Claire Keegan

1968- ; b. Co. Wicklow and grew up on a farm at Clonegal, Co Wicklow, the youngest of six children; took an English degree at Loyola University in New Orleans, USA; lived unemployed in Carlow; worked as part-time teacher in Tallaght and Clondalkin (Co. Dublin); and later an MA in Creative Writing at Cardiff (Wales); issued Antartica (2000), stories, and winner of the Rooney Prize, the Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2001 Award, and Arts Council Macauley Fellowship; also winner of William Trevor Prize, Francis McManus Award, and Martin Healy Prize;

issued Walk the Blue Fields (2007), won the 2008 Edge Hill Prize and Los Angeles Time Book of the Year; lives in Co. Wexford; Keegan took up residency Villanova University (Pennsylvania) in Jan. 2008; issued Small Things Like These(2021), a novel about the Magdalene laundries; her longer story Foster (2010) won the Davy Byrnes Memorial Prize and published in abridged form in New Yorker (15 Feb. 2010); also adapted on BBC4 “Afternoon Read” in March 2015; lives in Co. Monaghan [?West of Ireland]; keeps horses; currently on Fellowship at Cambridge in exchange with TCD.

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Short fiction,

  • Antartica and Other Stories (London: Faber & Faber 1999, 2000), 224pp.
  • Walk the Blue Fields (London: Faber & Faber 2007). 168pp. [Grove Press, US; see contents].
  • Walk the Blue Fields (London: Faber & Faber 2007), 163pp.
  • Foster (London: Faber & Faber 2010), 89pp. [long short story]
  • Small Things Like These (London: Faber & Faber 2021; NY: Grove Press 2021), 128pp.
Contribs. (incls.)
  • “Night of the Quicken Trees”, in Arrows in Flight: Stories from a New Ireland, ed., Caroline Walsh (Dublin: Townhouse; Scribner 2002), pp.129-65.
  • “Men and Women”, in Rebecca O’Connor, Scéalta: Short Stories by Irish Women ( 2007).
  • “Foster”, in The New Yorker (15 Feb. 2010) [available online - accessed 19.09.2022; see copy].

Bibliographical details
Walk the Blue Fields
(London: Faber & Faber 2007). 168pp. CONTENTS: The Parting Gift; Walk the Blue Fields; Dark Horses; The Forester’s Daughter; Close to the Water’s Edge; Surrender; Night of the Quicken Trees. [Partly available in Google Books - online; accessed 26.01.2022].

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  • Paddy Bullard, review of Marcus, ed., The Faber Book of Irish Short Stories, in Times Literary Supplement (13 May 2005), pp.21-22 [see extract].
  • Rosita Boland, ‘Carefully choosing her words’, [interview-article] in The Irish Times (12 May 2007) [see extract].
  • Liam Harte, ‘Critical acclaim that was not misplaced’, review of Walk the Blue Fields, in The Irish Times (12 May 2007), “Weekend” [see extract].
  • Sean O’Hagan, ‘Claire Keegan: “Short stories are limited. I’m cornered into writing what I can”’ [interview], in The Guardian (5 Sept. 2010) [available online; accessed 26.01.2022.]
  • Elke d’Hoker, ‘The Rebellious Daughters of Edna O’Brien and Claire Keegan’, in Irish Women Writers and the Modern Short Story (London: Palgrave 2016) [Chap. 4], pp.141-71.
  • Claire Armstead, ‘Claire Keegan: “I think somethings needs to be as long as it needs to be”’ [interview], in The Guardian (20 Oct. 2021) [available online; accessed 26.01.2022.]
  • Bethanne Patrick, review of Small Things Like These, in Los Angeles Times (29 Nov. 2019) [see extract]

See further notices under Commentary, infra;

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Declan Kiberd, review of David Marcus, ed., The Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories, in The Irish Times (30 April 2005), describes “The Forester’s Daughter” by Claire Keegan as ‘an artful meditation on the life of a woman in a remote farm beyond Coolattin and on the subversive power of the story-teller’s art to challenge the repressions of a traditional community’. Writes of ‘Keegan’s ongoing interest in the ways in which old superstitions and sotires may or may not assist people in ordering their lives’ and calls Keegan ‘true successor’ to MacLeod and McGahern and ‘a writer already touched with greatness’ who ‘has yet to produce in the “applied” form’. Further: ‘It is notable, however, at most powerful contribution here once again written by Claire Keegan, who has yet to produce in the “applied” form.’ (p.11.)

