Kay Doyle meets author Marita Conlon-McKenna

This summer marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of one of Ireland’s most loved children’s books. ‘Under the Hawthorn Tree’ by Marita-Conlon McKenna was, and still is, a firm favourite in classrooms all over the country. Since its publication on May 23rd, 1990, the historical children’s novel has been translated, and published, all over the world and is the first in the trilogy of the best-selling ‘Children of The Famine’ series.

‘Under The Hawthorn Tree’ tells the story of Eily, Michael and Peggy O’Driscoll, who live in a small cottage in rural Ireland in Famine times of 1845. Blight has struck the family potato plot, and the children’s baby sister Bridget dies, and is buried under the hawthorn tree in the garden. The three children are left to fend for themselves. Starving, and in danger of the dreaded workhouse, they escape. Their only hope is to go in search of their great aunt, whom their mother often spoke about in her stories. The book tells of their tremendous journey of strength, courage and hope through the terrible conditions of Ireland during the Famine.

The author, Marita Conlon-McKenna grew up in Dublin and was always passionate about Irish history. While taking a course in Irish history in UCD, the young mum of four wanted to make a ‘picture-book’ for her daughter, Mandy. Inspired by a radio-interview she heard one morning, it only took twelve weeks for to ‘make’ the book.

“I heard this teacher on the radio talking about building a new football pitch for their school,” says Marita. “When the builders took out an old hawthorn tree that was in the middle of the field, they discovered the bodies of three young children. Their skeletons would have dated back to the time of the famine.”

Within minutes of hearing the story, Marita had the first page of her novel written. It was highly received within her circle of friends and advisers, including her lecturer in UCD, Pat Donnellan. Encouraged to send the book to a publisher, O’Brien Press decided to run with it, however, they were keen to change the name.

“Thankfully I dug my heels in to keep the name,” says Marita. “I wasn’t sure how it would go. Nobody was writing about Irish children like this 25 years ago. The book came out on May 23rd, and children began to read it.

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