Under the Spell of the Hawthorn Tree

Earlier this month, Today FM posted on their Facebook page an original copy of Under the Hawthorn Tree, which got a phenomenal response (over 25k likes in a couple of hours!). Michael O’Brien, The O’Brien Press Publisher, talks about how the bestselling book and its iconic cover came to be.

Looking back on 1989, when I introduced artist Donald Teskey to Marita Conlon-McKenna, she was virtually unknown and he was in the early stages of his career as a painter.

Marita had submitted Under the Hawthorn Tree, a brutal yet brilliant story based around the Irish Famine, the question raised was, would parents want their children reading about starvation and death in 1840s Ireland. This made the illustrating of the novel critical, to set the right tone when capturing the tragedy which caused one million deaths and one million to leave Ireland’s shores. It needed an illustrator who could capture the drama and action of the three children fleeing across Ireland to save their lives, yet in a style that would encourage them to read and enjoy the book, rather than be scared by the hardship depicted by Marita.

My first experience of Donald Teskey was through the café his wife Kim Bloom ran in Terenure; on the walls she displayed wonderful drawings by him showing the urban life of Dublin at the time – gritty yet beautiful. I was greatly impressed! This was before Donald’s exhibitions in the early nineties, which launched his stellar career as a landscape painter. When Kim introduced me to Donald and I saw his portfolio, I was blown away and I asked him to illustrate some O’Brien Press children’s books, including Under the Hawthorn Tree.

Recently, I asked Donald about illustrating Marita’s books, and he said he was influenced by Louis Le Brocquy’s Táin illustrations. He said: ‘I wished to give the reader an inkling of what was going to happen – to capture the humanity of the story.’

Donald went on to create similar illustrations for Wildflower Girl and Fields of Home to complete the trilogy.

Since those days, Donald Teskey’s reputation and work has spread internationally to major centres of art: Paris, London and New York. He elected a member of the Royal Hibernian Academy and is represented in major collections including the Arts Council, Irish Museum of Modern Art, AIB, Limerick City Gallery of Art, KPMG, Butler Gallery, The Ulster Bank, OPW and The Ballinglen Arts Foundation.

O’Brien Press is printing a limited edition of Under the Hawthorn Tree with the original cover. Check it out here.