‘My head is bursting.’ Those were the last words Dad spoke

Bereaved family starts support group for people affected by farm deaths

Brian and Norma Rohan with their children, Emily (11 months) and Julie (2),  on the family farm in Shanahoe, Co Laois. Brian’s father, Liam, died in a farm accident. Photograph: Pat Moore.

Brian and Norma Rohan with their children, Emily (11 months) and Julie (2), on the family farm in Shanahoe, Co Laois. Brian’s father, Liam, died in a farm accident. Photograph: Pat Moore.

Tue, Jun 24, 2014, 01:00

All that fresh air and physical activity means that farming is seen as a very healthy occupation. But, as the tragic death of an eight-year-old boy in Antrim this month showed, it’s also the most dangerous. Robert Christie was overcome by slurry fumes, but most of this year’s deaths have involved machinery, mainly tractors.

Some 13 people have died in farm-related accidents in the State since January, compared with 16 for the whole of 2013, according to the Health and Safety Authority. The catalogue of deaths ranges from a one year old who was struck by a tractor in Cork to a 84 year old who was attacked by a cow in Donegal.

One bereaved family is calling for a change in the way we approach farm deaths and says it should be prioritised in the same way as road deaths or suicides.

Brian Rohan’s father, Liam, was killed in an accident on the family farm in Shanahoe, Co Laois, two years ago.

Afterwards, he and his wife, Norma, were surprised by the lack of structured support for families bereaved by farm accidents. They set up a group called Embrace Farm to help others, and now they are planning to hold the first remembrance service for victims of farm accidents on Sunday.

The death of young Co Down rugby player Nevin Spence, along with his father and brother, in a slurry tank in 2012 is still fresh in the minds of the rugby world and this campaign is backed by rugby players Rory Best, John Hayes, John Muldoon and Seán O’Brien.

Liam Rohan, who was 74, was well known in farming circles as he represented Ireland in the World Ploughing Championships four times. The family was in great spirits in the days before the accident as Brian and Norma had brought Julie, their first baby, home from hospital on the Sunday.

Brian was in a farm partnership with his father and on Tuesday his father was on the farm as usual. The weather had been bad and there was a backlog of work to do. He started dismantling a silage swarther and was removing a bolt over his head when it came out more quickly than expected, releasing a rotor.

Before he had time to get out of the way, it hit him on the side of the head.

“He was still able to walk to the house,” says Brian. “It was dinner time and he sat in the armchair after he got some painkillers. But he still felt weak and he took out a packet of frozen peas and put them on his head. Then he went to lie down in the bed.

He said, “My head is bursting” and they were the last words he spoke.” He died in Beaumont Hospital three days later.

Still shocked

Brian is still shocked that his safety-conscious father died in a farm accident. “In all the years he was farming, he never had an accident; never had to get as much as a stitch,” he says.

“If we were fixing something and one of us put a hand or an arm into a machine, he would always be the one to say ‘stop’ and he would point out what could happen.”

Liam’s family got a lot of support from their community after his death but they also needed other help. “We quickly came to realise that there is little or no help in the form of supports for families who have lost loved ones, [such as] emotional, practical, business, legal and financial advice,” he says.

Because the father and son were in a farm partnership, the legal situation was relatively straightforward but Liam’s death still delayed receipt of the Single Farm Payment by about two months, which is a long time when bills need to be paid.

Brian says the Department of Agriculture should assign someone to deal with families who have been bereaved suddenly, to help them with issues such as farm payments. “It was bad enough dealing with the loss of Dad without all the hassle of ringing and ringing the department and getting different people all the time. And my case was straightforward. What happens to a family in a case where there is no will?”

Financial and legal quagmire

Brian’s wife, Norma, has been contacted by several women who found themselves in a financial and legal quagmire after the sudden death of a partner.

In one case, a farmer who was killed in a farm accident was not married but had children with his partner. He had not made a will and, several years later, his assets are still frozen and the estate is in limbo.

“How can a farm, which ultimately is a business, survive and operate without access to funds? How does a family have a living if the sole provider is no longer there, and his accounts and assets are frozen?” she asks.

“We are appealing to legal people with agriculture backgrounds to come on board to give advice free of charge to these people.”

Brian is also keen to highlight the need for counselling after a farm death and notes that it’s not just relatives who are affected.

The death of someone working on a farm can leave lasting trauma for the farm owner but this is seldom considered. And he believes families should be offered support during an inquest. When his father’s inquest was held, members of the Console group were in attendance to offer support to relatives in another case who were bereaved by suicide.

He believes something similar should be in place for farm families. He would like to see farm organisations such as the Irish Farmers’ Association doing more for families affected by these issues.

Habits of a lifetime

When it comes to safer farming practices, he accepts that it can be hard to change the habits of a lifetime for older farmers, but says not trying is no longer an option.

“In the past 10 years, 300 adults and children on the island of Ireland have lost their lives in farming accidents.” He hopes the remembrance service will be the start of a new approach to the matter of farm safety.

“We want to read out the names of people who have [died in] farm accidents. We will also be remembering those who have survived serious accidents, and aim to create more awareness of farm safety, especially as the national schools get their summer holidays around this time,” he says.

“If we can prevent even one accident happening, it will be worth it.” The ecumenical remembrance service will be held at Holy Rosary Catholic Church, Abbeyleix, Co Laois at 2pm on Sunday, June 29th. See embracefarm.comlll