her. Bill Furlong grew up on the estate, a happy child. He was never told the identity of his father who he assumed was possibly a gentlemen of some standing related in some way to the kind, widowed Mrs Wilson.
The novel takes place in the days leading up to Christmas in 1985. Bill is exceptionally busy with the orders, his deliveries. These include a load of logs to the local convent. I don't want to give too much away of this marvellous story, but at the convent he discovers a girl locked in an outdoor coal shed. She is freezing, barely-clad, barefoot and traumatised. He is shocked by her presence there and by the condition of her. He releases her, leads her across to the main convent building and asks the nuns to take care of her. Little does he yet realise that it was the holy sisters who have locked the girl in the unheated shed.
From the eighteenth century onwards, religious institutions in Ireland took in 'girls of ill-repute', prostitutes and girls who had fallen pregnant outside the 'holy order of marriage'. The first home was founded by Protestants but soon they became predominantly Roman Catholic asylums run by religious sisters, nuns. These institutions were known as laundries because that was how the convents paid their way, by taking in laundry. It was the girls, the single mothers, who did the work, the drudgery.
Many of their babies were sold to families who wanted children, both in Ireland and abroad. Over 9,000 babies died while in the convents' care.
The last of these laundries closed in 1996.
The revelations that started to come out in 1993 about the treatment the girls and their babies suffered, kept under lock and key like prisoners, working till they could barely stand, is one of Ireland's most heart-rending modern scandals. It is believed that over 30,000 girls passed through these 'asylum' doors over the two centuries the houses were operating.
It was in 1993 when the Dublin-based Sisters of Our Lady of Charity sold off a portion of their land to a property developer that the scandal first came to light. When the land was dug up to begin construction work, more than one hundred bodies in unmarked graves were discovered. There were no death certificates, the deaths had never been registered, which was illegal.
The bodies were exhumed and reburied in a mass grave.
This discovery led to the opening of an enquiry. It was all a great deal more horrific than anyone might have imagined, though both Church and State were aware of the existence of these homes. The tragedy continues today; many women are still looking for the bodies of their mothers, sisters, aunts etc.
Claire Keegan deals with the subject with great delicacy. Her touch is light, her words are powerful. She concentrates on one man, Bill, who was an illegitimate child himself but whose mother was shown kindness and was offered a home and shelter for herself and her baby. As a grown man with five daughters of his own in these days before Christmas, Bill looks back on his more fortunate past and considers the present and the young starving girl he has discovered in the coal shed.
The novel is not hard to read. Although it has been inspired by a harrowing chapter in Ireland's modern history, it does not bludgeon the reader with unpalatable details. It is rich in humanity and the power of ordinary love and courage. I highly recommend it.
Reading the novel set me thinking back to my own youth and my childhood in Ireland, in the fifties and sixties, and how little I knew or understood of what was going on.
I was born in London to an Irish Catholic mother and partially Irish Catholic father. I have always considered myself Irish rather than English. I am an Irish citizen and carry an Irish passport. Those early Irish days were, for the most part, the happiest ones of my childhood. However, it is perhaps fair to say that in some ways I romanticised my childhood in Ireland. I look back on those times as joyful, colourful, full of love with occasional recollections of harshness, which puzzled me at the time because I did not understand the roots of this behaviour.
My childhood was lived between school-term times in Kent in England where I attended a Catholic convent run by an order of nuns that had been founded near Lyon in France in 1675, the Trinitarian Sisters of Valence. At our convent, they were ruled over by a fierce Irish Reverend Mother with a poker expression and mean thin lips. I was exceedingly unhappy there. We were educated to fear God, to recognise that we were born with the stain of original sin on our souls (hence our lifelong burden of guilt) and to be pure young girls in both mind and body. Compare this to the long leisurely holiday months which I spent in perfect harmony at my grandparents' and uncle's farm in rural Ireland. The excitement, for example, when a litter of pups was born. I watched on with wonder as the pups sucked milk from their mother's nipples. I was taught to milk cows, sitting on a tiny stool, squeezing and gently tugging with thumb and forefinger at the huge warm beast's udders. The smell of damp hay, the heat of the white liquid milk. Its odour. Nature and the seasons ruled. Life was about the earth, the rotation of crops, of harvests and planting. This was my mother's family home. She was born one village away where Protestants and Catholics lived and worked alongside one another in harmony.
I cannot remember the Irish Reverend Mother's name. I have erased it from my mind. No doubt because she so terrified and traumatised me, warning me that my father would rot in hell for his sins. The sleepless nights that caution caused me. I have never entirely recovered from it. For a short while at our convent in Kent, we had a French Reverend Mother, Genevieve, who I adored because she broke all the rules - 'serious' rules such as lifting up the skirts of her habit, revealing her black lace-up shoes and stockings and her trim ankles in order that she could more easily hare up and down the wooden staircases or hotfoot it along the corridors. I never saw her walk. Even though it was drummed into us girls on a daily basis that young ladies never run, they walk sedately with their heads held high as though carrying books on their head.
It was very sudden the replacement of Mother Genevieve. One day she was there, the next we were in the iron grip of the Irish ogre. It was whispered between us girls that Reverend Mother Genevieve had engaged in an illicit affair with the gardener, fell pregnant and was sent to Africa. I doubt there was a word of truth in this, but it brought simple amusement and a soupçon of naughtiness to our regimented 'holy-clean' days.
A nun as a fallen woman was a delight to us. She'd bucked the system, broken the rules. We, innocent girls, who knew nothing of the existence of the Magdalene Laundries and the shame of unlawful pregnancies. (By the way, I was conceived out of wedlock, but it was a long time before I discovered this and what it implied. Did my grandparents ever learn this? I have no idea. I was certainly never judged or blamed for it, if they knew. You might think this odd, that the child of an "illegitimate" pregnancy might be punished, but they certainly were. Back to the Magdalene Laundries where the offspring were taken from their mothers and either sold or ... many child corpses were later found when the truth of what had been going on at these asylums was, literally, unearthed.
