‘I couldn’t farm for a year after my son’s quad death’
“I couldn’t farm for a year after his death. I just didn’t want to be around. Only for the fact that our three other sons – Daniel, Mark and Colin – took over the running of the farm and for the support of relatives, neighbours and friends, we wouldn’t still be farming.”
The heartbreak behind Donal Kennedy’s words is all too evident as he recounts the tragic events surrounding the loss of his 25-year-old son, John, in a quad accident on the family farm on the morning of March 15, 2017.
“Everyone pulled together and I was able to talk – I got counselling – and now, we are beginning to have more good days than bad,” said Donal, who currently milks 150 cows on the family farm in Coolgraney between Arklow and Gorey.
After graduating as an engineer in Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT), John worked on farms in Australia.
“He stayed out there for the first Christmas and came back home for the second Christmas, returning to Australia afterwards but he couldn’t settle so he came home for good,” Donal said.
“He saw a job advertised for a farm manager in west Cork and got it. He had set up a grass measuring business and his brother Daniel went into working on the buildings and played a big part in the running of the farm which he manages now alongside his brother, Mark.
“John then decided to come back to the farm and said he would progress it. Mark works with farm relief services and also has always been involved with the farm,” said Donal.
The accident happened as John was assisting Donal in getting milking started around 6:20am.
“I had milked two rows and there was no sign of him after 20 minutes to half an hour. My wife, Winnie, was out with the calves and I went down to tell her as I knew there was something wrong. I got on the tractor and went searching for him,” Donal said.
“I found him underneath the overturned quad in a ravine where there was a stream. He had fallen about 20ft. I hadn’t seen him the first time I went by the ravine and drove up the fields but he had a pair of wellingtons on and I saw the white soles.
“I was led to the spot by a cow. When he was in west Cork, he got 13 heifers in his salary and it was one of these heifers that brought me back to the hole,” he said.
“In the ravine there is a bit of a bank and I reckon that same heifer went across the ravine and he was mad with her and followed her in an instinctive reaction. I’m only surmising but I think that was what happened.
“He had worked in west Cork with quads and tractors and was well used to them. Nine times out of 10 you can come back from a dangerous situation but this is very unforgiving land and unfortunately he got caught,” Donal said.
“I pulled him up to work on him. I knew after a couple of seconds that he was dead but Winnie, who had come up along with the other lads, kept shouting at me to keep working on him. We rang an ambulance and got him into the field.” The rest of the year is a blur for Donal.
I felt like I wanted to go asleep and wake up to find this was all a dream. It was horrendous on everyone. We waked John at home and everyone would say to me that I needed to keep strong for Winnie. Local farmers came in and did the milking for us and the other three lads took on the running of the farm. The turnout of young people from all over for the funeral was unreal and was a huge comfort to us.
“After four weeks, I went into a deep hole. It was like I was trying to get up the banks and kept falling down again. I had to get counselling. People were great – I have a sister who was brilliant and a first cousin who was there night and day. I couldn’t get my head around it,” Donal said.
“We have a sliding door that lets the cows into the milking parlour so every day we are looking straight over to where John died. This year we covered over the hole in the ravine and built a bridge over it that will be known as John’s bridge,” he said.
“My honest opinion is that you come into this world with a stamp on you and you have another one going out of it. John lived his life to the full and was engaged to a really lovely girl.
“He did more in his short lifetime than myself and Winnie, who are 30 years married, have done in all our years. The heartbreak is cruel, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. You shouldn’t have to bury a child; it’s cruel but we just have to get on with things for everyone’s sake,” said Donal.
“It took me three weeks to go near the farm and six weeks before I milked again but the other lads ran the whole show. I was there in body only. It was a struggle the whole way,” he said.
The family replaced the quad with a less powerful version and is thinking of buying a gator but would like to see grants available for such equipment. John remains very much part of their lives and those of their two grandchildren.
“We had four sons and we will always have four sons. Myself and Winnie are convinced that John is working in mysterious ways around the farm. We’re still in contact with his friends and fiancee. He was extremely popular and played hurling and football and was also involved in sports in Australia,” Donal said.
“I was lucky that I was able to talk. You need to be able to talk rather than bottle it up, and look for help straight away. A farm tragedy brings total upheaval and devastation. No-one has any idea until it happens and it can happen to anyone. It tests everything to the absolute limit but strong support will see the good days eventually outweigh the bad days.”