Collected Works of Claire Keegan

Victoria O’Brien
Desert Island Dispatches

A few years ago, I started changing how I read. If I found a book I really loved, I began reading the rest of the author’s works instead of considering it a one-off; I know it sounds simplistic, but it’s generally not how we’re taught to read (excluding those authors who write long running series). I did it with Michael Ondaatje’s work first and am currently on an Ann Patchett kick, but I’d like to talk about Claire Keegan today, whose books I read over the course of a month last summer. Keegan is an Irish author (a belated Happy St. Paddy’s to you all) with several short story collections and novellas to her name. Her novella “Small Things Like These,” about an ordinary man who confronts the horrors of the Magdalene Laundries, is how I came to find her in the first place. It’s being adapted into a movie and was on so many book lists I paid attention to that I finally picked up a copy last July and read it in one sitting.
The Laundries were asylums for unwed mothers and their children, or other undesirable women that were largely operated by the Catholic Church throughout Ireland beginning in the 18th century. The women institutionalized in the Laundries for indefinite periods of time were subject to physical, mental, and emotional abuses, forced labor, starvation, and other forms of torture. They were also denied access to their children, many of whom were sold to overseas adopters as infants and toddlers. In 1993, the unmarked graves of 155 women were discovered on a Laundry’s property in northern Dublin, sparking outrage and inquiry, which expedited their closure. In 1996, the last Laundry was closed. The Irish government issued a formal apology to survivors in 2013 and established a victims’ fund, which has paid out €32.4 million as of 2022 to almost 1,000 women. The religious orders involved continue to deny the severity of the crimes committed.
Keegan’s “Small Things Like These” is a contained story, meaning it doesn’t swing for the fences, but confronts the horror and reality of living side-by-side with the Laundries and how one might contend with that, how it might affect them and impact the rest of their life if they were to speak out against the Laundries and, by extension, the Church, for the Church was tremendously powerful bordering on omnipotent in 1980s Ireland, when the book is set. It does all of this with incredible grace and empathy, and was enough to make me want more, which led me to “Walk The Blue Fields,” a slow-building romantic tragedy about a man who chooses faith over love, which led to “Foster,” which I still think about regularly.
“Foster” is another of Keegan’s novellas. It’s set in the Irish countryside on a farm owned by a middle-aged husband and wife with no children of their own, who take in the daughter of a struggling working-class couple who are expecting another baby. The girl arrives shy, but curious, and gradually a love blooms between her and her foster family that is deep, abiding, and transformative for all involved.  When the girl’s parents return at the end of the harvest season, all of that is challenged. It’s a quietly devastating portrayal of childhood, rural living, and a particular period of time in which such arrangements were made common in Irish households (my own great-grandfather was subject to this). By the end of the book, I felt party to it all and was just as wrecked as the characters on the page.
I’ve been writing since I was about 8 years old, but have always told stories (tall and small), which is a decidedly Irish thing to do. (See: my name.) I tend to meander a little more in my work, so I think what strikes me most about Keegan and “Foster,” in particular, is that in roughly 100 pages, she’s told her reader everything they need to know to love her characters, to understand their yearning and sorrow, to wound them and give them the faintest hope that maybe something good could still come of it all.
That faint hope that maybe something good can still come is another decidedly Irish thing. There’s a quote misattributed to Yeats and it goes, “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” The very nature of Irishness has often seemed, in my own experience in the diaspora, to be a constant consciousness of both tragedy and hope, which humble and power one, depending.
If there’s a book or another bit of art you’re loving, I’d love to hear about it, too. Email me at