Many of them were raped by family members. Impregnated, unwed women were locked away in institutions of slave labor by the Catholic Church and with the full knowledge of the Irish government, forced to work in hellishly hot virtual torture chambers behind bars, as if they were convicts. Nuns stood over these women and children morning and night to hit them and pull their hair if they didn’t fold the sheets right or dared speak to each other. Their birth names taken away, the women were given saints’ names and warned never to speak of their former lives.
To this day, traumatized survivors don’t know who they were imprisoned with because they never once heard their real names.
These institutions were called Magdalene Laundries, or Magdalene Asylums, and it’s estimated 30,000 women and children spent time in them from the 18th Century to the 20th. In 1993, unmarked mass graves of women and children were discovered, their bodies thrown in the ground unceremoniously, some in soil soaked in sewer water.
The Irish government admitted these atrocities in 2001, 236 years after the first Magdalene Asylum was opened.
Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These opens in October 1985, as the damp days of autumn are setting in. Bill Furlong is a coal and timber merchant, living with his raven-haired wife Eileen and their five lovely daughters. Furlong is a kind, hard-working man whose sole purpose is caring for his family. They are the lucky ones, not wealthy by any means but also not starving at a time when jobs were hard to find, many people forced to emigrate to the UK and America for the promise of a better life. Well-liked by the villagers, as long as he maintained his reputation as a fair and honest man, the Furlongs were as financially safe as it was possible to be.
Furlong never knew his mother. Raised by a kind woman named Mrs. Wilson, he wasn’t told who his father was, either. He didn’t dare ask. But he grew up happily enough with loving adults in his life, growing into a kind and compassionate man.
On Christmas Eve 1985, Bill Furlong rose extra early to deliver coal to the local convent, his last stop before attending Mass with his family. What happened that brutally cold morning would force him to choose between following either his head or his heart, knowing the path he took could place his family’s stability in peril. His decision would put his courage and strength of character to the ultimate test.
Small Things Like These is a short book, at 114 pages the shortest ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize. Because of its brevity, I hesitate to say too much about it to avoid spoilers. It’s a beautiful novel, written in celebrated Irish novelist Claire Keegan’s distinctive spare prose, interwoven with the kind of spirituality that doesn’t involve churches. It’s about kindness and goodness and empathy, told without a trace of sentimentality.
While this novel is a little gem, I don’t think it will win the Booker. The judges are giving Keegan a nod, acknowledging her quiet power. But ultimately, the prize will be given to a bigger novel with a story more suited to a sweeping canvas. But then, in 2011 I said the same thing and Julian Barnes waltzed out the door with his A Sense of An Ending, another shorter book. It’s fantastic and I love and admire it, but I loved Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side just a little bit better.
It occasionally happens that I’m wrong, but I don’t think so in this case. If I use A Sense of An Ending as a gauge, its focus was much wider, the story more satisfyingly dense. Small Things Like These touches on a very weighty subject that absolutely deserves more exposure, but ultimately I don’t think it will prevail against the competition. It will appeal strongly to readers who complain Booker winners are far too obscure and too highly literary; this is the quietest longlisted novel I’ve ever read and one of the most accessible.
One thing I do know is unequivocably true, I’d better move my arse if I’m going to get through the longlisted novels I mean to.
For more about the Magdalene Laundries:
Ireland’s Magadalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment
Plus loads of YouTube videos – give it a Google
See Wikipedia for this excellent article
May all of them, living and dead, find their peace.
And may the guilty find Karma.