A Hillsborough couple, who lost their son in a farm accident 20 years ago, say they feel immensely proud to have been presented with a wreath for his grave at a special ecumenical remembrance service in Co Laois at the weekend.
Mercer and Miriam Ward accepted the wreath from EU farm commissioner Phil Hogan at the third Embrace service which is held to remember young and old throughout Ireland who died or suffered injuries in farming accidents.
On the way home from Sunday’s service the Edentrillick Road couple stopped at their son Allan’s grave in Dromore public cemetery where they laid the wreath.
He was just 20 when he lost his life on 9 February 1996 after falling into a diet feeder. At the time he was working on a farm in the Ballygowan/Saintfield area.
Mercer explained: “He had used the wagon to go across to throw the tyres back on the top of the silo and pull the cover up for the next feed and he fell into it on the way back.”
To add to the devastating loss of their son, Mercer said that the family went through five inquests following Allan’s death as they were determined to find out the circumstances surrounding the accident. At the time it had been alleged Allan had been on top of the feeder cleaning it, a fact which the family disputed.
Mercer, the European Vintage Reversible Champion ploughman and the Northern Ireland Champion, said he was ‘prepared to be put out of the place’ to prove the facts around the accident.
“They said he was cleaning the top of the machine. It was a Friday night and his girlfriend was here waiting on him and there was no way, you don’t do that, you don’t go up to clean the top of those machines, they don’t need it.
“It was an awful shock, an awful shock. The police came. I wasn’t here, I was away with a man doing digger work and Allan was to do a job with the digger the next day – Saturday. And then I got a phone call to come home that Allan had been involved in an accident.
“The sergeant who was involved, who is now deceased, was a great comfort to us.”
When asked what sort of person Allan was Miriam smiled and said: “Well if he wasn’t walking out of bother, he was walking into it.”
“Allan was in the Boy’ Brigade. He loved children. There were 11 years between him and his brother Matthew and he took him everywhere. He even bought him a boiler suit so he could go with him to the farm opposite us.”
Mercer added: “He was a jolly wee lad, he was involved in the young farmers and had been in New Zealand for a while. At 17 he went to New Zealand and I said ‘look, as long as you come home again son,’ and I often regret saying that. But life’s cruel.”
Mercer said that out of all their sons, Allan was the only one who was interested in taking up farming.
“It’s a hard world, but then you see what happened to the Spences. Mrs Spence taught our boys at St John’s Primary School. I will never forget, I was actually in Croatia at the World Ploughing when that accident happened. I came home and went to the wake and the first thing Mrs Spence said to me was ‘it’s awful about your Allan’ and she had three boys in coffins, dear help her.”
Both Mercer and Miriam felt proud to have been selected to receive the wreath on behalf of the province of Ulster and bring the wreath home and place it on Allan’s grave.
“We didn’t expect it, but it was a lovely gesture,” said Mercer, adding that losing a loved one in a farm accident doesn’t get any easier – you just learn to live with it.
“Regards Christmas and all – it’s never the same. And it was hard on the other boys too, especially Gareth because there was only 11 months between him and Allan and they were more like twins. Allan was the second boy, Gareth was the oldest, and then there’s Russell and Matthew.”
Miriam added: “Allan cut a load of sticks the Saturday before he was killed. We burned them at his wake and we still have one of the bags of coal he got me that day.
“Every time one of his friends or cousins gets married or has a baby we wonder what he would be doing. Every Christmas or special birthday or family occasion there is an empty place or places, because by this time he would probably have been married and would have had children. It’s not just one person who was killed that day but a whole branch of our family.”
Miriam is keen to highlight the support that the Embrace charity has provided to both her and Mercer and to many other families throughout Ireland who are mourning the loss of a loved one.
Embrace FARM was founded by Brian Rohan and his wife Norma, a farming family from Shanahoe, Co. Laois, in 2014 to provide a bereavement support group for farm families who, like them, have lost a loved one or, indeed, suffered serious injury in a farming accident.
Brian’s father Liam lost his life as a result of such an accident, which took place on the family farm on June 19th 2012. Rather than accept the fate he and his family were delivered, he, together with his wife Norma, founded Embrace FARM in Liam’s memory.
The third annual Embrace FARM accident Remembrance Service took place last Sunday in Abbeyleix, Co Laois. Mercer and Miriam first read about the service in Farming Life three years ago and decided it was something they wanted to go along to.
“Last year we went back and then this year, we were going anyway but Norma had emailed us to see if we were going on account of this wreath. They have a wreath and they give it to a family, and this year we were picked out of the nine counties of Ulster.”
Mercer pointed to the large number of names on the back of the order of service, each put forward by a grieving family to be read out during the service.
Mercer said: “The thing about that service is that everybody is in the same boat. Everybody that has been there has been involved in an accident. They aren’t all fatalities. One of the women who did a reading was gored by a bull eight years ago and she is on a crutch and doesn’t walk well.”
Mercer said there was no doubt that he and his wife take comfort from the service and the fact that all the other families know exactly how they feel. They are keen that anyone who has been affected by a farm tragedy get in touch with Embrace.
This year Embrace also ran an event for children who have lost either a parent or a sibling as a result of a farm fatality which enabled them to avail of grief counselling. Embrace also steps in and helps in the event of the head of the family losing their life in an accident by providing practical as well as emotional support.
The family weekend for children bereaved due to farm accidents was facilitated by Bríd Carroll from the Irish Childhood Bereavement Network.
Six families participated, a total of 16 children and 10 adults. Some children had lost their dad and others their sibling, but all were all killed in farming accidents.
The charity doesn’t receive any government support and relies on donations. The Presbyterian church in the village neighbouring the service on Sunday past donated the collection to Embrace.
For more details on the work of the charity visit www.embracefarm.com or on facebook at Embracefarm.