Sister of boy (14) killed in farming accident: 'Educate yourself about the dangers... a split second can change lives'
When Darren Shanahan's quad bike overturned on the family farm, many lives were changed forever. His sister Irene says that such tragedies might be avoided if there were better safety measures in place
When Darren Shanahan lost his life, he was just 14 years old.
Not surprisingly, the subsequent outpourings of grief were immense. "After he died, we had hundreds of people through our house," says his sister, Irene (28), who is still deeply traumatised by the loss.
Darren was just one of many people who have perished on Irish farms in recent times. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that some of those deaths might possibly have been avoided, if better care had been taken, or more precautions put in place.
So this is Irene's desperate plea: when it comes to living or working in an agricultural environment, no short cuts should ever be taken. "There's no scope for it," she says vehemently.
Irene should know; she's lived on a farm near Cashel, in Co Tipperary, all her life. She was already seven years old, when Darren was born, and like most little girls, she was thrilled by his arrival. Over the years, they developed such an incredibly strong bond, they were more like "twins" than older sister and younger brother.
Darren, she explains, had a huge presence. "He was tall, well built and was friends with a lot of people. He also believed in fair play, so when a certain boy was being bullied, Darren took on the bully and put a stop to it."
Besides the farm, which Darren loved so much, the Shanahans own a popular pub in Clonmel, called The Coachman. Being a tight-knit family, they all took turns behind the bar, and Darren was no exception. "He'd be the first to help an old person on with their coat, or to give band members a hand with their gear," says Irene.
Another great interest of his was vintage tractors. So much so, that he restored an old Massey Ferguson that belonged to their grandfather.
"One day he got it up on bricks," says Irene. "He then ordered all the parts, and with help from dad with the electrics, he got it back in working order. He even spray-painted it."
This amazingly able young man also played hurling for his local club and was an avid Manchester United fan. His ever-supportive sister even accompanied him to a couple of matches at Old Trafford. She also introduced him to music, and eventually they both became members of the Tipperary Ryan Youth Orchestra; he as a cellist and Irene as a pianist.
Shortly before Darren died, they played with the orchestra in Germany, and the weekend before the actual tragedy, they went to a 21st-birthday party together. "That's how close we were," says Irene, "and that's how mature he was. How many 14-year-olds would be comfortable at a 21st?"
A further indication of their strong bond were the last presents they exchanged. Darren gave Irene a flat-screen TV, while he got the Tipperary hurling jersey from his big sis. "I spoiled him," says Irene. "Whatever he wanted, I gave him."
Christmas 2007 saw the purchase of a quad bike, which is currently a common mode of transport on many Irish farms. The man who sold them the bike gave clear instructions on its safe use, as did Gerry, Irene's dad.
A few months later, Darren single-handedly ploughed a 30-acre piece of land on the family farm. He could handle a tractor as well as many a competitor at the annual ploughing championships. So what happened on April 14, seven years ago, is hard to fathom.
Irene was home from college, where she was studying to become a chartered accountant. Gerry drove into Cashel to get takeaways for their evening meal, while Darren volunteered to tidy up after the day's work on the farm.
When Gerry got back, he was surprised that Darren still hadn't returned. Even more sinister was the fact that they couldn't hear the sound of the quad bike; they should have been able to hear it, on a small farm like that. The family immediately became alarmed and set off to investigate.
While Irene went in one direction, Gerry and his wife Geraldine went in another direction. And that's when they came across the overturned bike - and a seemingly unconscious Darren.
Though she must have been terribly shocked, Geraldine immediately got to work trying to save her son.
"Mum was doing CPR, but there was nothing happening, except blood coming out of his ear," says Irene.
An ambulance arrived soon after, but they could do nothing to help Darren, and so he was pronounced dead at the scene.
Unfortunately, Darren was not wearing a helmet that day. He was probably tired after the day's work and thought he'd be fine; after all, he only had a few small chores to do. But sadly fate intervened; his bike overturned, causing his brain stem to be severed.
Irene says she often wonders if safety headgear would have made a difference.
"Even though the injury was below [where] the helmet [would have been], wearing one might have saved his life," she speculates. "But we'll never know for certain."
However, she is adamant that no one should ever ignore safety precautions in an agricultural environment. "There are far too many accidents on farms. A farm isn't a playground; it's a business. There is so much powerful equipment around; you have to take it seriously," she says.
"Educate yourself about the dangers, and be aware. Don't take a short cut. A split second can change lives. We can't fix this, and we certainly can't get Darren back."
Pat Griffin, senior inspector for agriculture in the Health and Safety Authority (HSA), says: "Last year, there were 30 farm deaths; five of those were children. That is absolutely shocking."
However, he explains that the average figure, over a 10-year period, would be closer to 18 deaths annually. So far, this year, there have been four farm deaths.
He urges all those who live and work on the land to familiarise themselves with safety guidelines, which are available on the HSA website. He also invites them to watch video clips of 14 people who have survived accidents on farms, so that they can learn from those accounts, some of them harrowing.
Norma Rohan of Embrace Farm, a relatively new support group, says they will be holding an ecumenical service today, June 28, in Abbeyleix, Co Laois.
"We want to remember all our loved ones who have been lost on the farms of Ireland," she says.
For more information, contact Embrace Farm, tel: (085) 770-9966, or see facebook.com/embracefarmaccidents, or see embracefarm.com
Sunday Indo Life Magazine