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Authors: Marita Conlon-Mckenna

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Under the Hawthorn Tree

BOOK: Under the Hawthorn Tree
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INTERNATIONAL READING

ASSOCIATION AWARD

READING ASSOCIATION OF IRELAND AWARD

OSTERREICHISCHER KINDER- UND

JUGENDBUCHPREIS

Ireland in the 1840s is devastated by famine. When tragedy strikes their family, Eily, Michael and Peggy are left to fend for themselves. Starving and in danger of being sent to the workhouse, they escape. Their only hope is to find the great-aunts they have heard about in their mother’s stories. With tremendous courage, they set out on a journey that will test every reserve of strength, love and loyalty they possess.

Praise for Under the Hawthorn Tree:

‘makes a whole part of our history come alive, while it still remains a thrilling adventure tale’

RTÉ Guide

‘beautiful and moving … historically true and fictionally vivid’

The Sunday Times

‘a great survival saga’

Irish Independent

translated into twelve languages over 200,000 sold in Ireland

For my daughter
Amanda
‘the little mother’

Acknowledgements

A special note of thanks for their support and encouragement to the following: my husband James, my mother and father Mary and Patrick Conlon, my Aunt Eleanor (Murphy), Brigid Brady, Pat Donlon, Anne O’Connell and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig.

Awards for UNDER THE HAWTHORN TREE

1991

International Reading Association Award

1991

Reading Association of Ireland Award

1993

(Shortlisted for)

Österreichischer Kinder- und Jugendbuchpreis

1994

(Shortlisted for)

Le Prix Litteraire du Roman pour Enfants

FOREIGN EDITIONS OF
UNDER THE HAWTHORN TREE

USA & Canada, French, German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic

Under the Hawthorn Tree has been filmed by Young Irish Filmmakers in association with Channel 4 Learning and is available to buy on video.

Under the Hawthorn Tree – The Great Irish Famine, A Study Guide to the Novel and Film is also available.

Visit www.obrien.ie for further details.

Contents

Prologue

Reviews

Title Page

Dedication

Acknowledgements

1. Hunger

2. Under the Hawthorn Tree

3. Nothing to Eat

4. On Their Own

5. The Road to the Workhouse

6. Follow the River

7. The Soup Kitchen

8. Beside the Lake

9. The Dogs

10. At the Harbour

11. Travelling by Night

12. The Thunderstorm

13. Peggy’s Fever

14. Michael’s Desperate Search

15. The Cow

16. Castletaggart

17. Journey’s End

A Simple History of The Great Famine, 1845–1850

About the Author

Other Books by MARITA CONLON-McKENNA

Copyright

Other Books

CHAPTER 1

Hunger

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. Bridget’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-coloured 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 sadness 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 school room, 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,
rotting, 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 greyish 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.

By midday the situation had improved. There was heat in the sun and a warm breeze blowing. Michael went up the road to his friend Pat and together they would walk the mile to the bog to see if they could get a fill for the basket.

Bridget’s breathing was rattly, but she slept. Mother, encouraged, took the shifts and a few dirty
clothes to wash and then spread them outside to dry. She shook the blankets and laid them across the stone wall.

Peggy’s long brown hair was unplaited. It hung lank and greasy. Mother bent her over as she poured water from the bucket on the hair and scrubbed at her scalp. The cries from Peggy were nothing to what followed when Mother produced the fine comb and began to pull it through the length and tangles, peering each time to see if any lice or nits were in it. Eily laughed, knowing that since she had had her turn only two weeks before, she would escape today.

Later, Mother despatched the two of them up the lane to Mary Kate Conway for a bit of goose grease – if she had it – to rub on Bridget’s chest. Mary Kate had a gift for healing and always helped those who were sick or in trouble.

Her cottage was surrounded by a thick hedge in order to provide a bit of privacy for those who needed to visit her.

The old lady was sitting on a stool outside in the sunshine.

‘Well, if it isn’t the two best little girls in the world,’ joked Mary Kate. ‘What can I do for you, pets?’

‘Mother needs some goose grease for the baby,’
pleaded Eily.

‘The poor, poor child,’ murmured Mary Kate. ‘What a time to come into the world.’ She got up from her stool and beckoned to the girls to follow her. Peggy lagged behind, clutching at Eily’s dress. She had heard stories about the old lady and was a bit afraid of her.

The cottage was dark and smelly. Mary Kate hobbled over to the old wooden dresser. It was filled with jars and bottles. She mumbled to herself as she lifted down different jars and opened the lids to peep at the contents. Finally, sniffing what she wanted, she handed it down to Eily.

‘Mind you tell your mother I want my jar back when she is finished.’

‘Will it make Bridget better?’ Eily was amazed at the bravery of little seven-year-old Peggy’s question.

Mary Kate frowned. ‘I don’t know, pet. There is so much sickness at the moment – strange sickness – I do my best.’

With that, Mary Kate began to head back out towards the sunlight. Just outside the door she put her hand into the pocket of her apron and produced an apple. A dirty old apple. She gave it a polish. The girls tried not to look, but with a flourish she handed it to Peggy.

Peggy’s eyes were round and wide. Eily blinked.

‘Many thanks … we couldn’t take it from you … thank you, but it wouldn’t be fair,’ Eily began.

‘As green and hard as the hobs of hell,’ laughed Mary Kate, throwing back her head to display her toothless gums. ‘Shure, I can’t eat it.’

The girls smiled and Peggy carried the apple like a precious jewel safely home to be shared by all.

That night they had the yellow meal cooked with some melted lard and a few wild spring onions Mother had found to hide the flavour. The apple was quartered and savoured, though there was no denying its crisp hardness and sharp taste.

‘It is two weeks since your father went to work on the roads, and still no word from him,’ began Mother. Eily knew her mother was worried, between Bridget’s illness and the sack of the old yellow meal in the corner getting smaller and smaller by the day.

‘I don’t know what we’ll all come to or how we’ll manage,’ Mother continued, shaking her head. ‘There is even talk of the big house being closed up and the master and his family moving back to England for good.’

Michael, sensing the near despair in her voice, piped up: ‘I’ve got some good news. Listen, Ma, just listen.’

Sometimes it was hard to believe that he was only a boy of nine, with his thick black curly hair like his father and the soft kind blue eyes of his mother. He hated to see her sad.

‘Pat and I were up on the bog – we went a bit further than usual and we found a part that isn’t all cut away yet. Pat’s father is going up there tomorrow with him and will cut it and lay it and he says if this wind and drying continues we can have some for our place once we collect it and carry it ourselves. Isn’t that grand?’

Mother smiled. ‘Dan Collins is a good man, there’s no doubt.’

She settled herself into the chair and relaxed a bit. Eily knelt down near her and Peggy sat in her lap.

‘Tell us about when you were a girl – go on, please,’ they all begged.

‘Are ye not all fed up with my old stories,’ she chided.

‘Never,’ assured Michael.

‘Well, then,’ she began. ‘Mary Ellen, that was my mother and your grandmother, what Eily’s called after, lived with her two sisters Nano and Lena …’

There was nothing like a story before bedtime.

CHAPTER 2

Under the Hawthorn Tree

BOOK: Under the Hawthorn Tree
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