Farm Ireland

Thursday 25 April 2019

'Telling dad that Martin had died was the hardest thing I ever did'

'One split second can change your life'

Willie John Kehoe on the family farm in Foulksmills, Co Wexford. Photo: Mary Browne
Willie John Kehoe on the family farm in Foulksmills, Co Wexford. Photo: Mary Browne

The National Ploughing Championships will be never be the same again for the Kehoe family from Co Wexford.

On September 19 last, Willie John was busy manning the Kehoe Farming stand at the show just outside Tullamore, while his father Martin Snr was passing on his skills coaching in the ploughing fields.

That's when word came through that Martin Kehoe Jnr had died in a farming accident at their farm business in Foulksmills, Co Wexford.

"Telling dad was the hardest thing I ever did," says Willie John on the loss of his younger brother.

The Kehoes have been synonymous with the plough ever since William Kehoe won the Irish senior title in 1941 and his son Martin Kehoe Snr went on to take the World Ploughing Championship title three times in the 1990s.

Willie John says simply the first day of the Ploughing will forever more be a "tough day" for the family.

"Martin didn't come to this year's Ploughing as with the new dairy business and new milling plant one of us had to be fairly close by," he says.

"Martin and his wife Kerrie had a newborn so he decided that he'd manage the yard for that week to be close to his family."

Martin Snr, Willie John and Martin Jnr (33) all worked closely together to ensure Kehoe Farming was a success with a contracting arm, haylage and animal bedding business, a new robotic dairy unit and tillage farming and the Fibregold animal feed business that was headed by Martin Jnr.

"Martin started very early in the mornings and worked hard all day, he was a good family man.

"He made time for the children every evening," says Willie John of Martin Jnr and Kerrie's children Aoibheann (5), Saoirse, who turns three this month, and five-month-old Tadgh, who he believes is destined for the rugby field after being born when the Lion's tour was in full swing in the summer.

"Hopefully he will have his grandad's strength on the pitch," says Willie John.

Martin Jnr working with the Robotic Milking System
Martin Jnr working with the Robotic Milking System

"Many nights when the kids were gone to bed, he'd return to work. He was conscientious as a worker and everything had to be done right and fast. There was no such thing as standing still in our yard." On September 19, Martin Jnr decided to empty a feed tank that contained some Pot Ale syrup, a by-product from the distilling industry. They believe when the young father-of-three broke the seal, he was overcome by the fumes.

Willie John says the product was never flagged with them as dangerous in any way. "It was a freak thing," he says.

"We found out that one split second can change your life and the lives of everyone else.

"As Martin himself said, we are like one big family here at Kehoe Farming.

"You have to work together, that is the only way you can get through it.

"We've over 10 employees so it is not just an ordinary family farm. I've to keep the lads working, as they say time is a great healer. The more the lads work and stay together, the more they can come to terms with this tragedy, not that they'll ever get over it.

"Little things come out every day about Martin. As his uncle said, he was the best of the best."

Willie John recalls how all of those on the farm on the day did tremendous work to try and save Martin Jnr, and went as far as putting their own safety at risk, although it was too late.

After the pain of recent weeks, the entire Kehoe family, including Martin's wife Kerrie, his sisters Eleanor, Chris and Michelle, want to try and save others from the same grief and irreplaceable loss.

Willie John urges farmers to stand back for a second and think before they undertake a task.

"A farmer is many things in one - an accountant, a mechanic, a plumber, an electrician, a machine driver, a vet, a clerical worker, and many more besides.

"Farmers need to delegate more," adds Willie John, who is well accustomed to driving into yards throughout the country on contracting and feed business. Often he finds the farmyard design is no longer suited to the modern day large machinery and it can create hazards.

"Farming by date doesn't work - everything is getting pushed into days now. The harvest is now only a couple of days, whether it is due to weather or something else. Now the silage season lasts 10 to 14 days, whereas once it lasted the whole summer. When you are spreading slurry by date, if the weather is wet coming up to it, then people are worried.

"There is no need to panic - the work will always be done. Contractors are a farmers' friend and are there to help farmers.

"On the slurry issues, you don't hear of any major accidents in contracting as the guys are trained to do this job. They know the dangers and are not rushing from one thing to the next. When they come in, they are focused on the one job," he says.

"A farmers' mind is racing at 100 miles an hour as they are thinking about the cows, the crops, the silage and all the other jobs, including the ever-increasing paperwork and bureaucracy."

Willie John, Martin Snr and Martin Jnr.
Willie John, Martin Snr and Martin Jnr.

He stresses again that come what may, work will always sort itself out.

"The harvest has always been harvested. The slurry always gets spread - it might not happen when you want it to happen, but it always happens. There is no point in fussing and stressing about it.


"We've lots of straw left to be baled and I'm in the straw business, but it will get sorted. It will work out. Things can always be worse, no matter how bad they are."

He feels that farmers could make more use of their contractors to alleviate pressure, even in the off-season for jobs that they might not necessarily always turn to a contractor for.

Even though he is a self-confessed "workaholic", he says there has to be more to life than work but it is very hard to find the balance, especially now as Martin is no longer with us.

He recalls that Martin Jnr had achieved national success in the ploughing championships at U21 and U28 level, but his real love was always hurling.

"His hips weren't great but he still gave it his all with Clongeen, the local club. The weekend after his accident, on that Saturday, we were due to take part in Clongeen's fittest family and he was really looking forward to it.

"He was an outdoor fellow that loved that kind of a challenge.

"Martin was always running. As the boys in work say, he would never have you standing idle. He would always give you a thumbs up and a smile as he went by in the loader.

"The boys miss him - you're waiting for him to come around the corner and say 'Hey lads, what are ye doing standing there'. It's a big change," he says simply.

Willie John wonders if some people might question how come our family are able to drive on with the business. "But the business has to go on. That is what Martin would have wanted.

"Thankfully our customers and friends continue to support Kehoe Farming and that's a great comfort in this sad time."

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