Unremarkable as it was in many ways, the U-21 Leinster hurling match between Offaly and Westmeath recently was unforgettable for one family. Offaly made it through to the provincial semi-final on a score of 2-15 to 1.10.
Earlier that evening, Eugene Hogan set off from his home in O’Briensbridge, met his brother Kevin and his parents, Kieran and Margaret, in Tipperary and the family made their way to O’Connor Park in Tullamore. It was their first car journey together since last July.
“It was a fantastic night. It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a match that will be remembered for the rest of the year in hurling but, for us, it was a huge one. Offaly got a victory and my father at the end of the match was in with the players in a huddle and it was a lovely, emotional moment for our family to see him there getting a big lift,” Eugene says.
“From the minute we went into the match we were thinking of Dermot,” he adds. “This time last year, Dermot was there and he was in the dressing room.”
“Hurling and farming are everything there and Dermot was knee-deep in both.”
Brothers Dermot, Kevin and Eugene were all reared in Ballywilliam outside Nenagh. Their mother is a Tipperary woman; their father a proud Offaly man. As children, Dermot and Kevin followed in their father’s footsteps shouting for the Faithful but young Eugene knew he was a Tipp man even “through very lean times, the leanest of times” as he puts it.
“Offaly was in the ascendency then and the guys, including Dermot, took the easy option and went for Offaly,” Eugene recalls lightly, acknowledging that Dermot later showed the depth of his commitment to the county.
At the end of April last year, 45-year-old Dermot Hogan was named as manager of the Offaly U-21 hurlers.
“Last year, nobody would actually step up and take the job. Dermot took it over when really no-one else would want it. Things were at a low ebb for Offaly U-21s in hurling and, generally, at underage in Offaly but Dermot was the eternal optimist and always looked at problems as opportunities for solutions. He just wouldn’t give in,” Eugene recalls.
It was a late appointment, given their first match was to be on June 25 but Dermot had a solid record. He had guided his club, his father’s home parish Coolderry, to county minor and U-21 titles in 2008 and 2010 respectively, before being part of the county minor management team in 2013.
Dermot had moved to Coolderry in the 1990s where his aunt, Essie and late uncle Martin farmed a small holding. He married Marie and built a house close to the homeplace and the farmyard.
“Growing up, Dermot had this gravitational pull to Coolderry,” Eugene says.
He was “a fine young hurler”, according to his youngest sibling but fractured his leg in his late teens and in his 20s, missed a few years hurling through working in Cork. So, when he moved to Coolderry, he hurled a little for them but it was in coaching and management that he excelled.
“Dermot was a huge community guy. Hurling in Coolderry parish is everything. They made the All-Ireland senior final a couple of years ago and it is a very rural club so, really, hurling and farming are everything there and Dermot was knee-deep in both,” Eugene outlines.
“If you are a community man, you are a hurling man and Dermot fitted that mould perfectly,” he adds.
On June 25, 2014, Offaly lost to Wexford in the Leinster championship, with Wexford going on to win the provincial title the following month. It was Dermot’s first and last competitive match in charge of the team.
“They put up a good enough show against Wexford, who went on to meet Clare in the All-Ireland final. They were beaten but they gave a decent enough account of themselves. Even afterwards, Dermot was full of beans and excitement over what could be done over the next two years because he was taking up what was really a three-year position.
“I remember chatting to him the day after the match and it was as if the defeat the night before had never happened. He was just focussed on next year and the lads that would be there again next year. He had only a couple of months from his appointment to the first round of the match and it showed the disorganisation that there was in Offaly last year but he was really buzzed about what he could achieve the following year,” Eugene continues.
“It is just one of those moments you never forget.”
Kieran Hogan and his brother, Frank, in Ballina, were filled with quiet pride when Dermot became an inter-county hurling manager, especially in their birthplace of Offaly.
“Dermot’s a sort of a goer. He never, ever stopped and it was amazing that he made time for people and made such an impression on people’s lives. He and uncle Frank would have a call every week about what happened at the weekend in hurling and who’s doing what and all that. He is an awful loss to Frank.”
That loss is felt by all who knew him but weighs heaviest in the hearts of his parents, his brothers, his wife Marie and his three daughters, Lisa, Rachel and Ciara.
On July 24 last year, the weather was good. At Hogans in Coolderry, it was a microcosm of farming family life. Marie was out painting a gate and Dermot was on top of a shed painting its roof. A moment later, he wasn’t.
In O’Briensbridge, the weather was good too. It was a day for the shorts and sandals, Eugene recalls. He had got home from work earlier than usual and he was thinking of taking his three young children for a walk by the banks of the Shannon. He had no phone coverage where he was sitting but across the room, his wife Liz’s phone rang.
“I remember clearly her taking a call and jumping up off the seat. In my mind’s eye, I can still see her expression. It is just one of those moments you never forget,” he recalls.
The call was from Eugene’s mother.
“I remember her saying ‘are you sure Margaret?’ She said that a couple of times. I instantly knew something was up. It was all over my wife’s face. It was the sort of expression I hadn’t seen before and I knew it was a different place we were now in,” he says.
Dermot had fallen from the shed, that was as much as they knew.
“The message was for me to get there quickly and ‘to expect the worst’.”
