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The Horrors of Irish Magdalene Laundries, Revisited

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By Claire Keegan

A tiny thing itself — a slice-of-life novella cheekily packaged as a full-scale novel — Claire Keegan’s “Small Things Like These” is set in a small village in Ireland, just before Christmas in 1985. Here the friendly mundanities of a workingman’s daily routine meet the grim shadow cast by the country’s Magdalene laundries.

At those secretive institutions, which lasted from the 1700s through the 1990s and were typically run by Catholic nuns with the support of the Irish government, so-called “fallen” girls and women were imprisoned, worked and abused, their children often taken from them and neglected, or even killed. In 2014, a mass grave containing the remains of some 800 babies and children was uncovered in a septic tank in the County Galway town of Tuam. Only in the past decade have the Catholic Church and Irish society begun to confront the horrors of the laundries that incarcerated approximately 30,000 women.

For the fictional villagers in “Small Things Like These,” as for its readers, the specter of these laundries is fleeting at first — a shock of cold you pass through quickly, with a reflexive shiver, before emerging into the next patch of sun. The protagonist, a coal and timber merchant named Bill Furlong, is himself the son of an unmarried Catholic mother who “had fallen pregnant” at 16 and avoided the torment of a Magdalene home through the charity of her Protestant employer. Now an adult with daughters of his own, Furlong is going about his coal-delivery rounds one day when he finds one of the nuns’ abject charges locked inside a freezing shed. He takes the girl into the convent and shares a fraught cup of tea with the tyrannical Mother Superior. It’s clear that eventually he’ll have to decide whether to rescue the girl or leave her to her fate, turning a blind eye as the rest of his community would doubtless prefer.

There’s little modernity in Keegan’s Irish town. Except for passing mentions of Jeeps and airports and 1980s British TV shows like “All Creatures Great and Small,” we barely see evidence of technologies, idioms or trends more recent than the Industrial Revolution. Reading the story I felt immersed in a 19th-century landscape, rather than one set in the years of my own teens. Instead of Pac-Man and “Purple Rain” and Madonna, the references are to shipyards and Dickens, anthracite, homemade fruitcakes and Beechams Powder, a constipation remedy that dates from 1842.

Such homey quaintification of Irishness is a fairly familiar trope, but here it’s likely accurate enough: The country was still sunk in the past in 1985, when a doctor’s prescription was required to buy condoms. And Keegan’s prose, as she describes this trapped-in-amber world, is both nostalgic and practical: The scope of village life may be small, but its texture is rich. Neighbors are welcoming. Customers give Furlong gifts. Moments of interpersonal contact shimmer like the dimming jewels of a sense of community that, for many of us, has vanished into bygones.

But the quaintness, Keegan implies, is a veneer over rot. Beneath the charming give-and-take lurk steely warnings and a sociopathic lack of empathy; even Furlong’s wife, Eileen — a proper, middle-class mother of five — refuses to entertain the reality of others’ suffering. And so the town allows vicious crimes, against its most vulnerable residents, to go on unobstructed.

Curiously, by casting Furlong as a reluctant but good-hearted hero and the women around him as largely enablers and cowards — protective of their own children but otherwise seeing no evil — Keegan almost seems to suggest that in this community it was the women who were most keenly implicated in perpetuating the suffering of their own. Not only the nuns themselves, but the gossips and bystanders and repressed and fearful bourgeois like Eileen, who knew of the crimes and stubbornly turned their faces away.

As in Ursula K. Le Guin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” this Ireland is a place whose cheeriness depends on the misery of its scapegoats.

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