Life changed completely for Padraig Higgins, his wife Joan, and his family in January 2008 when their youngest son, James, then aged six, died on the family farm in Shannonbridge, Co Offaly. James, a bubbly blond charmer, fell into and drowned in a soak-pit near the family home – he was on his way to his grandparents’ house 70 metres away to show them his new glasses.
“He was nine years younger than his next brother and he was always in the thick of everything on the farm,” said Padraig, who works with Bord na Móna.
“A farm might be a business but it’s also where your family grows up – and to help keep them interested, you involve them in it. In ours, the children were always in and out of the yard.
“But it’s important to set boundaries – that children can’t go out in the yard without an adult, that there’s a safe play area fenced off around the house. And today, it’s not just your own children you have to keep safe – there are sleepovers and birthday parties with children who have no contact with a farm and no idea about farm safety, so it’s important that all children are taught about farm safety.”
Children are also the future of farming, says Padraig, and so it is important that farm safety becomes second nature to them.
“You need to look at the farm through a child’s eyes. We didn’t see the danger of the soak pit at the time. We get so familiar with obstacles in our homes and workplaces that we just walk around them – but they’re not obvious to other people.
“And we tend to leave things until later because we’re busy. A lot of farmers are working off-farm, so things can slide. But we need to look around and see things the way a child sees them.”
To remember James, the Higgins family have a large stone and garden on the exact spot where James died. “It’s a nice reminder but every hour of every day, something reminds me of him – and the stone keeps us more aware of safety because we know why it is there.
“We’re still dealing with James’ death and we have great family and friends. Talking to other parents who have lost a child has helped. It’s like an amputee learning to deal with a lost limb – you learn to manage without it but you always miss it. We have had to learn to live without James but we always feel he’s nearby. And we have a candle lit in the house the whole time to remember him by as well. Eight years on, it’s still unbelievably raw but I find talking about him is good for me. And it helps to raise awareness about the dangers on farms and the importance of farm safety.”
His experience led him to join Embrace Farm, an organisation set up to advise farm families in the aftermath of an accident. “When an accident happens, there’s a suddenness to it and then you think afterwards about what we could have done, what we should have done, and the blame sets it.”
The family worked through that and it is that experience that brought Padraig to Embrace Farm. “If someone loses a family member on a farm, it can be a great help to talk to someone who has experienced it,” said Padraig, who visits schools to talk to children about farm safety.
Embrace Farm also refers people to counselling if needed and secured the appointment of a Department of Agriculture official to deal with bereaved farm families around the deadlines and paperwork that are a part of farming today. The organisation also helps bereaved families negotiate with the banks in the aftermath of a breadwinner’s death.
The organisation runs a Remembrance Day in June for families bereaved by farm accidents. “It’s very helpful and you find you have so much in common with other bereaved families,” said Padraig.
“Safety is hugely important because if you lose a limb, you have to live with that loss for life and make adjustments. And if someone dies, there are huge consequences and people don’t realise all the changes those left behind have to make. We never think of the consequences.”
This feature was originally published in Source magazine Winter 2016 for Bord na Mona.
(c) Deirdre O’Flynn 2017