Clare County Library
Your Library Your Website
Home | Library Catalogue | Children's Services | Special Services | Books of the Month | Library Events | Library Account | Book Promotions
Contact Us | Visitors Book

Under the Hawthorn Tree by Marita Conlon-McKenna

The story of Under the Hawthorn Tree is about three brave young children, Eily who is twelve, Michael who is ten and Peggy who is seven, who try to survive during the time of the famine in the 1840's. The book tells of their courage while making their journey to Castletaggart to find their great aunts, Nano and Lena, where they would be safe and have food.

The story begins with the oldest girl, Eily, feeling cold and hunger and remembering how it used to be when they had enough food and they were happy. It was just about a year ago when it all began, now the food was getting scarce and people were getting ill with the fever. This was an extremely difficult time for them because their sister Bridget had died of illness. Before this, their father had gone to work on the roadworks. Their food was decreasing rapidly day by day. A few days later their mother decided to sell some of her valuables for food. She left and went to search for food leaving the three children by themselves. Life had been very lonely and dreary since Bridget had died. After a few days of their mother's absence, even though Eily was taking extreemly good care of them, they were all feeling hungry and lonely. One day a man called Jer Simmonds arrived with his assistant, Tom Daly. They said if their parents weren't back by the following day, they would have no choice but to go to the workhouse with the rest of the ill and the poor people. A worried look came upon their faces instantly. They thought about the idea for a while and then a plan came into their heads. The following day, Tom Daly arrived and told them they would have to go to the workhouse. They didn't create a fuss however. They decided to try their best and travel to their great-aunts in Castletaggart whom they had heard so much about. Before they left, they went to the Hawthorn tree where their sister Bridget lay. Suddenly a feeling of peace swept over them and they set about their journey. Everyone seemed so weak as they walked silently with a crowd. When their attention was drawn to Statia Kennedy because her foot was sore and she couldn't go on with the journey. The children realised instantly that this was their chance to get away. They had to hide for a few hours as people came searching for them. They were all crouched between nettles and thorns that scratched their skin. Eventually they heard a woman's voice that belonged to Mary Kate. She had sent them looking in a different place where they would never find the three children. She told them to come back to her cottage and she would look after them. Eily knew how serious Mary Kate was but not to sound ungrateful, she said that they would stay the night. Eily didn't want to get Mary Kate in trouble for their sake. However, they did stay the night with her. Early next morning they were up and ready to go but before they left Mary Kate gave them some medicine for cramps, fever and another one for wounds. She gave them some goat's milk and food also and once again, they were off on their journey.

As it was a warm day they were heading for the river. When they reached it they let their feet dangle in the water. Michael urged them to cross the river. This is one of the first places where Michael shows his bravery by helping his sisters across the river. After this they took a rest and ate some of the little amount of food they had. The next three days were the same. Eily couldn't but notice that the food bag was just getting lighter and lighter. During the few days the weather was very warm and they were feeling hungry and thirsty. Soon after this they found a fire where they could cook some of their food. Michael had previously been injured when they were crossing the river and Eily was relieved to see the swelling had gone down. That night it rained heavily so the next day they decided to pack up and move on. For the next few days it rained every so often. Their clothes were damp and dirty and their bones ached. A boy named John T. Lucy fell into step with them and brought them to the soup kitchen to get a meal. Everyone there had sunken cheeks and wide, staring eyes with deep circles underneath. Their skin had a yellow tinge and their lips were narrow and tight. They slept in Kineen that night. The next morning they received another portion of food from the soup kitchen. Here they had to depart from Joseph T. Lucy as he was leaving for Liverpool in a few days. They were all upset as they had to say yet another goodbye.