Paddy Bullard, review of David Marcus, ed., The Faber Book of Irish Short Stories, in Times Literary Supplement (13 May 2005), pp.21-22, remarks: ‘Keegan is widely regarded as the most promising of the younger short stor writers, and she is certainly the most dedicated to the formal demands of the genre, but “The Forester’s Daughter” does not represent her best work - a kinder editor would have set his red pen to the narrative passages in which Keegan sees through the eyes of a Labrador retriever.’ (p.22.)

Christina Hunt Mahony, review of Antartica, in Irish University Review (MS source; forthcoming in May 2002): ‘Claire Keegan has sounded the gong the first time out. Her laconic insight, her fine-line sketches, her skill at conveying anticipation and fear and the frisson which results from either, make the short story her métier juste. The economy of her display within these fifteen stories suggests an authorial discipline mastered at an early stage too. Yet the stories aren’t all that short – they are, rather, filled with incident, implication and a deceptively dainty gradation of human experience which can have the countering effect of strenuously categorising actions and reactions and inexorably locking the doors after they have occurred.

[Mahony, cont.]: Consider the predicament of the unnamed married woman in the title story who goes off, with nothing more to complain of in her marriage than a vague ennui, on a solo weekend of Christmas shopping. She picks up a rather sleazy stranger who takes her to his flat, and after the niceties of bathing her and sharing drinks and a trout supper, makes love to her. Writing in the tradition that requires all aberrant wives to suffer disproportionately for their sexual sins, Keegan effectively misleads the reader to believe there is escape from the claustrophobic love-nest by inserting the language of exploration and the vastness of continents. (She says “Pretend you’re America. I’ll be Columbus” as she climbs on top. He mentions a former marriage and an unlikely honeymoon in Africa. She watches a documentary on Antarctica on TV while he cooks). Keegan also teases, in the best suspense-thriller vein, with false clues – the shotgun cartridge she spies will not be instrumental in the horror that awaits her. Instead the author, exhibiting a sensibility that seems at times to revel in an Old Testament sense of justice, leaves the woman who began by feeling metaphorically imprisoned in the domestic round a naked and bound prisoner in the flat, left to contemplate the greater uncharted expanses of Hell and Eternity.’

[Mahony, cont. - of the American stories]: ‘Sounding in these tales more like Flannery O’Connor or Carson McCullers, Keegan inserts a young, female and foreign consciousness into an alien and often dark Southern environment.’ In conclusion: ‘Claire Keegan writes of the search for human warmth and connection in inhospitable emotional climates, and whether in the sultry South or in inclement Wicklow winters Antarctica looms.’ Cites “A Scent of Winter”, “Ride if you Dare”, “Where Water is Deepest”; “The Ginger Rogers Sermon”. “Storms”, “Burns”, “The Burning Palms” and “Love in the Grass”.

Rosita Boland, interview-article with Claire Keegan, in The Irish Times (12 May 2007): ‘Claire Keegan grew up on a farm in Clonegal, Co Wicklow, the youngest of six children. Recalling her childhood there, in a short piece of memoir seven years ago, she wrote: “I was a strange child, even as children go. I followed ducks who were laying out, wearing the hood of my anorak so they wouldn’t recognise me, but they never led me to their nests. I cleaned the tom-cat’s nails with the blunt end of a darning needle, sat on the Nowlans’ ditch with salt and pepper and seasoned their lettuces, their scallions. I ate green gooseberries, blackcurrants, rhubarb stalks, blackberries, sloes. I got belly-aches. I walked naked through the streams of Newry wood with hens’ feathers stuck in my plaits.” [...] She chose the title for the new book because she liked the sound of it. “The picture of it, the image of it. It’s very seldom you see people walking the fields now. Unless there’s stock in the fields. You very seldom see people walking the land, even though we’re supposed to have a love of land in this country. I sometimes can’t help thinking: is it a love of ownership, rather than the land itself? And that’s what the priest in the story wants to do - walk.”’ (See full text in RICORSO Library, Criticism > Reviews, attached or via index [password required].)

