David Butler

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Some stories begin as thought experiments. At the time the Ferns Report was being released, Claire Keegan heard a victim of institutional abuse describe how he’d been discovered by the coalman locked inside a coal shed. The religious thanked the latter for his intervention, made a show of washing and feeding the child, then returned him to the shed once the coalman had gone on his way. The point of interest for the author, as revealed to interviewer Tanya Farrelly at the recent Dingle Literary Festival, the imaginative point of entry so to speak into the society that made such an appalling event possible, was the coalman. How would he deal with this knowledge?

Claire Keegan is not a prolific writer. For her, as she explains with a winning frankness, writing is ‘digging stony soil’. Over a period of about two years, the germ of the story of such a man’s dilemma grew into the short novel Small Things Like These. The protagonist, Will Furlong, needed a context, a genealogy, a back-story. Gradually, his two families began to emerge, group portraits consisting entirely of women. Born on April Fool’s Day, 1946, Furlong was raised by his unmarried mother in the house of her employer Mrs Wilson, a rich Protestant widow. He grew up an outsider, teased about his illegitimate status. Now thirty-nine, he has his own familial responsibilities in the form of five young daughters, and a wife to whom his occasional acts of spontaneous generosity are a real threat to their precarious wellbeing. The socio-economic context – a bitterly cold winter in an era of lay-offs and emigration – is essential to understanding the imperatives and apprehensions animating Furlong’s wife, Eileen. Her instinct is to protect the family. As Hegel pointed out in his analysis of Greek drama, tragedy subsists in the battle of right against right. 

Many commentators have described Small Things Like These, with some justification, as a parable about kindness, or redemption, or moral bravery. I prefer to read it as an investigation into the mechanics of complicity. In particular, into the tacit complicity of mute acquiescence, much as was explored in Sheelagh Stevenson’s Five Kinds of Silence . All the citizens of Keegan’s New Ross are aware of the convent, ‘a powerful-looking place on the hill at the far side of the river with black, wide-open gates’ about which a multitude of crows ‘in black batches’ roost throughout that cold December. All know, at some level, of the girls of ill-repute, many of them teenagers abandoned there by their parents, whom the institution treats as degraded, unpaid labour. To borrow Seamus Heaney’s memorable coinage, the citizens, Furlong among them, are guilty of casting ‘the stones of silence’. The closest anyone comes to articulating this moral is when Furlong points out, in relation to the clergy, ‘Surely they’ve only as much power as we give them, Mrs Kehoe?’ 

It is asked with characteristic plain-spokenness. Indeed the entire novel, which never leaves Furlong’s perspective, is written in a ‘close-third’ narration appropriate to a constitutionally reticent protagonist whose interest in literature doesn’t extend beyond the newspaper and a single, childhood gift of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The effect is to give the story the economy, and clarity, of the Breugel winter-scape which adorns the cover, at the author’s own suggestion. In fact it’s merely the top right-hand quadrant of Breugel’s famous Hunters in the Snow, and omits the suggestive detail of the solitary figure crossing a bridge with firewood. Keegan’s eye to details such as a starving mongrel riffling litter or a crow strutting like a parson on the frosty ground reinforces the pictorial connection. It is a literary style that doesn’t wander far from one of Keegan’s acknowledged masters, John McGahern, so much so that it comes almost as a surprise when the year is named as 1985. Yes, there are passing references to Haughey and to the moving statues, and the daughters’ Christmas wish-lists include eighties pop music, but the tale could, with few alterations, be set in the thirties, forties or fifties. And that is surely the point. Somewhere along the way, Irish society’s development has been stunted, and the corvid-like ubiquity of the Catholic clergy in social and educational institutions is at the heart of this arrested growth.

The prose may be unadorned, that is not to say  its scope is in any way impoverished. Like Breugel, several deft, limpid brush-strokes suggest a rich tapestry of life at work, both natural and human. The yellow trees of October with which the tale opens give way, by chapter four, to ‘a December of crows’. A description of the town crib, that archetypal scene of the unmarried mother, suggests a biblical resonance. There are comic touches, too, such as a statue of the Virgin looking disdainfully at an offering of plastic flowers, while an entire history of folk wisdom is conjured in details such as the Mother Superior’s ‘Where there’s muck, there’s luck’ or Furlong’s observation that a dropped spoon means a visitor. An old legend that the River Barrow demands three drownings each year becomes sinister when Furlong learns from a distraught, incarcerated Dublin teenager that she wants to drown herself. In a timeless world like this, the uncanny has its place – old Ned, who may be Furlong’s father, talks of ‘an ugly thing with no hands’ which blocked his passage once during a theft of hay and put an end to his thieving, while Furlong himself is informed by an old man with a puckaun and bill-hook that the road he is on will take him wherever he wants to go. 

‘When a person expends the least amount of motion on one action,’ wrote Chekhov, another of Keegan’s literary heroes, ‘that is grace.’ It could be said to be the animating principle of Small Things Like These. The old man with the puckaun has all the resonance of an other-wordly figure in a fairy story possessed of occult knowledge. Because, no less than A Christmas Carol, this is the story of a spiritual journey. The figure who, with a Christmas package of patent leather shoes for his wife, leads a barefoot child across the bridge and past appalled onlookers toward his home, has at last figured out how he must deal with the knowledge he unintentionally stumbled upon. And, no less than Chekhov in his famous ‘Lady with Lapdog’, Keegan points out at story’s end that the difficult consequences of that decision are yet to come. What concerns her is the grace of the choice taken.

Review by David Butler.

Claire Keegan was born in 1968 and grew up on a farm in Wicklow. Her first collection of short stories, Antarctica, was completed in 1998. It announced her as an exceptionally gifted and versatile writer of contemporary fiction and was awarded the Rooney Prize for Literature. Her second short story collection, Walk the Blue Fields, was published to enormous critical acclaim in 2007 and won her the 2008 Edge Hill Prize for Short Stories. To buy a copy of Small Things Like These, visit Faber.

David Butler‘s second short story collection, Fugitive (Arlen House), and third poetry collection, Liffey Sequence (Doire Press), were both  published in 2021. His novel City of Dis (New Island) was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, 2015.

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