Cover image for Under the hawthorn tree
Under the hawthorn tree
Conlon-McKenna, Marita.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Holiday House, [1990]

In the absence of their parents, the three O'Driscoll children face hard times when fever and famine come to their Ireland valley and the threat of the workhouse drives them into the countryside.
General Note:
"First published in Ireland by Michael O'Brien Press"--T.p. verso.
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J FICTION Juvenile Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



During the Great Famine in Ireland in the 1840s, three children left alone and in danger of being sent to the workhouse set out to find the great-aunts they remember from their mother's stories.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Gr. 4-6. Set at the time of the Great Famine in Ireland in the late 1840s, Conlon-McKenna's docu-novel tells of three children who walk for weeks from their cottage in the blighted countryside to find a home with distant family in the town. Their baby sister is dead; their mother is away looking for their father. The potatoes are rotting; starvation and disease are everywhere. They encounter horrors on the road, from mad dogs to brutal officials. One child nearly dies of fever. But together they finally get there, and their aunts take them in. The writing verges on the sentimental ("Had Mother gone to join her little one in heaven?"), but this has the appeal of a survival story with kids managing on their own--like a younger version of Voigt's Homecoming [BKL Ap 1 81]. The sense of the desperate time is strong and authentic, and with the simple historical note about the famine, the story will be useful co-curricular reading in Irish history. ~--Hazel Rochman

School Library Journal Review

Gr 4-6-- The horrors of the potato famine in Ireland vividly leap from the pages of this first novel. The O'Driscolls are a poor family whose lives depend on the potato crop. When it fails, they are doomed. The father has left to find work elsewhere, and when he does not return, Mrs. O'Driscoll goes to find him, leaving feisty Eily, the oldest, in charge of her two younger siblings. She also does not return, forcing the children to set out to find two great-aunts about whom they've heard stories; their alternative is going to the workhouse. At this point, the story becomes one of resourceful and determined children seeking to stay together in the hope of being reunited with the rest of their family. The tale is episodic, but should sustain the interest of its target audience. The characters are largely two-dimensional and are sometimes mere vehicles to help tell the history of the period. The book succeeds on this level, and readers are left with a glimmer of hope as the children reach their elderly aunts, but with their future still a mystery. A worthwhile addition. --Renee Steinberg, Fieldstone Middle School, Montvale, NJ (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Excerpt from Chapter 1


The air felt cold and damp as Eily stirred in her bed and tried to pull a bit more of the blanket up to her shoulders. Her little sister Peggy moved against her. Peggy was snoring again. She always did when she had a cold.

The fire was nearly out. The hot ash made a soft glow in the gloom of the cottage.

Mother was crooning quietly to the baby. Brid get's eyes were closed and her soft face looked paler than ever as she lay wrapped in Mother's shawl, her little fist clinging to a piece of the long chestnut-colored hair.

Bridget was ill--they all knew it. Underneath the wrapped shawl her body was too thin, her skin white and either too hot or too cold to the touch. Mother held her all day and all night as if trying to will some of her strength into the little one so loved.

Eily could feel tears at the back of her eyes. Sometimes she thought that maybe this was all a dream and soon she would wake up and laugh at it, but the hunger pain in her tummy and the sad ness in her heart were enough to know that it was real. She closed her eyes and remembered.

It was hard to believe that it was only a little over a year ago, and they sitting in the old schoolroom, when Tim O'Kelly had run in to get his brother John and told them all to "Make a run home quick to help with lifting the spuds as a pestilence had fallen on the place and they were rotting in the ground."

They all waited for the master to get his stick and shout at Tim: Away out of it, you fool, to disturb the learning, but were surprised when he shut his book and told them to make haste and "Mind, no dawdling," and "Away home to give a hand." They all ran so fast that their breath caught in their throats, half afraid of what they would find at home.

Eily remembered. Father was sitting on the stone wall, his head in his hands. Mother was kneeling in the field, her hands and apron covered in mud as she pulled the potatoes from the ground, and all around the air heavy with a smell--that smell, rot ting, horrible, up your nose, in your mouth. The smell of badness and disease.

Across the valley the men cursed and the women prayed to God to save them. Field after field of potatoes had died and rotted in the ground. The crop, their food crop was gone. All the children stared--eyes large and frightened, for even they knew that now the hunger would come.

Eily snuggled up against Peggy's back and soon felt warmer. She was drowsy and finally drifted back to sleep.

"Eily! Eily! Are you getting up?" whispered Peggy.
The girls began to stretch and after a while they threw off the blankets. Eily went over to the fire and put a sod of turf on the embers. The basket was nearly empty. That was a job
for Michael.

Both girls went outside. The early morning sun was shining. The grass was damp with dew. They didn't delay as it was chilly in their shifts. Back in the cottage, Mother was still asleep and little Bridget dozed against her.
"Is there something to eat?"
"Oh, Michael, easy known you're up," jeered Eily.
"Go on, Eily, look, have a look," he pleaded.
"Away outside with you and wash that grime off your face and we'll see then."

The sunlight peered in through the open cottage door. The place is dusty and dirty, thought Eily.

The baby coughed and woke. Eily took her and sat in the fireside chair as Mother busied herself. There were three grayish leftover spuds. Mother sliced them and poured out a drink of skimmed milk from the large jug. It was little enough. No one spoke. They ate in silence, each with their own thoughts.

Michael began to talk…to ask for…but changed his mind. Time had taught him a lesson.

The first few times he had asked for more, his father or mother had lifted the wooden spoon and brought it down on the palm of his hand. Later, his pleas had been met by a sadness in his father's eyes and his mother bursting into tears. This he could not take on top of the pinches and squeezing of his two sisters. Things were better left unsaid.

Excerpted from Under the Hawthorn Tree by Marita Conlon-McKenna All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.