Liam Harte, ‘Critical acclaim that was not misplaced’, review of Walk the Blue Fields, in The Irish Times (12 May 2007), “Weekend”: ‘Keegan’s portrayal of painful experience is bracingly unsentimental. The absence of self-pity is exemplified by the opening story, “The Parting Gift”, which describes a daughter’s last morning with her family before she emigrates to the US. As in many of Keegan’s stories, the girl is never named, though she is no less real for that. Indeed, her namelessness underlines her numbness, as does the story’s second-person point of view, which evokes the speaker’s detachment from the events she describes, while simultaneously assuming a degree of intimacy on the reader’s part. Having made us more malleable, this dispassionate voice reveals itself to be the voice of trauma, without ever breaking register. Such deft management of tone accentuates the girl’s emotional diminishment, which is further amplified by her listless movement through contracting spaces: from kitchen to car to toilet cubicle. / “The Parting Gift” suggests that Keegan’s technique may be partly indebted to Hemingway’s “iceberg” aesthetic, where four-fifths of the narrative lurks beneath the surface of the text. [...] If Hemingway is an oblique influence in these stories, then McGahern is a central interlocutory presence. Walk the Blue Fields is an intriguing homage to the late Leitrim writer. Throughout the first five stories, there is an alluvial build-up of idiomatic and thematic allusion - even the cover image of a solitary yew tree exudes a McGahernesque pathos - which eventually becomes explicit in the penultimate story, “Surrender”, subtitled “after McGahern”. The story was inspired by McGahern’s recollection in Memoir of his father telling how, when he knew he was going to be married, he bought two dozen oranges and ate them on a park bench in Galway. Keegan’s imaginative response to this stray memory is fascinatingly suggestive in the way it adds resonance to it by releasing its deeper meanings, making the story a compelling act of creative elaboration. / Keegan’s thematic debt to McGahern is most evident in her dramatisation of the illusions and disillusions of love. Like him, she uses epiphanies sparingly to crystallise the pain as well as the possibilities of different kinds of desire. [...]’ (See full text, in RICORSO Library, Criticism > Reviews, attached or via index [password required])

Lamorna Ash, review of Small Things Like This, in The Guardian (22 Oct. 2021): ‘Small Things Like These, Keegan’s latest short novel, shares its properties with the very best of her stories. Plunge pool-like, the narrative implies significant depth below its close, bounded surface. The protagonist here is the father, Bill Furlong, a coal merchant with a wife and five daughters. It is Christmas 1985, in the town of New Ross, County Wexford. What makes this book distinct from Keegan’s previous work is where the violence is situated in relation to the family. / The stories in Antarctica swing irrevocably towards brutality. They end in suicide, in rape, in families breaking apart. The language is stinging and immediate. In Walk the Blue Fields, which won the Edge Hill prize for short stories, Keegan pushes the violence back into the margins. The awful things that disturb her characters’ lives are only hinted at, having transpired some time before the present, or in the previous generation. It makes the stories more substantial and elemental than those in Antarctica, the slightest action taken by a character appearing not incidental but as if set in motion many years ago. [...] Why, then, does Small Things Like These not feel quite as devastating, as lasting, as Keegan’s previous work? Perhaps, for the first time in her writing, the lightness here has become too light - is kept too far away from the darkness that lurks at the other side of the town.’ (Available online; accessed 25.11.2021.)