They continued travelling for the next few days, feeling depressed, fearing the future. Peggy believed that everything around them was going to die. A man who had died that morning had a field full of vegetables, so the children were able to refill their food bag once again. The days were extremely hot when they travelled, so they were delighted when they found some water to cool them down and quench their thirst. In the lake they also caught some fish and they cooked them on a fire that they lit themselves using flintstones. The next day they continued on their journey as the sun was roasting down on them. After a while the children could hear dogs barking in the distance. Soon they caught up with the children. There were two collies, three mongrels, and their leader, a large black collie. Eily warned her siblings not to make any sudden movements but Peggy just couldn’t take it anymore and made a run for it but the dogs caught up with her. The dog sank his teeth into her arm and pulled it over and back as if trying to pull the bones out of their sockets. Eily just looked on feeling there was nothing she could do, but Michael, courageous as he was, picked up a stick and started beating the dogs. Michael kept thumping the dog that was biting Peggy and eventually killed it. They were all scared and shaken. They would probably be in Ballycarbery by morning.

At Ballycarbery there were seaports. A shipload of grain was being shipped off to England, so the hungry Irish people kicked up a fuss and a big row began. The children decided to continue on their journey to Castletaggart. They met a kind man who gave them directions and some food. As they were walking again they took another rest and Michael thought of the idea of them walking in the night when it was cooler. They all agreed that this was a good idea.

A few days later a thunderstorm started to brew. They were all terrified and wondered was this the end of the world. Once again, their clothes were drenched. Eventually, the rain stopped and the sun was up but the heat of it wasn't as harsh as the previous days. The next few days were very hard for them as Peggy came down with the fever. They gave her Mary Kate's medicine and looked after her as best they could. Eily was so worried that Peggy was dying. Eily and Michael felt useless thinking there was nothing they could do for her. Eily wondered what life would have been like if they had gone to the workhouse, and in a way, she blamed herself for perhaps making the wrong choice. The next day, the brave Michael set off by himself in a desperate search for help. He was feeling frightened as it was his first time away but he knew where he was going. When he arrived at the workhouse there was an extremely large queue outside it, then a nun came out and said there was no room there. Michael started to run back to his sisters, not knowing where he got this sudden burst of energy. Meanwhile, Eily was desperately trying to keep Peggy warm but after a while she fell asleep herself.

Michael continued his journey but slower now. He saw a cow trapped in a large pile of brambles and thorns. Suddenly he had an idea. He went back to fetch Eily and they returned to the cow that was still in the same position. Michael burst one of his veins, not the main vein though, and drained the blood from it. That night, Eily made a cake out of the blook and kept a piece for Peggy in case she wanted some later. They all fell asleep shortly, but during the night, Peggy woke and she was almost fully cured. Eily and Michael were delighted about their sister's recovery. A few days later they were back on the road to Castletaggart. As they walked along, they came across an orchard on someone's property and Peggy snuck in and brought back bundles of all kinds of fruit. When she came out they sat down to enjoy their feast. They met a priest on the way and asked him for directions. He told them they should be there by six that evening. They continued on and eventually, by nightfall, they reached Castletaggart.

When they got there, they didn't know where to find the great-aunts, so that night they slept in a narrow alleyway. The next day they went to the wrong shop but the woman there, although she appeared quite mean at first, pointed them in the right direction. They arrived at the shop and were shocked to see it so quiet. They knocked at the door but it just opened, they went in and Aunt Lena appeared. Obviously she didn't recognise them at first but they explained who they were. Aunt Nano was in bed because she was very weak and needed lots of rest. Lena got them some food, looked after them and listened to the story of their travels. Nano and Lena took pity on them and promised to take care of them. Eily knew they would be safe there. However, she would always miss their little thatched cottage, the small overgrown garden and the wind blowing softly through the hawthorn tree.

Character Study on Eily
Eily is the eldest of the three O'Driscoll children. Throughout the book, Eily acts as a mother figure to her younger siblings. At only twelve years of age, her mother has given her the responsibility of caring and looking after them. Eily is a brave character. She accepts the task of minding the children while her mother goes away searching for food. Eily is very worried about the problems they face. She realises that everyone is going through a very difficult time because of the potato blight. However, throughout the story she remains strong and courageous and does everything in her power to keep her siblings safe. Along the journey they are faced with many difficult problems but Eily battles on and never losses hope.

