Marita Conlon-McKenna

Born in Dublin in 1956 and brought up in Goatstown, Marita went to school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Mount Anville, later working in the family business, the bank, and a travel agency. She has four children with her husband James, and they live in the Stillorgan area of Dublin.

Marita was always fascinated by the Famine period in Irish history and read everything available on the subject. When she heard a radio report of an unmarked children's grave from the Famine period being found under a hawthorn tree, she decided to write her first book, Under the Hawthorn Tree.

Published in May 1990, the book was an immediate success and become a classic. It has been translated into over a dozen languages, including Arabic, Bahasa, French, Dutch, German, Swedish, Italian, Japanese and Irish. The book has been read on RTÉ Radio and is very popular in schools, both with teachers and pupils. It has been made a supplementary curriculum reader in many schools and is also used by schools in Northern Ireland for EMU (Education through Mutual Understanding) projects. It was also filmed by Young Irish Film Makers, in association with RTÉ and Channel 4. This is available as a DVD.

Marita has written more books for children which were also very well received. The Blue Horse reached No. 1 on the Bestseller List and won the BISTO BOOK OF THE YEAR Award. No Goodbye, which tells of the heartbreak of a young family when their mother leaves home, was recommended by Book Trust in their guide for One Parent Families. Safe Harbour is the story of two English children evacuated from London during World War ll to live with their grandfather in Greystones, Co Wicklow and was shortlisted for the BISTO Book of the Year Award. A Girl Called Blue follows the life of an orphan, trying to find who she really is in a cold and strict orphanage. Marita has also explored the world of fantasy with her book In Deep Dark Wood.

Marita has won several awards, including the International Reading Association Award, the Osterreichischer Kinder und Jugendbuchpreis, the Reading Association of Ireland Award and the Bisto Book of the Year Award.

  • Fields of Home
  • MARY-BRIGID WALKED ACROSS the tufts of springy summer grass, helping her mother, Eily, to carry the heavy washbasket. She loved days like this when the sky was so blue and the grass so green you could almost hear it grow beneath your feet.

    She could see her Daddy, John, down below in the potato field, weeding the drills. This year there would be a grand crop, he'd said, to judge by the healthy green leaves and stalks B and that's what all the men were saying. Bella, the milking cow, moved slowly through the field beyond the potato patch, chewing constantly and flicking away the annoying flies with her tail.

    ‘Mary-Brigid, will you pass me up that shift and those stockings of Nano's?' called Eily.

    Mary-Brigid lifted up the soaking garments to her mother, giggling as water from the clothes dripped down her bare, skinny legs and onto her feet, drenching the bottom of her loose, blue cotton dress. Soon the line of rope that stretched between the young oak tree at the end of the field and the wooden pole near the house was bedecked with an assortment of wet clothing. Finally, Eily spread out a sheet on a bush to dry.

    ‘'Tis done!' Eily smiled and dried her hands on her apron, then stopped to rest for a few minutes. ‘Isn't it a grand day, pet!'

    The soft wind that would dry the clothes caught at the strands of Mary-Brigid's fair hair, tossing it in every direction. 'Twas a torment how her hair always ended up in tangles and knots, while her mother's fine hair was so easily patted into place. She watched as her mother's gaze took in the land and fields all around them.

    ‘See those walls, Mary-Brigid? Your daddy's daddy, Grandaddy Joshua, and his daddy built those stone walls. They had to dig the rocks and stones from under the earth and lift them, and they got more rocks from the riverbank, then they laid them one by one on top of each other. It took them a long, long time.'

    Mary-Brigid ran her eyes along the low, grey stone walls, each stone balanced perfectly with another, that formed the boundary of their small farm, with its potato field, the rough hilly pasture, and the stony patch where her mother's vegetables and a square of wheat fought to grow. Her Daddy and Mammy worked so hard, clearing the soil, planting it and weeding it. Mostly Daddy had to work for the landlord, of course, tending to their own land only when he could get a minute free.

    In the distance, Muck, the pig they were fattening for winter, squealed hungrily from the ramshackle pigpen.

    ‘We'd better get him some scraps and peelings soon,' Eily said, ‘or he'll scream the place down.'

    They picked up the washbasket, took a handle each, and strolled back towards the neat little homestead, with its pile of dry turf, the curl of smoke from the chimney, and the bright, shining window pane winking and catching the sunlight.

    ‘Shoo! Shoo!' Mary-Brigid told the hens who ran and pecked in front of her. Maisie, her favourite red hen, tried, as usual, to follow her into the shade of the kitchen. That old hen was far too cute for her own good, Auntie Nano often said. Nano lay dozing now, her rocking chair still, in front of the fire.

    ‘Ssh, Mammy!' warned Mary-Brigid, ‘she's asleep!'

