It’s been estimated up to 30,000 women were admitted to the Magdalen laundries across Ireland during most of the 20th century until the last was shut down in 1996.
Run by the Catholic Church in concert with the Irish government under the guise of reforming “fallen” women, many former inmates have spoken of the physical and psychological abuse they endured, some for months, others over years.
Some of the women and their babies died, as evidenced by the bodies later exhumed from sewers and mass graves in the grounds of the institutions, yet their deaths went mainly unrecorded. In 2013, the country’s leader, the Taoiseach, offered a national apology to those who suffered abuse.
Unlike many past literary explorations of this dark chapter in Ireland’s history, Keegan’s compact narrative doesn’t bore into the lives of the victims or the nuns who abused them.
Instead, the Irish writer, best known for her award-winning short stories, follows a fictional kind-hearted coal merchant and father of five, Bill Furlong, who lives in New Ross in the south of Ireland.
Through Furlong’s tale, Keegan provides a nuanced insight into how the door managed to be so firmly shut on the country’s terrible secret for decades, enabling such seemingly un-Christian abuse to flourish in the Magdalen laundries before it was denounced.
Set in the “raw-cold” winter days in the lead up to Christmas 1985, we meet Furlong, a hard worker, the boss of his own coal and timber delivery business. He’s earned respect in his community, despite the common knowledge of his illegitimate birth to his teen mum and an “unknown” father.
He’s not wealthy, but lives comfortably and happily enough with his wife and five daughters, although the daily grind is beginning to wear him down as he’s nearing 40.
One icy morning, during a coal delivery to the convent, described as a powerful-looking place on the hill overlooking the town, Furlong stumbles across something that doesn’t seem right.
He’s always chosen not to believe any of the idle gossip around town about the working conditions behind the locked doors of the convent. But what he finds there, and his interaction with the institution’s intimidating Mother Superior, raises conflicting thoughts and emotions in Furlong, throwing up a difficult decision about how he should respond.
Complicating his decision, Furlong’s wife, Eileen, warns him to keep well away, telling him: “If you want to get on in life there’s things you have to ignore so you can keep on.”
Unsolicited advice also comes his way from Mrs Kehoe who runs the local diner. She says: “You’d want to watch over what you’d say about what’s there. Keep the enemy close, the bad dog with you and the good dog will not bite… Surely you must know these nuns have a finger in every pie.”
While this novel is brief, at little more than 125 pages, it’s certainly not short on intensity.
Keegan’s fictional scenario throws some light on how a combination of shame, secrecy and fear generated by the imbalanced social power structures of Ireland – particularly the threat of reprisal for going up against the all-powerful Catholic Church – spurred citizens to gravitate to self-preservation, to keep their heads down and turn a blind eye to misdeeds, and in doing so being complicit in their silence.
Adding to the tenderness of Furlong’s tale, symbolism is sprinkled throughout, from the crows in town ominously “scavenging for what was dead”; to the name – Enda – chosen for the girl who Furlong meets (noting that the name of the Taoiseach who offered the national apology was Enda Kenny); to the fable-like setting at Christmas time.
This is a clever, touching story providing a timely reminder of the importance of that well known aphorism that the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.