I was so unhappy at that convent in Kent. I loved learning but the convent was a prison in my mind.
When I wasn't in Kent during the term times, I was in Ireland with my mother staying with family. She had an older sister in Dublin who was rather strict with me, insisting I kneel on the kitchen floor to say my prayers in front of all her children. 'You must say your penance,' she bid. She was very religious - or so I looked upon her back then. I knew nothing of her past. Only later did secrets come to light.
As well as Dublin, there was the modest family farm in County Laois, in the Midlands of Ireland. I loved it there. It was my bucolic heaven: the fields growing with acres of tall ripening wheat, the river with its salmon, the farm dogs and chickens and geese all foraging in the yard beneath endless lines of washing billowing in the wind. My plump grandmother adored me. She'd cackle and pull me up onto her lap. She smelt of potatoes, peat, grass and carbolic soap. She had a few wisps of hair on her face which I found a bit scary, witch-like, but she was kind as kind to me. My gentle-natured grandfather was as thin as his wife was rotund. They adored each other. I never heard a cross word in that small farmhouse, unlike our family home in Kent, which was forever ringing with the sound of angry voices.
I knew nothing of my grandparents' love story back then: how they had run away together when she was twenty and he eighteen. She, the daughter of not quite landed gentry but comfortably-off land-owning parents. He, hardly yet a man, the labourer employed by my granny's parents. My grandparents, the young lovers, (still unmarried at the time?) crossed counties from Kilkenny to be free of the family wrath. The pair ended up in Laois where they spent their entire lives, dying within eleven months of one another. Granny was cut off by her family. Any financial assistance marriage might have brought her was denied to her and her beloved.
I believe her parents did at some point forgive her. I don't know when. I never met them and know very little about granny's side of the family. What I know is that my grandparents tale was a happy one, bolstered by love, courage and the choices they had freely made for one another, even though they had a hard life financially and must have been judged when young as an immoral couple.
The Ireland of my childhood (fifties, early sixties) was a very different island to the foreword-looking republic it is today. It lived in the long dark shadow of the Catholic church and, though politically unshackled from British rule, the British Monarchy still had a say in the running of the state, until as late as 1949. The Republic of Ireland only became a fully independent state in 1949 with the passing of the Republic of Ireland Act.
In 1960, Penguin Books published an unexpurgated edition of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. It was immediately banned for obscenity. Penguin fought the case. The obscenity trial lasted six days at the Old Bailey. The jury found the novel to be Not Obscene. Penguin won. The book was not only a sensation but it became an overnight bestseller. More importantly, it was a watershed decision for both literature and society.
I was eleven or twelve at this time, an adolescent but still very much a naive girl.
As the British poet Philip Larkin wrote in the opening lines of his poem Annus Mirabilis
"Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP"
After the Lady Chatterly trial and as the Beatles were emerging, according to Larkin, Britain was waking up to sex and the liberation of the written descriptions of it. The birth pill came on the market at the beginning go of 1964 and that brought a new freedom for young women. Sex and babies, as bestselling author Fay Weldon pointed out, were no longer intrinsically linked.
The Brits were dancing and singing, reading about and having sex ("doing it", as the Irish might have said). In the US, the Hippie generation was rolling out the sexual revolution. Free Love. Make Love Not War (the Vietnam War). While in Ireland, the Catholic church continued to keep its vice-like grip on the nation's morals. Birth control, the sale and import of contraceptives, was illegal in the Republic until February 1979 when, with a highly-controversial vote, the Irish government defied the Catholic Church and approved the sale of contraceptives. Even so, access was very limited. One needed a prescription from a practicing doctor.
I have a cousin who, to all intents and purposes, did not exist back in the 60s, in spite of the fact that he is ten years my senior. No one knew about him or if they did they were keeping silent. The acknowledgement of his existence would have broken up at least one branch of our family. How many in our clan ever found out about him or acknowledged him, I don't know. He was born in a convent in Dublin and later adopted. The circumstances are not discussed. Most of those involved have died now. I am in touch with him. He is a senior citizen today, partially broken by all that he lived through.
It was not until 25th May 2018, that abortion was made legal in the Republic. I remember the powerful emotions so many of us felt when, from all over the world, thousands of women flew home to vote. I even read that some loaned others the money to pay for their air ticket. The hashtag #hometovote became famous. The Irish diaspora mobilised itself with such a force that it felt to me, as I witnessed what was happening, that two centuries of pain and subjection was being rightfully overturned.
The law - the repeal of the 8th amendment, which had kept abortion illegal for so long - was overwhelmingly overturned. It was a watershed moment for men and women, for everyone in Ireland.
When the results were announced, I broke down. I wept for my mother who had so recently died, for her generation, those before her and those who came after (my own generation). I wept for my aunts and their offspring both known and unknown, my cousins and other loved ones, for all these innocent women's young lives lived, for some of them, shrouded in secrecy. In fact, I wept for all women, living or dead, who had been held in shame, some imprisoned in these convents, punished for acts that were born of love, passion, ignorance, rape ... For every woman who was obliged to travel beyond the frontiers of the Republic to obtain the healthcare, the assistance, she needed, which should have been available to her in her homeland.
I am delighted that Claire Keegan's novel has sparked so many emotions, exchanges, both outside Ireland and within the Republic. A short beautiful novel that has unpeeled layers of hidden pain and misjustices and shown us the power of love and courage.
Let us celebrate the power of the written word.
In the meantime, I hope you receive many books for Christmas. I wish you a wonderful 2023.