Immediately, Eugene was out the door and in the car headed north on the M7.
“You are trying to process these thoughts. What does that mean? What does ‘expect the worst’ mean. Everything goes through your head…you can’t process to a natural conclusion because it is completely unknown territory and it is the worst fear anybody would have, a sibling or a parent or a child in that situation,” he outlines.
“I rang my brother Kevin and we were thinking one of us would go to the hospital but the call came quickly from my parents who had gotten an update. They were on the road as well. It was ‘no, get there straight away’. I have no doubt but I broke speed limits on the way but you just got there as quickly as you could. Every thought went through my head, including what if he was left in a wheelchair, what that would mean,” he recalls.
“You walked into a scene from ER.”
When Eugene got there, there was already people gathered.
“Word had spread quickly in the parish that Dermot had fallen and he was obviously one of the centre pieces of the parish in the community sense,” he says.
Dermot’s house was just metres from his aunt Essie’s and hers just a few metres more from the sheds.
“Essie was out at the corner of the house being comforted by someone. Dermot was the apple of her eye. She was being consoled. I went to her and urged her inside the house and to be calm and told her I’d be back into her in a few minutes with some news,” Eugene remembers.
His mother had told him they were not allowed into the shed but after seeing Essie, the gravity of the situation was beginning to press on him and he spotted his father at the door of the shed.
“You walked into a scene from ER. It was the beep, beep, beep of the medical equipment,” he says.
“They were working on Dermot and it was really the last stages of their efforts and they had been working on him at that stage for a half an hour or more. They were there within 10 minutes of Marie making the call. He was lying on the ground. It was a horrible scene. It was an awful scene.”
Eugene remembers the words of the paramedics, the length of time they worked on him and their evident physical exertion.
“Dermot was gone at that stage. He was lying on the ground and I remember my father at that moment. It’s strange but what he said struck me as being very noble, even at that moment it struck me. He’s a quiet, strong but respectful man and his first reaction on being told his son had passed was to thank them for their effort. It was very striking that in that moment, when you are told your son is dead, to still have the gentlemanliness to thank them…We then had to go out and tell Marie, his wife and the kids and my mother,” he says.
“In an instant it can all end, farms are just so dangerous.”
“They were just there waiting. There was nothing said. They were just looking at me – ‘what was the result?’ Dad had slipped back behind me talking to the priest I think and I didn’t know that. I just told them that he was gone,” he recalls.
The sound of that moment, from silence to agonising loss, lives with Eugene. “It is a cry you never want to hear,” he says.
The local community got to work immediately helping the family deal with “the horrible reality that this had happened”.
“At a funeral where there was a sudden death, or I guess any death, the generosity of the human spirit, it just lifts you,” he says.
Friends, neighbours and the wider community arrived, with everything from food and burco boilers to marquees, before the family even thought about what they needed. It was “an industrial operation in a domestic house”.
“This meant we got to spend time talking to people and saying goodbye,” he says.
Within a day of Dermot’s death, Eugene was “trying to articulate and trying to showcase the dangers of farming”. It took off from there.
“This happens in an instant. Everything is perfect. Everything is fine. He is up on a roof. He is painting a shed getting it ready for the winter. It is a lovely evening. His wife is a couple of metres away. In an instant it can all end and it did for Dermot. Farms are just so dangerous,” he says.
Within a few weeks, Eugene was leading the What’s Left Behind farm safety video campaign.
“What’s left behind is the terrible emotional fallout from any sudden death…then there is the practical fallout of what is left behind. Who farms the farm? What happens next? Who picks up the pieces?”
In the immediate aftermath of Dermot’s death, neighbours, relations and friends bore the weight of the farm work. Later, the family made a decision that for the first year, they would try to keep farming it.
“My father, at 70 years of age, retired but thankfully fit and healthy, lives five miles the far side of Nenagh from Coolderry. It was probably a 35 mile drive every day up and back, 70 miles, to get the farming done and try to see out that year and he did that again, with the help of other people, neighbours, relations, extended family, all friends. We are fortunate he was able to do that. Other people are not that fortunate,” he says.
“Farmers have to keep that in mind, they have to ask themselves who is going to farm if they’re gone. They leave people behind, in some cases, with a task that it is not possible to deliver,” he adds.
Dermot had drystock but Eugene gives the example of a dairy farm, where cows have to be milked twice daily.
“I can’t imagine how if Dermot was in that situation we could have pulled it all together. So it is not just the emotional loss I would urge farmers to think about. When they are going about their business, if a farmer thinks there is even a tiny smidgen of danger about anything they are doing, stop for a second and assess it. Don’t just do it. Think twice because so easily it can go wrong,” he says.
Eugene wants farmers to consider the consequences of taking a risk, even a small one and the impact it could have on the people they love most. For him, the image of Marie trying to save her husband’s life as the emergency operator talked her through CPR is a particularly powerful one and one which might hit home with farm families.
“She has to deal with that moment as well as the aftermath, of Dermot not coming home, of him not ever being there again, of getting up in the morning and he’s not there, coming home from work and he’s not there. The three girls, the youngest of them is 15, he is a massive, massive loss to them. They are fantastic girls and they are getting through it but the loss is huge. There are three girls and their mother in the house now where it should be three girls and their parents.”
By Nicola Corless