Doing an ag science degree and working in the agri-food industry when you hail from Dublin always prompts the same question: “But you’re not from a farm? Why are you interested in agriculture?”

Growing up, I spent half my childhood on my grandparents’ dairy farm in Co Wexford. From the age of five, I was my Grandad Albert’s shadow, and he had great patience teaching me how to feed the calves. As I got older, the tasks got bigger and I continued helping out throughout the holidays.

It was the animals I was always drawn towards; the machinery and tractors were always there, but I never went near them. Farm safety was paramount – Grandad always explained the dangers, especially if the PTO was running or the slurry was being agitated.

There were no spare seats in his Massey Ferguson 165, which is probably why I never learnt how to drive it. At one stage, when I had passed my full driving test, Grandad let me drive it down the yard. That was the first, and last time, I sat in a tractor until two weeks ago.

Women’s only course

When FRS (Farm Relief Services) launched its women-only safe tractor driving course, it received several criticisms online. Comments included: “Why is it just for women?” and “Here we go again.”

However, determined to find out for what it was really all about, I decided to take the plunge and sign up.

Starting from scratch

On the day, I arrived with my wellies and high-vis jacket, full of anticipation. Jim Dockery, FRS national health and safety manager, and course instructor, had his work cut out, teaching me how to drive a tractor in one day.

From the start Jim told us that if it was the first time we had ever operated a tractor, the course was only the stepping stone: we would need to build up time in the cab and gain experience to feel fully confident.

Pictured at the FRS Training Safe Tractor Driving Course for Women: Aoibheann Mahar, Olga Stolowska, Sarah McIntosh, Celine O’Brien, Ruka Aoki and Úna Ni Bhroin

We spent the first part of the day in a classroom learning theory and tractor safety. Working in my role as a reporter, I’m acutely aware of the fatalities and accidents caused on farms daily, particularly when it comes to farm machinery. However, I wasn’t quite aware of how sometimes it is the simple pre-checks and precautions that can prevent an accident from taking place. Jim also told us about real-life incidents, which brought home how dangerous these machines can be.

He went into great detail, explaining the hazard identifications and risk assessments that should be carried out. From the legal requirements on the road, like ensuring the tractor has a flashing beacon to knowing the tractor controls, there was an overwhelming amount of information that we went through piece by piece. We then moved on to the maintenance checks and daily checks that needed to be carried out, underlining their importance in preventing accidents. Reading and following the operator manual is also essential as every tractor is different. We also learned about hitching implements and why you should never get between a machine and the tractor when it is moving or stand with feet under or near draw-bars.

Kevin O’Connor, FRS Training Tutor and Sarah McIntosh behind the wheel. \ David Ruffles

Practical experience

After learning the theory elements, it was time to put it into practice. We moved to a large outside area in Athenry Teagasc. We were met with two tractors – a Massey Ferguson and a Renault. “If she ain’t red, leave her in the shed,” said Jim, joking.

This is when everything started to click. Jim spent an hour talking us through all the tractor pre-checks we had just learnt. He asked questions, which gave us a chance to test what we knew, before he showed us how to change an oil filter, the PTO attachment, and the different hydraulic systems.

Once we felt comfortable with the controls, we each took turns driving the tractors. I started on the smaller Massey Ferguson and although it was intimidating at first, it wasn’t long before I got the hang of it. It is very similar to driving a car only there are a few extra controls and steps.

When I moved onto the bigger Renault that had a trailer attached, Jim sat in the passenger seat and guided me through the process of reversing and manoeuvring it back between the cones. Then it was time to hitch and unhitch it safely.

On reflection

The course was well structured with a lot of in-depth information on the mechanics and operations of the tractor. That can be overwhelming at first but once we put the theory into practice, it all came together. I now feel more comfortable stepping into the cab.

However, I don’t think there was enough practical experience in the day. I would be confident to step into a tractor and drive it in a field but I wouldn’t be comfortable reversing it on my own.

I put the question to the other nine attendees about why they opted for a women-only course. A common theme was they wanted a comfortable environment to learn where they wouldn’t be judged or mocked. I acknowledge that it was a very relaxed environment and there was no such thing as a silly question. For me personally though, I don’t think it would have mattered if there were men on the course as long as they had the same level of knowledge.

FRS Training are investigating the wider rollout of courses in autumn. The cost is €80 and can be booked online at

In short

  • Vehicles and machinery are the main cause of farm accidents in Ireland. Between 2013 and 2022, they accounted for approximately 50% of all farm deaths.
  • There were 86 vehicle fatalities, with 53% of them from a tractor.
  • There were 14 machinery fatalities, with 29% caused by being crushed and 29% from being trapped.
  • Essential tractor safety checks

  • Tractor is in good condition.
  • Number plates are visible and clean.
  • Windscreen and side windows are undamaged and clean with nothing obscuring the view.
  • Valid tax and insurance disk.
  • All lights are working and the correct colour.
  • Controls are in good working order and clearly marked.
  • PTO drive guarded (U-guard).
  • Steps are clean and undamaged.
  • All fluid levels have been checked.
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