For the sake of her siblings she puts on a brave face and never lets them know that she is just as scared as they are most of the time. She nursed both Michael and Peggy back to health when they were ill. Michael got an infectious would while crossing the river and Peggy caught the deadly fever. However, both were cured because of the care given by Eily. She is very mature for her age. It would be easy to believe she was a lot older than she actually was, and she liked people to know how responsible she was.

Overall, I would say that Eily is a very mature, responsible and caring character. During the difficult times, she lives up to all these characteristics and would have been a wonderful role model of her time. This is shown numerous times throughout the novel.

Character Study on Michael
Michael is the second eldest of the three children. Throughout the book he is a very brave character. In difficult times he proved to be very resourceful and often because of his good work, his sisters were fed. This shows that he was doing his best to help in any way possible. As the only male figure in the family, he felt that he had the responsibility to provide for the family and he lived up to these expectations very well. At ten years of age he acts very grown up and tries not to let his problems get on top of him.

Michael shows bravery and courage numerous times throughout the novel. At the start of their journey he cut his leg crossing the river and tried to convince Eily it was only a 'nick' eventhough he endured severe swelling and discomfort. However, after using Mary Kate's medicine it healed quickly. He does not want to see his sisters having to bear the hardship alone and never shows that he himself is scared about the future. During the long journey he leads the way and always finds the safest possible routes. He loves his sisters very much and does not want to see them endangered.

Overall, it is safe to conclude that Michael is brave, helpful and a responsible character.

The book 'Under the Hawthorn Tree', is set in the 1840s during the famine. During this time, everyone looked like skeletons, had sunken cheeks, narrow lips and deep circles beneath their eyes. Also, their skin had a yellow tinge. The clothes they wore were filthy, as they didn't have money to buy new clothes. At the soup kitchen, Eily could see scrawny toddlers pulling at their mothers' filthy skirts and whining. It was obvious how much hunger and sickness had changed these people.

Also during this time, many people had turned very greedy and wouldn't share their food or open their door to anyone. Who would blame them, though? Most people were afraid of getting the fever and dying. Surprisingly though, the children did meet some kind people on their journey who gave them directions and a bit of food.

From the book, we can sense the rotting smell that seemed to be everywhere and the sight of everything dying. At times, I'm sure they just felt like giving up. Most houses during this time were dirty and overcrowded and as time went by, most families didn't have enough food for all of their family. It was only a matter of time before people began to get exhausted and got the appearance of skeletons. Workhouses were opened but quickly became filthy and overcrowded. Disease and the fever spread throughout the country. By the end of the famine, more than one million people had died. Many emigrated to other countries such as America. When the famine was over, the people of Ireland worked together to build their country as they never wanted a disaster like this to happen ever again.

In my opinion, this book is truly fantastic because it really conveys the feelings of the famine. From this novel, we can really understand how some people survived this horrific time in Irish history. It's extremely moving and easy to relate to. All events are described very well and detailed by the author, Marita Conlon-McKenna. The storyline of the novel is well thought up and well put together. Some people would almost believe that it's true because the story is just so realistic. I think that the idea of three children trying to survive by themselves with no parents to take care of them is a truly magnificent idea. The book is loved, especially by Irish people, as it is part of our history.

In my opinion, I think that the scene where the author is describing the famine victims at the soup kitchen is detailed very well and you can almost picture in your head the horrific sight of the filthy clothes and the weak, scrawny bodies wearing them. Another one of the particularly good scenes is the one where Peggy has the fever. It is well written and is one of the many emotional scenes throughout the book. My favourite part of the book is at the end, when they arrive at the great-aunt's and Eily remembers their hometown of Duneen and she also said she would miss the wind blowing softly through the hawthorn tree.

All in all, this is an excellent book and I would definitely recommend people to read it as it portrays an important part of our Irish history.

Reviewed by-
Siobhan MacSweeney,
Second Year,
Colasite Muire,

<< Book Review Competition 2000
<< Book Review Competition Winners 2000

Divider Line