Under the Hawthorn Tree

I first discovered this gem of a book by Marita Conlon-McKenna quite by accident and almost gave it a miss – it was such a ragged copy! I got it for a mere 50 rupees in a used bookshop in Islamabad. This award-winning novel deals with the the Great Irish Famine that ravaged Ireland in the 1840s. The story centres around the O’Driscolls, an average Irish family who are tenant farmers, dependent on potatoes as their main source of food. Tragedy strikes in the form of “the Blight” – a disease that destroys the potato crops – and what ensues is extensive starvation.

Eily (who is 12), Michael (10) and Peggy (7) O’Driscoll have coped with heartbreak upon heartbreak. Their parents left to find work, but have gone missing and their baby sister Bridget is dead and buried under the hawthorn tree. (It is said that in Irish mythology, the hawthorn is linked with the otherworld.) All around them, farmers are one by one being evicted by landowners. Surrounded by devastation and the threat of being sent to the workhouse, the children are determined to survive and stay together.

Armed with nothing but courage and love, they embark on a perilous journey across Ireland to find their great-aunts, Nano and Lena, whom they have only heard about in their mother’s stories. The children sleep in the open and forage for food in the wild and in the farms of dead tenants. They are confronted with death at every turn. They see bodies of those who died with no one to mourn or pray over them and they see the living dead – those so traumatised that they are but shells of their former selves.

When the O’Driscoll children arrive in Ballycarbery, they see the ships loaded with food bound for England. It is a painful and bitter pill to swallow – the landlords were making money while their countrymen were falling dead from starvation. Indeed, that is the irony of those horrific years – it was only the potato crop that failed; wheat, oats and meat were in excellent supply but they were shipped out to England. It is said that a million and a half people died during these dark years and another million emigrated.

Read about how Eily, Michael and Peggy push every fibre of their being to stay alive and find a better home. This book is part of the Children of the Famine trilogy. The other books in the series are Wildflower Girl and Fields of Home. This series is very special to me because I have such lovely memories of reading them with my girls many winters ago.

If you are keen on doing a unit study, guides are available at O’Brien Press. I’ve also done a class entitled Ending Hunger at the close of my history of food co-op. If you are interested in my resources, please leave a comment below.

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