We haven’t compiled the statistics but we’re pretty confident that there isn’t a house in Ireland that doesn’t have at least one dogeared copy of Under the Hawthorn Tree by Marita Conlon-McKenna. Written about the Famine of 1845 but synonymous with childhood in Ireland in the 1990s, for many the ‘Children of the Famine’ series has shaped how they understand that period of Irish history. Here, Rachel Sneyd outlines why the series has a special place in her heart and on her bookshelf.
There’s a shared shorthand that Irish people use to discuss the Famine. Blight. Fever. Landlords, tenants, and evictions. Grain exports. Soup kitchens. Coffin ships, bailiffs, and roads to nowhere. Workhouses. Genocide versus laissez faire economics. Remittances.
Each of these terms is emotionally loaded, carrying the weight of a national tragedy that reduced our small island’s population by up to a quarter, and whose causes and consequences have been fiercely debated for more than 150 years.
The images and stories that they evoke are informed not only by history books and documentaries, but also by popular culture; sculptures, potato jokes that are only OK if we’re the ones telling them, and for those of us who came of age post-1980s, an enduringly popular children’s book trilogy.
Published by The O’Brien Press in 1990, Under the Hawthorn Tree marked a watershed in the development of Irish children’s literature. The opening chapters alone see Eily, Michael and Peggy battling painful hunger cramps as they bury their baby sister, and then accepting that neither of their parents are coming home to take care of them, but despite its difficult subject matter the novel was a resounding success. It has been reprinted multiple times, translated into over a dozen languages, and according to bookseller Eason it is Ireland’s top-selling children’s book.
The author, Marita Conlon-McKenna continued the O’Driscoll siblings’ stories in Wildflower Girl and Fields of Home, and today you’d be hard-pressed to find an Irish bookshop, library, or middle grade classroom without at least one of the three displayed on the shelves.
Conlon-McKenna’s achievement is truly remarkable. Not only did she anticipate a massive gap in an emerging market, she also wrote three beautifully restrained novels that fully deserve their reputations as modern classics. Her characters are always human, if not humane, and she never overplays emotional beats. The O’Driscolls’ impossible journey across Ireland in Under the Hawthorn Tree – fleeing the workhouse in search of the great-aunts from their mother’s bedtime stories – is as epic as any quest in a fantasy or dystopian novel, and the children’s acts of bravery stand up to those of any Harry Potter or Katniss, but they are never presented to us as special. The tragedy of the Famine years is subtly revealed in the fact that their losses and sacrifices are completely ordinary. If anything, the children are lucky to have survived with any family ties intact at all, and to have escaped being driven mad by the scale of the horrors that they witnessed.
I’ll never forget first reading the scene in Wildflower Girl where Peggy, who has emigrated to Boston and is toiling away as a scullery maid, is confronted with a puppy. The spoiled mistress of the house mocks her distress, not knowing that Peggy was almost killed by a pack of starving dogs as a child. I was waiting for the moment where Peggy would explain this, and the other household staff would realise what she’d gone through during the events of the first book and feel awful for laughing at her. Of course she never did so, because Peggy understood much better than I did that no one would have cared. This harsh truth about the unfairness of life is so much more powerful because Conlon-McKenna trusts the reader to come to it themselves.
I’d probably heard of the Famine before I read Under the Hawthorne Tree, but I don’t remember that. I do remember crying and laughing over the O’Driscolls’ struggles and small victories, and briefly waiting to turn the page in order to admire Donald Teskey’s stunning chapter heading illustrations.
When I studied the Famine in primary school, and then secondary school, and later even in university, I always related the information that I learned back to the basic understanding I’d gleaned through Conlon-McKenna’s writing. It wasn’t just the universal Famine shorthand that I’d absorbed, it was also a way of understanding history itself. Of focusing on ordinary people, instead of just the ‘Great Men’, and approaching broad cultural shifts though the every-day experiences of the unremarkable men, women and children that make up the bulk of humanity.
To me, this is not only more interesting than memorising dates and lists of kings, it also allows young people to relate to the past in a more empathetic and visceral way. The themes of Conlon-McKenna’s book trilogy – hunger, refugees, forced emigration, gross wealth inequality, and the psychological effects of the constant threat of homelessness – are obviously as relevant today as they were a century and a half ago, and I believe that great literature such as this can help us to bridge the gap between present and past in a unique way.
At a recent Famine commemoration ceremony in Glasnevin Cemetery, President Higgins invoked the lessons of Ireland’s Great Famine as he understands them, imploring us that “the mistakes of the past must not be repeated when facing the threat of famine today”. This may be an overly optimistic view of what human societies are capable of learning from history, but if any lessons have been imparted to current generations then in my opinion they will come through genuine emotional connections to lives of those gone before us, and through the stories that we tell each other about them.
Check out our interview with author Marita Conlon-McKenna to learn more about the ‘Children of the Famine’ trilogy, her inspiration and how Under the Hawthorn Tree changed her career.