    ‘Ssh!' echoed her little brother Jodie, imitating her. He looked up from where he had been playing quietly in the corner of the room.

    Their great grand-aunt looked so peaceful there, snoring ever so slightly.

    ‘There might be some honey for you two later,' whispered Eily. ‘Daddy is going to check the beehive for the both of ye.' The children adored honey B a little bit spread on the fresh bread Eily baked, or spooned into their bowls of porridge, was the best treat possible. They licked their lips at the very thought of it.

    Eily was always thinking of little things to please the children and make them happy. When she was a girl times had been very hard, and Auntie Nano said that she had never forgotten it.

    ‘Now, pet, will you do me a favour and take Jodie out to play in the fresh air!'

    Jodie ran up to Mary-Brigid, his sturdy two-year-old hands grabbing at her skirt as he followed her outside.

    ‘Stay near the house, Mary-Brigid!' warned Eily. ‘None of your gallivanting or exploring, now.'

    Mary-Brigid sighed. She'd had a mind to go down to the stream to look for pinkeens.

    ‘Come on, Jodie!' she said. ‘We'll just have to find something else to do!'

    Jodie nodded his curly brown head. As little brothers went, Mary-Brigid guessed that Jodie wasn't the worst. He knew how to play chasing, though he was so slow at running, and he was good at playing baby princes that Mary-Brigid had to rescue from all sorts of monsters and evil lords.

    Maisie clucked about and followed them, pecking busily as she went.

    ‘Hen! Hen!' announced Jodie, pointing a grubby finger at the bird.

    ‘That's Maisie, Jodie. Say MAAII-SSEE!'

    ‘HEN!' repeated her brother solemnly.

    ‘But Maisie is much more than just an ordinary old hen,' said Mary-Brigid dramatically, hunkering down on the grass, as the dusty hen scratched at the ground. ‘Maisie is a magic hen!' Mary-Brigid's eyes twinkled.

    Jodie stood in front of his sister, his fingers opening and closing in a futile attempt to clutch at the darting bundle of rich brown-red feathers that jumped and fluttered to escape him.

    ‘She lays golden eggs,' Mary-Brigid continued, dropping her voice, ‘and she can see the sidhe!' But Jodie ignored her. He didn't know anything about the fairies; he was much more interested in catching the creature.

    Maisie pecked away, keeping just out of range of the two of them.

    ‘Jodie, if we're good and quiet,' Mary Brigid went on, ‘Maisie might lead us to one of her eggs, her special golden eggs.'

    A shadow of confusion passed across Jodie's small face. He liked eggs, though what eggs had to do with this clucking creature, he wasn't sure. But he followed his big sister, as she raced after Maisie, who was now squawking wildly and running madly in all directions.

  • In Deep Dark Wood
  • pdf-logoDownload Chapter One: Stormy Winds

  • pdf-logoDownload Chapter Two: The Witch Next Door

  • No Goodbye
  • pdf-logoDownload Contents page from No Goodbye

  • pdf-logoDownload Walkout: Greg's reaction to his mum's sudden departure

  • Safe Harbour
  • pdf-logoDownload Chapter 6: St Martin's

  • Under the Hawthorn Tree - Children of the Famine
  • pdf-logoDownload The first two chapters: meet Peggy, Michael and Eily

Under the Hawthorn Tree - Children of the Famine

Teaching Resources: free to view and download

  • Under the Hawthorn Tree - Children of the Famine

    pdf-logoDownload RBFS: Teaching ideas for fifth class from O'Brien Reading Programme

  • pdf-logoDownload Teaching Guides: Teaching guide from O'Brien Teaching Guides Collection 2

  • pdf-logoDownload Teaching Guides: Teaching guide to the novel and film: introduction and episode 1 (349 kb)

  • pdf-logoDownload Teaching Guides: Teaching guide to the novel and film: episode 2 (179 kb)

  • pdf-logoDownload Teaching Guides: Teaching guide to the novel and film: episode 3 (215 kb)

  • pdf-logoDownload Teaching Guides: Teaching guide to the novel and film: episode 4 (315 kb)

  • Wildflower Girl

    pdf-logoDownload RBFS: Teaching ideas for sixth class from O'Brien Reading Programme

  • pdf-logoDownload Teaching Guides: Teaching guide from O'Brien Teaching Guides Collection 2

  • Fields of Home

    pdf-logoDownload Teaching Guides: Teaching guide from O'Brien Teaching Guides Collection 3

  • Safe Harbour

    pdf-logoDownload Teaching Guides: Teaching guide from O'Brien Teaching Guides Collection 3

  • In Deep Dark Wood

    pdf-logoDownload RBFS: Teaching ideas for fourth class from O'Brien Reading Programme

  • pdf-logoDownload Teaching Guides: Four pages of structured teaching guides to the novel