All these people who are killed, they’re reported at the end of the year as a number ... but every one of them has a story – there’s a family, there’s a community.”

This is why, in her own words, Norma Rohan, along with her husband Brian, founded Embrace FARM, the support group for those affected by farm accidents, following the death of Brian’s father, Liam. Embrace FARM is in the midst of organising its third annual remembrance service to commemorate those killed in this type of tragedy.

When Irish Country Living visited Brian and Norma on their farm in Shanahoe, Co Laois, recently, many anecdotes were relayed about people they’ve come in contact with through Embrace since it was set up two years ago. They’ve met families where there was no will in place, or life assurance, where the farm bank account was frozen for many years or where spouses were left to run a farm despite having no farming knowledge or expertise.

Embrace has stepped in and helped, where it can, on all these matters and more. For example, Brian has briefed families on what to expect at an inquest. Before speaking to him, many families wouldn’t have realised that they don’t, for example, have to sit in for the medical report.

“People think these are just superseding courts of law and that you can’t question what happens and what goes on there, but you can,” says Brian.

Unanswered questions

There are often many unanswered questions after a farm accident.

“People want to know certain things like what time did he die,” says Norma. “They’re simple little things but they mean a lot to families.”

“And who has the right to pronounce someone dead?” notes Brian. “If I came on the scene, I can’t pronounce somebody dead, I’m not trained.”

Norma says the highlight of Embrace for them so far was when they were invited to participate in the very first Seanad hearing on farm safety, while one of the most important steps they have taken since the founding of the charity is appointing a board to manage it. This board is comprised of industry and family members of farm accident victims. Brian is chair and a director and is joined by nine other directors: Angela Hogan, who lost her partner; Padraig Higgins, who lost his son; regional Teagasc manager Larry O’Loughlin, who lost his father; Peter Gohery, who lost his leg in a farm accident in 2009; chief inspector with the HSA Pat Griffin; Peter Byrne, CEO of the Farm Relief Services; Gerard Keenan, CEO of Richard Keenan & Co. in Carlow; communications director with ABP Seamus Banim; as well as psychotherapist and counsellor Joe Thompson. Norma is company secretary.

“The board focused Brian and I first on finding out what did we want to do with Embrace and, based on that, to put a proper structure in place,” explains Norma.

Although Norma is kept very busy with three children – a bouncing and very jolly baby boy Liam who is doted over by sisters Julie (four) and Emily (two) – she regularly hosts the 10-member board around her kitchen table.

“We don’t have money to go hiring meeting rooms and things like that.”

Money is of course the Achilles’ heel of every charity. Brian and Norma say there is no dedicated funding for Embrace but many groups have done fundraising for them – such as the Association of Farm Contractors in Ireland, who held a barbecue which raised €9,100. They’ve also received funding from farm businesses who don’t want any recognition or publicity for doing the same. Ideally, Brian and Norma would like to set up a patronage-style system and are hoping to put a model in place (they are receiving the services of management consultant Pat Collier free of charge) so they can approach companies to become annual subscribers.

“To know that we have €30,000-€40,000 a year coming in would keep us going,” says Brian.

Norma says that at the moment they just about have enough. “We’re OK, we’re not panicking about money this year because we have the money there to cover the June weekend, but once we pay for that ...”

Listen to a discussion of Embrace FARM's achievements in our podcast below:

The June weekend she’s referring to is a family weekend organised by Embrace centred around children who have been affected by fatal or non-fatal farm accidents. It sees the charity putting families up in the Maldron Hotel in Portlaoise, a day out for families in Castlecomer Discovery Park, workshops with counsellors on topics such as bereavement, all before the Remembrance Service itself on Sunday at 2pm. There will be tea and sandwiches after the service. Given their usual host venue isn’t free for this gathering afterwards, Embrace is hiring a marquee (which brings the cost of catering for this occasion to a grand total of €6,500), but the Rohans stress that the social element of the day is a vital one.

“We found at the service last year that people started swapping numbers,” says Norma. And this is exactly what she and Brian want, as they are trying to establish a network of people around the country who can share their experiences and support and help each other.

The couple receives a lot of phone calls to the dedicated Embrace phone line from those seeking solace. According to Brian’s brother John, Brian spends four hours a day on the Embrace phone and while Brian says this is an exaggeration, and Norma puts the time they give to Embrace at “two solid days in the week between us” – I think they’re being conservative in their estimates. The couple are hoping that in the next year or two, Embrace might be in a position to hire someone to help man the phone line.

Everything Brian and Norma do for Embrace is at their own expense. This includes travelling all over the country and child-minding when they’re away – but they do not resent it. “We set it up, it’s what we wanted to do,” explains Norma.

Is it not very draining getting these types of phone calls regularly?

“It is draining,” says Norma, “but I think it’s more frustration in one sense that we don’t have enough time to follow up all of these things and try and fix them, sort them out, do something about them.”

The Rohans may be frustrated, but they’ve achieved an awful lot. They succeeded in getting Simon Coveney to agree to place a liaison officer in the Department of Agriculture to deal directly with families affected by farm accidents and they have also held four information nights in different parts of the country over the past year.

In the future, Brian and Norma are keen to partner with professional agriculture organisations to put in place a resource that a farming family can draw upon to help with the day-to-day running of the farm after the sudden death of the farmer. They also want to put in place a resource that can provide financial and legal advice to families.

Brian and Norma say that Embrace has helped them.

“It’s done Brian the world of good, telling his story to people,” says Norma.

“We were only married 10 months with a six-day-old baby when his dad was killed on the farm. It was a very tough start for us – it’s been very difficult at times, but we’ve come through the other side now.”

Remembrance service

The Embrace Farm Remembrance Service is being held in the Church of the Most Holy Rosary in Abbeyleix, Co Laois on 26 June at 2pm.

If you would like a family member remembered at the service contact Brian or Norma on 085-770-9966. Everyone is welcome to attend the service, whether they are affected by an accident or not.

There are still also places available on the family weekend, call the number above to secure a place.