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"Sam Boal"
Sean Rooney

Dundalk grapples with the death of a young soldier that has 'pierced its heart'

The town of Dundalk was stilled by grief on Thursday morning.

TRICOLOURS HUNG FROM the windows of many houses in Muirhevnamore, and one flew at half-mast outside Gaelscoil Dhún Dealgan. 

The primary school neighbours Dundalk’s Holy Family Church, where the funeral of Private Seán Rooney was held this morning. 

The 23-year-old lost his life when a convoy of two Armoured Utility Vehicles (AUVs), carrying eight personnel from the 121st Infantry Battalion which he belonged to, came under fire in the Lebanese village of Al-Aqbiya. 

Hundreds gathered both in and outside the church where Rooney had been baptised as a child, including many members of different branches of the Defence Forces.

The congregation heard about a family that was deeply embedded in the local community. Seán’s grandfather Eugene had, the week before, built the nativity crib that now sat metres away from his grandson’s casket.

Seán’s mother Natasha spoke of being handed her son when she was just 16, and how his presence in her life had inspired her to finish school, pursue third-level education and buy her house. 

“In Seán’s life, I found purpose,” she said. “In his death, I will find a new purpose… I will love you forever, son, and I cannot wait to be reunited with you in heaven.”

Father Derek Ryan read a statement from Rooney’s fiancée Holly, in which she expressed gratitude for the time and love that the couple had the opportunity to share. 

The parents of 22-year-old Trooper Shane Kearney, who suffered a serious head injury in the attack, were also in attendance at today’s service. Kearney, from Cork, arrived back in Ireland yesterday and is currently in hospital in Dublin. 

Seven soldiers with rifles over their shoulders watched as the coffin – draped in both the Irish flag and the flag of the United Nations – was carried to the hearse. Other servicemen and women either stood in salute or bowed their heads. 

President Michael D Higgins embraced family of the deceased, as well as some of Rooney’s colleagues. One of Rooney’s young sisters held on to a soldier’s hat as the hearse drove away, crying out in the silence and reaching out an arm for her brother.

The haunting scene was a reminder that despite the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the funeral, and the possible military and geopolitical ramifications thereof, there is nothing to overshadow the sorrow of a family grieving a beloved son, grandson and brother.

As the funeral procession departed the churchyard and made its way towards Donegal, where Pte Rooney would later be buried, the street was lined with retired UN peacekeepers, marked out by their blue berets. Rooney is the first member of the Irish Defence Forces to die by combatant fire overseas since Private Billy Kedian in 1999, who also died in Lebanon. 

While 47 Irish soldiers have died while serving as part of UNIFIL, some have been as a result of traffic collisions, medical reasons, accidents, and in a tragic incident in murder by their own fellow soldiers.

Ireland’s army have suffered more losses as part of UNIFIL than any other army. Since the mission began in 1978, 325 casualties have been recorded, of which Irish soldiers represent 14%. 

IMG_3581 Carl Kinsella Carl Kinsella

The precise details into the incident that resulted in Rooney’s death are not presently clear, and three investigations are now underway: one led by the UN, another by Ireland’s Defence Forces and a third by the Lebanese government.

Two kilometres from the Holy Family Church, there is a World War I memorial that bears the words of Francis Ledwidge poem A Soldier’s Grave, an octave that tells of a soldier “lifted him slowly down the slopes of death… where the earth was soft for flowers we made.” 

As the various investigations unfold and politicians and generals leave Dundalk, the town will be left to navigate a tragedy that, in the words of Fr Ryan, had “pierced its heart”. 

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