Bethanne Patrick, review of Small Things Like These, in Los Angeles Times (29 Nov. 2019): ‘[...] To spoil the ending of such a slim book would be churlish; yet it’s no spoiler, merely illumination, to say that Bill’s lonely, stilted childhood comes into play as the story barrels toward its surprising conclusion. The local convent, a “powerful-looking place” that looks “like a Christmas card,” is run by the Good Shepherd nuns as a “training school there for girls, providing them with a basic education. They also ran a laundry business.” Everyone gossips about the overworked charges, but everyone also sends laundry there, because it is returned “same as new.” / An encounter Bill has with the nuns and girls at Good Shepherd while making a delivery will change the course of his life and the lives of others. But first, he speaks of it to his wife, who responds, “If you want to get on in life, there’s things you have to ignore, so you can keep on.” Bill cannot ignore the inhumanity he witnessed and heard of at the Laundry, not when he understands what it feels like to matter less than others.’ Concludes: ‘Keegan’s concise, capacious new book demonstrates, little acts can lead to real change.’ (Available online; accessed 19.09.2022.)

Karl Ove Knausgård, ’The imperialism of the absolute’, in The New Statesman (28 Oct. 2022), pp.36-38- includes remarks: “In Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, goodness as an idea takes on physical existence in the figure of Prince Myshkin, the absolute example of the good person, and gains its force in the collision between the idea and the real. The Idiot is a novel of ideas, or, as Dostoevsky himself called it, fantastic realism. The goodness we encounter in Small Things Like These is of a quite different character. It is vague, fleeting, illusive - in Bill Furlong it manifests itself in a thought here, a small action there. If goodness is a light, then it’s not a powerful beam exposing a scoial reality, as in Dostoevsky, but a weak, flickering flame. No one in Keegan’s novels talks about the good in people, it’s just something that occurs, nameless and ordinary. And that - bringing to life what is there, teasing it forth, as if from underneath the conceptions that so firmly hold it in their grasp - is something that only the novel can do.’ (p.36; available online; accessed 12.11.2022.)

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Summer Books” [annual column], in The Irish Times (24 June 2000), compiled by Rosita Sweetman, notes that she is travelling to Chateau de Lavigny for three weeks, bringing to read: Blanaid McKinney, Big Mouth; Kerry Hardie, Hannie Bennet’s Winter Marriage, and Toni Morrison, Paradise (‘they shoot white girls first’); Kazuo Ishiguro, When we Were Orphans; Gabriel Rosenstock, Irish Weather Wisdom: Signs of Rain, ill. Rosemary Woods.

Which book? Asked by the paper which single book he - among 10 other writers - would give as a gift, Keegan answered: If This is a Man by Primo Levi (‘the dignified prose never lingers unnecessarily but goes reluctantly forward, taking us face to face with human nature, with ourselves ... Levi is almost the unwilling witness. The entire book is told in the of a whisper. While I’m sure this book had little or no influence on my own style of writing, I’m certain that, with regard to my thinking, it’s the most influential book I’ve ever read.’). See Irish Times (5 March 2011), Weekend, p.7.

Foster (short story; New Yorker, Feb. 2010): A small girl is sent to live with foster parents on a farm in rural Ireland in 1981, without knowing when she will return home. In the strangers’ house, she finds a warmth and affection she has not known before and slowly begins to blossom in their care. And then a secret is revealed and suddenly, she realizes how fragile her idyll is. (Goodreads - available online; accessed 26.01.2022.)

Small Things Like These (2021): Set in a a small Irish town in 1985. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, Bill Furlong, a coal merchant and family man faces into his busiest season. Early one morning, while delivering an order to the local convent, Bill makes a discovery about a teenager in their care which forces him to confront both his past and the complicit silences of a town controlled by the Church. Bill is the son of an unmarried house-servant who was kept on by her employer, Mrs Wilson, when she got pregnant. He is the father of five daughters and restless about his occupation as a coal-merchant. Now he becomes engaged with the fate of those less fortunate. (Based on Goodreads - available online - accessed 26.01.2022.)

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