Irish peacekeeper Pte Seán Rooney (24), who died in south Lebanon after a vehicle carrying four soldiers was attacked on Wednesday night, has been described by his fiancee as “the most wonderful, selfless person, who died doing what he loved”.
Born and raised in Dundalk, Co Louth, Mr Rooney moved to Newtowncunningham in Co Donegal at about the age of 12, though he maintained “strong connections” to family and friends in Dundalk, his fiancee, Holly McConnellogue (22), said.
Mr Rooney and Ms McConnellogue were due to be married in August 2023, after meeting in Derry three years ago.
“We met three years ago yesterday, three years to the day he died. He was a fantastic person to be with,” she told The Irish Times.
“He was one of the good ones, as they say. He taught me so much about myself and about unconditional love. He really showed me what unconditional love is like.”
Mr Rooney was “so passionate about his career in the Army,” his fiancee said.
The 24-year-old had been in the Army for almost four years and was based out of the 27th Infantry Battalion in Dundalk. Mr Rooney’s father also served in the Defence Forces and died in service several years ago.
“His father also passed young. On his mother’s side, he had three uncles who were in the army so there are very strong links there. He really loved it,” Ms McConnellogue said.
“I’m absolutely heartbroken and it hasn’t sunk in yet that he’s gone, but I at least know that he died doing what he loved and serving his country”.
As a partner, a friend and as a soldier, Rooney “always put other people before himself,” she said.
“When the opportunity came up for him to go to Lebanon again, we were saving to be married, and he took that opportunity for us. He was so selfless and he wanted to help other people over there too.”
Rooney had previously been on a mission to Lebanon in 2021 for six months.
On his return, he transferred from the Cathal Brugha Barracks in Dublin to Dundalk’s Aiken Barracks, “so he could be closer to his family and to me in Derry,” McConnellogue said.
The fatal incident happened in Al-Aqbieh, just outside the UN-affiliated group’s area of operations, when a vehicle carrying four personnel was stopped by locals and surrounded at around 11.15pm local time (9.15pm Irish time).
It and another armoured SUV became separated while travelling on an “administrative run” from the Irish Unifil base to Beirut. The convoy was bringing two soldiers to the airport so they could return to Ireland on compassionate leave due to bereavements.
The news agency AFP reported that an Irish peacekeeper had died from a bullet wound to the head after seven projectiles pierced the vehicle in which he was travelling, citing Lebanese judicial sources.
Rooney’s fiancee said she had been “speaking to him just last night. He messaged me because we were supposed to FaceTime, but he said he had to drop a friend to the airport because he had a bereavement”.
She added: “He wanted to help his friend and drop him off for the flight home because that was the kind of person he was. That was the last I heard from him.”
“Even though he’s gone, it was still worth it to have known him for these three years,” she said.
Rooney’s is the first death of a Defence Forces member in combat in 23 years and the first on a peacekeeping mission since 2003. Several investigations are to be undertaken following the attack, including by the Defence Forces, the UN and local police.
Outside Aiken Barracks in Dundalk on Thursday evening, mourners lay floral tributes to the soldier, who attended primary school at Gaeilscoil Dhún Dealgan in the town, and Marist Secondary School Dundalk.
Tributes to Rooney by friends and family flooded social media overnight on Thursday.
Fianna Fáil councillor Seán Kelly described Rooney’s death as a “dark day” for Dundalk town. “Private Seán Rooney paid the ultimate price in the line of duty. We won’t forget him,” he said.
Fine Gael Senator for Louth John McGahon extended his “deepest sympathies” to family and friends of Rooney.
Sinn Féin councillor Kevin Meenan said he was “saddened” to hear the news of his death.
“It’s always devastating for a family to receive news like this, but it’s all the more difficult when it happens so far away and they were expecting him home soon. Dundalk is shocked and in mourning for this young man,” he said.