THE FAMINE of Ireland is one of the most devastating to happen to the country in the island’s history.
There’s no way you can teach about it without touching on the brutality, pain, fear and lack of justice—so how do young Irish schoolchildren learn about it?
Well for many, the answer was reading this book.
Under The Hawthorn Tree, by Marita Conlon McKenna, is a children’s historical fiction novel aimed at the ages from 8 – 12. It’s a dark subject for such young ages, but an important one, and McKenna does not shy away from the gritty stuff or try to patronise her young readers.
The novel opens with three young children, Eily, Peggy and Michael, mourning the death of their youngest sister, baby Peggy, who died of starvation.
The rest of the book, as with the famine itself, does not get much happier than that. Their parents disappear and are believed dead, and the children must survive by themselves.
Although the children find strength and happiness in moments with each other, they suffer terrible hunger and pain as they cross the country to try and find their relatives who they have never met.
Fear of the workhouse, fear of starvation, and the temptation to denounce their Catholic faith in order to be allowed to drink soup are just some of the dark themes within the book, but the clear writing and the love between the three siblings saves this book from becoming too bleak for children.
Tens of thousands of 3rd class-age children studied this title, and it is generally only in later years that we realise how truly dark the subject was; when we can tie history and fiction together and separate the imagination from the reality; and the novel remains a favourite even now.
The book is the first in a trilogy about the siblings, aptly named The Children of the Famine Trilogy, and the other books depict life after the potato blight.
If you’d like your children to learn about one of the most important pieces of Irish history, Under The Hawthorn Tree is available to buy here.