It is a bitter cold winter in Ireland, 1985. We are in a small town, among good Christian citizens and meet Bill Furlong, the coal merchant everyone depends on this year to stay warm. Facing a busy season at work, Bill struggles with doubts of where his life is going. He has survived and overcome unlikely circumstances, being born to a sixteen year old unmarried girl, but thanks to her employer’s generosity has been brought up in a loving and supportive house. Now, with a wife and five daughters of his own, the family man wonders how to balance his monotonous, time consuming work and his desire to see his children growing up while never wanting to appear ungrateful for the chances he was given growing up. Trying to give back wherever he can Bill is known for help out customers unable to pay for his deliveries, but his kind and caring heart risks him trouble when he witnesses something he should not have seen: making a coal delivery to the local convent, he meets some of the unmarried girls who became single mothers, were banished by their families and ended up incarcerated in the Magdalen Laundry and in terrible states. While his wife begs him to forget what he saw, in order to protect their family and the future of their own daughters, Bill cannot shake the images and reflects on where he and his mum would have ended up were it not for the kindness of another. Unable to walk away, the merchant manages to overcome the oppressive silence and complicity of the town and the story ends with a promise of conflict but also evidence of the power of compassion.
It was not until 1996 that the Magdalen Laundries in Ireland were finally closed. Some 30,000 women were imprisoned and enslaved in these institutions run by the Catholic Church to punish unmarried girls who got pregnant. Babies were taken away, thousands of women and children died, but the evil was permitted to go on in the name of morality and purity. Claire Keegan skilfully outlines this cruelty on just 120 pages and with little more than a few images. Subtly, but powerfully, Keegan accuses the Church and society’s complicity in these crimes committed against so many young girls and emphasises the impact that individual acts of courage and empathy can have. Not only is Small Things Like These a deeply moving story about right and wrong, about the heroism of kindness and the dangers of judgments, the book is also beautifully written, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.