Under the Hawthorn Tree
2015 marked the 25th anniversary of one of the most popular Irish children’s books ever written. Under the Hawthorn Tree by Marita Conlon-McKenna has become a modern classic. It has won prizes and been translated into over a dozen languages. Published in May 1990, the novel was the first book for children to deal with […]
2015 marked the 25th anniversary of one of the most popular Irish children’s books ever written. Under the Hawthorn Tree by Marita Conlon-McKenna has become a modern classic. It has won prizes and been translated into over a dozen languages. Published in May 1990, the novel was the first book for children to deal with the Famine, and one of the first to deal with a part of Irish history in depth. It led the way for other writers of children’s historical fiction to emerge, like Gerard Whelan and Siobhan Parkinson. It showed how large and tragic historical events could be incorporated in children’s fiction, later seen in John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
Marita Conlon- McKenna had always had an interest in history, and had done a course on children’s literature. In 1989 she heard on the radio about a grim discovery: three skeletons of children dating from the Famine period were found under a hawthorn tree during building renovations at a school. Inspired by the thought that their story had gone untold, and that she was a young mother herself, Marita wrote a book in just twelve weeks about the struggles of three children, Eily, Michael, and Peggy, during the Famine. Separated from their parents, and facing the prospect of being put in the workhouse, they set out on a perilous journey to find their great-aunts.
Marita was advised by her former tutor, Dr Patricia Donlon, to submit her manuscript for publication. At the time the market for Irish children’s books was very small, most of it based on books for very young children and TV tie-ins. The O’ Brien Press were at the forefront of independent publishing in Ireland. They accepted her manuscript but Marita was advised to change her title. She resisted as the title had such resonance from the real event that had had inspired the book, and in the book there is a similar burial. In traditional lore, it was considered bad practice to cut a hawthorn tree down; the trees were considered a meeting point for the fairies. That must have been the reason why it had been used in the past as a burial ground.
Under the Hawthorn Tree became an immediate bestseller and remained in the Irish bestseller list for over two years. It was sold to Puffin in the UK and Holiday House in the US. It was lauded in both countries and became very successful globally. A recent interview with the author noted that it was on the school syllabus in Mexico. The book was followed by two sequels, Wildflower Girl (1991) and Fields of Home (1995), where the narrative took place in America and a post-Famine Ireland. Collectively they became known as the Children of the Famine trilogy.
The novel has been reprinted many times. The original cover and chapter head illustations were created by the emerging landscape painter, Donald Teskey. He was asked to design several covers by Michael O’ Brien after the publisher had noticed drawings by him in a café his wife ran in Terenure. Influenced by Louis Le Brocquy, he produced stark, dramatic illustrations which captured the intensity of the story. The cover for the current edition was designed by the acclaimed Irish artist, PJ Lynch in 2009.
By Fergus O’ Reilly