More than a million Irish emigrated during the Great Famine and Small Beauties: The Journey of Darcy Heart O’Hara written by Elvira Woodrum and illustrated by Adam Rex captures part of their story, the courage that allowed them to emigrate, and the memories and traditions that followed them abroad.
In this fictional account, Darcy Heart O’Hara is one of those children who sees the beauty in everything around her. She is a “noticer” and much to her family’s frustration, she is always stopping to see things around her leaving her chores undone as she admires a spider web, the clouds, and the contrasting beauty between a magpie and the fields of buttercups. Her older brother chides her to be more firmly rooted in the realities of planting a second crop of potatoes to replace the ones stricken by the blight. But even amidst the hardships they face she continues to notice the small beauties, tucking mementos into the hem of her dress and watching the world around her.
After the second crop fails, the family is faced with eviction. They’re told that they will receive free passage to America if they leave, otherwise their house will be torn down around them. The family puts off leaving for as long as they can, but at the end of the month, the Crown’s agent returns and destroys their house. Her grandparents decide they are too old to leave Ireland and so the family is faced with being separated and probably never seeing each other again. In the wreckage of their house, Darcy finds a small chip from the hearthstone, and tucks it too into the hem of her dress.
When they get to America, Darcy sees that everything is different and new. “Instead of tiny cottages, Darcy saw tall buildings stretched to the sky. Instead of fields of rotting potatoes, she noticed shops and carts overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables…And best of all was the hope that the family could one day buy land of their own.” But she hasn’t forgotten the old, and as the tired family gathers in a cramped city cellar, she starts pulling what seems like an endless stream of objects out of her hem. A little round pebble, a magpie’s feather, dried buttercups, dog violets, and a wooden bead from Granny’s rosary all appear as the family watches spellbound and remembers. Last of all she pulls out a chip of slate from the hearthstone and suddenly it is as if they can hear their Granddad’s stories once again and they remember not just the sorrow of leaving, but the things they held most dear.
While fictional, the story of Darcy’s family is a familiar one. In the Author’s note, she mentions that she was inspired by the story of Henry Ford’s family who emigrated in 1847. The lilting language used throughout the book enhances the feel of the story and the graphite and oil illustrations capture the beauty of Ireland and the spirit of the O’Haras while softening some of the heartbreak. This book is a great introduction to Irish history and may touch on the stories of many Irish immigrants. It doesn’t dwell on the Great Famine, but focuses instead on the things that helped move people forward, providing children with a glimpse of life during the 1800s and reminding them of the importance of family.
Pobble O’Keefe where Small Beauties is set was a tract of land located in County Cork in the southern part of Ireland. There are tons of things to see and do for families in County Cork including a visit to Blarney Castle, Whale watching along the coast, and Blackrock Castle Observatory, Cork Butter Museum, Cork English Market, and Rugby in Musgrave Park in the city of Cork. While you’re there, don’t forget to ring the bells at the Shandon tower. If you’re planning an extended trip, it’s definitely worth looking at the Ireland Visitor’s Pass before you arrive.