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'I thought - am I mad to be taking this on?': Marita Conlon McKenna on her new Famine book for adults

The author of the children’s classic Under the Hawthorn Tree has written a new book for adults about the Famine.

FOR IRISH ADULTS who went to school in the 1990s there is a childhood book that, when mentioned, will usually elicit expressions of deep nostalgia.

The book was a dark one – it was about the Famine – but its importance to Irish children was because of this very thing. It gave them a connection to an event in Irish history that they might not have thought too deeply about before. Because, why would they at such a young age?

But faced with the stories of the three children in Under the Hawthorn Tree, written by bestselling author Marita Conlon McKenna, Irish children found themselves understanding the impact of such a terrible moment in the past. Suddenly, history was rendered not in black and white, but technicolour, and the pain of the ‘great hunger’ could be understood.

Under the Hawthorn Tree is now considered a classic, and though Dublin-born Conlon McKenna has written many more books since, it’s the one that her name will always be synonymous with.

Under the Hawthorn Tree was her debut novel. After creating picture books for her daughter, she was encouraged to take her work to O’Brien Press. Since that time, she has written a total of 20 books for children, but took a turn into writing for adults with The Magdalen.

So why, having covered such a range of stories, did she return to the Famine in 2020 for her latest adult novel, The Hungry Road?

“I said ‘I’m not going to write about the Famine again’. But then I got this notion in my head,” Conlon McKenna tells TheJournal.ie over tea in a Dublin city hotel. It turns out The Hungry Road was inspired by her frequent trips to West Cork, an area of the country that’s meaningful to her and her family. It was also a part of the country that was ravaged by the Famine.

Initially, she was going to write a book about the abandoned cottages in this area, and Americans inheriting this land. 

What caught her creative attention was the Famine graveyard in Abbeystrewry in Skibbereen. “It’s a National Monument now, but that’s where thousands of people [who died in the Famine] were buried in the pits,” she explains. Her mother’s mother was also buried in the graveyard (she died when her mother was just 11). 

“It was always a terrible thing for my mum that her mum died so young. So that graveyard always had a resonance for us,” she says of her family.

The tragic deaths in Skibbereen got her thinking about what the people who lived through the Famine went through, and about the small acts of heroism that took place in the 1840s in Ireland. Instead of her previous idea, Conlon McKenna headed down this road instead to write The Hungry Road.

‘I thought it was going to kill me’

It took a huge amount of research to put The Hungry Road together. “I thought it was going to kill me to honest,” says Conlon McKenna, and though she’s smiling as she says it, it’s clear it was a huge undertaking. “I thought, am I mad to be taking this on? I’ve already done Under the Hawthorn Tree, do I need to do it?”

The answer she came to was a definitive yes. 

Part of the yes came from the dearth of Famine-related fiction on bookshelves. “I was kind of amazed that in the 30 years since Under the Hawthorn Tree no one had done it yet, written a really big Famine book,” says Conlon McKenna. “We know it’s there [in our history]. And yet, creatively we don’t delve into it that much.”

“There has been a few books but a lot of them have been like ‘the big house with the cruel landlord and the servant girl’ kind of book,” she adds. “Most landlords weren’t even there, they were in England. [Others] fled the minute fever broke out, they weren’t going to stay around. So to have cruel landlords in the middle of it all wasn’t really true because they all moved away.”

In the novel, Conlon McKenna describes the stench of the rotting potatoes in the fields, and the terror of the families as they unearthed blackened potato after blackened potato. 

It was the discovery of the real-life doctor, Dr Dan Donovan, that shifted the book into a new gear.

“Here’s this guy that no one really knows, who knows about what happened in Skibbereen, but basically has been forgotten by history,” says Conlon McKenna. “And I hate when people have forgotten in history – it bugs me.”

She took it on herself to share his story. Donovan was the town physician during the Famine times; ran a dispensary; was an oculist; and also was on the local relief committee. In short, he was a man who saved lives during a horrendous part of Irish history.

Conlon McKenna set about researching Donovan’s story, which is one of three she focuses on in the book. In the Hungry Road we also meet the local priest, Fr John Fitzpatrick, and married couple Mary and John Sullivan.

Donovan’s sections are inspired by the diaries he kept during The Famine, which were published as Diary of a Dispensary Doctor. He cared for people in the Skibbereen workhouse, which began taking in more people when the Famine hit.

“All day he was with these people, he was dealing with the dead, he was dealing with the dying and dealing with bodies being buried; and going out at night helping people to dig graves for their children,” says the author.

As with Conlon McKenna’s other books, she doesn’t shy away from the dark details of the impact of the Famine. This is helped by Donovan’s unflinching depictions of what he saw.

“He wanted officially to record it – that it would be remembered. That it would be known then, but also people in the future would remember it,” says Conlon McKenna. His diaries were published in a Cork newspaper, and later picked up by the London Illustrated News.

Finding primary sources like his diaries was like “finding a jewel”. “You say – oh my god, how is no one taking this man and writing a book about him, or made a film about him or done something about him? This is amazing.” Donovan lived with his wife Henrietta and their children, and the impact of the Famine and associated fevers and illnesses on them is also depicted in the book.

Unlike Donovan, the Sullivan family depicted in The Hungry Road are fictional, but their story is taken from things experienced by real people at the time.

The mother, Mary, ends up working on the roadworks (which were set up as a way to enable poor tenants to earn money, though it was back-breaking work for little pay). “I just felt she was kind of person who was going to fight tooth and nail and claw for her children, who would not let them die,” says Conlon McKenna.

Does she ever find writing about such awful things upsetting?

“Yeah, lot of my books I’ve tears when I’ve written them or I’ve been really upset and I found actually in the book there’s a few places and found that very upsetting.

“I found the things probably with the children the most upsetting.”

Rediscovering women’s voices

The Sullivans’ story is told through the voice of Mary Sullivan, and what she experiences as a mother and wife.

Conlon McKenna is passionate about exploring women’s stories in history. In her book Rebel Sisters, she brings the female perspective to the 1916 Rising, while The Magdalen was about a young pregnant woman sent to a Magdalen laundry.

“I do feel history has been very male dominated and women have been written out. And that’s why with the 1916 book I really wanted to tell it through the eyes of women,” she says.

Though she believes “history is obviously an academic pursuit. And I’m not an academic and I’m not a historian, but I’m passionate about history”, she sees it as hugely important to share Irish history with people of all ages. 

“I just feel it’s really important to put ordinary people [into my novels], I feel it’s important to, you know, give people their voice in history.”

She wants to weave a story that “will give people the facts without them realising they’re getting the facts”. This isn’t necessarily an easy thing. “I had such a big story to tell, it was almost too big a story to tell. But it really was a lot of work.”

“And so it was a really intense book to write. And I thought maybe I’d bitten off more than I should have, you know, but I just felt I’ve got to keep going. And the story needs the telling.”

“As I’m getting older, if I don’t do it now I’ll never do it. And the records are there to be read. Things are there to be seen, the people were there.”

For research, she used the National Library of Ireland, as well as the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, and the Quinnipiac University’s Great Hunger Institute, which has some of of James Mahony’s illustrations of Famine-stricken Skibbereen. 

“What I’m hoping is that people will read the book and actually start looking up themselves… finding out their history and finding out the things,” says Conlon McKenna. “Really, to connect with history is so important.”

The Hungry Road by Marita Conlon McKenna is out now. 

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