The demise of that once mighty rural dweller ... The scarecrow

Passing through Mayo in the wake of the election of another farmer to the Dáil (Michael Fitzmaurice in Roscommon South Leitrim), dammit if I did not spot a single and solitary and haggard scarecrow, skulking in the corner of a vegetable plot on the outskirts of Charlestown.
The demise of that once mighty rural dweller ... The scarecrow

He looked lost and lonesome and miserable, stooping down over what looked like the remains of a row of scrawny cabbages, and he was not doing his job either, because there was a solitary magpie, two crows, a blackbird and a rake of smaller birds feeding away in the garden he was supposed to be in charge of.

He was hatless and he had no britches, and only one bare leg, and his head was nothing more than a plastic bag loosely stuffed with a wisp of dead rushes.

You would feel sorry for the poor divil.

Some of you may recall that I was lamenting my own plight here last week, feeling like a fish out of water in this strange new Ireland of ours.

That solitary scarecrow, seen on the eve of the Budget, again reminded me of all the stories I possess that are no longer relevant at all.

There was a time when I could travel through the countryside and read the economic and social realities, and especially the political picture, simply by observing the hundreds of mighty scarecrows dotting the landscape.

Nowadays, scarecrows have virtually disappeared from the gardens and fields, mowed down by all that heavy agricultural machinery.

There was an era, when you could read their grinning faces, and see the real impact of all the budgets there have ever been, upon the plain people of the provinces.

None of you know as much about scarecrows as I do, because I studied them in depth in my yesterdays. It does not matter any more, sadly, but I am still going to give ye just a flavour of the knowledges they represented in their heyday. For example, they were always far more numerous and better-dressed in the western coastal areas, where farms were small and the soil of poor quality, and where families were so large and hungry that every spud and carrot was precious.

Those big, tall Connacht and Donegal scarecrows stood high over the centres of their gardens, sometimes with a stick which looked like a shotgun under one arm, and, especially in Donegal, they were often better dressed than the man of the house.

They were stuffed with the finest straw, always wore broad-brimmed hats and some of them were even equipped with scarves and waistcoats.

There were nuanced truths about them as well, if you looked sharply. In the long heyday of Fianna Fáil, it is a fact that most of them strongly resembled de Valera, severe and gaunt, enough to frighten the tail feathers out of even the hungriest rook.

A geographic variant at one stage saw a sub-species emerge in South Roscommon. They were shorter and plumper and kinda cocky and represented the Fine Gael leader James Dillon at a time when he had promised, when Minister for Agriculture, that he would sweep all the Connemara rocks into the Atlantic.

History tells us that he was a better orator than agricultural contractor.

Something else I remember, which was pointed out to me by a wise woman from Bundoran years ago. It was a fact, that the scarecrows were usually erected and dressed by the farmer’s wife and children... if he had a wife and family... but it was also true, she told me, that the work often fell to the spinsters of the farms, womenfolk still awaiting the knock on the door and the subsequent pair of rings.

The most flamboyant and best-dressed scarecrows, accordingly, could be described as Spinsters’ Dreams. I have seen more than a few of them in Cavan and Leitrim. Some of them, for Heaven’s sake, even wore a collar and a Windsor-knotted tie. Their hats were set at a jaunty angle, they looked mad for matrimonial action, and, said the Bundoran woman, they were always facing towards the window of the spinster’s bedroom. Pure truth, yet again.

They are all gone now, except the few survivors represented by that poor lad outside Charlestown where, said the great John Healy in his book about his home town, Nobody Shouted Stop.

For what it is worth, I did not stop either. I just saluted the poor lonesome divil in his robbed garden, and kept going for Sligo.

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