Once upon a time young children raced wildly through fields waving wooden clappers so as to protect the seeds of the crop from rabid avian beaks. But when the Plague wiped out a generation of child labourers in the 17th century, farmers had to get wily when engaging their winged foe. And so the scarecrow came to be.
These days, the Durrow Development Fund (DDF) uses scarecrows to attract, not repel, thousands of visitors to the quaint rural village for its annual Scarecrow Festival, so they are no longer constructed from rotting animal flesh, pelts, or skulls.
But for the volunteers who make most of the 180 scarecrows that pop up along their byways and waterways, it starts a scavenger hunt to find material to provide the inspiration.
As the festival approaches, for Madeline Conroy, who built ten scarecrows one year as an ode to the nursery rhyme ‘One For Sorrow,’ things are last minute, as always.
“It takes a full day to make, and neither breakfast, dinner, nor tae is had on that day. Everyone gets involved. Once inspiration strikes, we go gung-ho at it till it’s done,” she says.
“My husband manipulates a wooden structure that provides the exoskeleton allowing it to stay upright for the nine days, we pad it out with hay and the kids search for material to give it personality.”
In Christian times, scarecrows were placed in the centre of a field, mimicking Christ on the cross (although others claim it was more an ode to the actions of Vlad the Impaler, for reasons apparent).
In Durrow no nook or cranny goes unused. The approach roads feature large bales tarted up to grab the eye of motorists. A former Esso station is set up as a themed exhibition area (last year a Bruce Springsteen Concert, this year it’s a ‘Scarecrow Farmyard’, which will include a pet farm).
The playground features characters from fairytales, the castle wall features warriors from Game of Thrones and while locals place scarecrows outside their homes, windows, or housing estates, for people who have further to travel, a Scarecrow Village is erected in the large green in the middle of town. (One person came all the way from England, with his scarecrow fully made up in the passenger seat beside them).
The river has even played host to a hoard of scarecrow Riverdancers, a hippy scarecrow on a surfboard, fishermen and synchronised swimmers. In the past Rapunzel let down her golden ‘hay-re’ from the window of a round-tower.
Madeline created more salacious fruit last year when she strung a wrecking ball-riding “Miley Silage” from a tree, while the honeymoon of Kimye — who famously went to the cinema in neighbouring Portlaoise, was hallowed in hay, with the Odeon screen and large posterior both on prominent display.
And the Durrow Fire Service can always be counted on to create a civic-minded sculpture.
“Some little thing will start the process,” Gearoid Ryan says. “We have this low barrier at the firehouse, like they do in car parks, to stop people coming in and out. And one day it caught my eye. It looked like an anti-aircraft gun. Then someone else told me that it was the centenary of the start of the First World War. So we built a whole mural around it, including three men at the gun and a German Parachute division hanging from some nearby trees.”
There’s a grand prize of €500 for the best overall scarecrow, with other prizes for most topical, humorous, and junior-level scarecrows. While there is no theme in place, the thoughts of Durrow are displayed through hay from the end of July.
HANDS UP WHO'S EXCITED ABOUT THE DURROW SCARECROW FESTIVAL THIS YEAR pic.twitter.com/LECDvEtcry— Fuchsia MacAree (@fuchsiamacaree) June 11, 2015
In 2013, the year of the Gathering, the iconic photo ‘Lunch atop a Skyscraper’ was recreated. Garth Brooks made an appearance last year, while 2015 marks 100 years since Laois last won the All-Ireland so a team of footballers wearing the jerseys of all the counties in Leinster will be woven.
“It’s a mechanism for us to pump money back into the community,” says Marion O’Mahony of the DDF.
“Last year we made about €30,000, which enabled us to purchase the former Methodist Church in Durrow from the ICA Guild. The plan over the next few years is to renovate it and bring it back into community use. “
With little industry in the area, farming is of huge importance to the local economy. But scarecrows are now more decorous, farmers preferring to use chemicals or sonar to scare birds away.
But unlike Nagoro, in South Western Japan, where the scarecrows made by Tsukimi Ayano outnumber the aging population 5-1 and stand in for those who have died or emigrated, their erection in Durrow is like a homing beacon to those who’ve moved away.
“There’s always something on, every night of the week,” says Marion, “so people make the extra effort to make it home for the duration of the festival.”
The Durrow Scarecrow Festival runs from July 26 to August 3 www.durrowscarecrowfestival.com