A mother turning to her firstborn child’s coffin and promising to stay strong for him. A little girl reaching out to her cousin’s hearse crying: “I don’t want to leave him. Mam, I don’t want to leave him.” A sister unable to utter the prayer for her brother’s soul on the altar because her voice is strangled with grief. Milling young men and women with eyes reddened from sorrow. Soldiers wearing black armbands on the sleeves of their military coats and discreetly passing each other tissues for their tears. These are the harrowing imprints of a military funeral for a national hero.
Private Seán Rooney made his final journey on Thursday, eight days after he was killed in south Lebanon on United Nations peacekeeping service. It began just after 8.30am when his grandparents’ front door opened across the road from the Church of the Holy Family in Dundalk and the sound of Paolo Nuttini singing Last Request flooded out. Word ran softly through the crowds of waiting mourners that it had been the 24-year-old soldier’s favourite song. An Army piper led the cortege from Aghameen Park to the small modern church, the notes of Danny Boy and The Sally Gardens floating on the damp morning air.
The sad procession was led by Seán Rooney’s parents, Natasha and Paul; his grandparents Eugene and Rachel Rooney; his fiancee Holly McConnellogue from Derry; and his siblings, uncles, cousins and friends. The parents of Trooper Shane Kearney (23), from Killeagh in Co Cork, who was seriously injured in the same attack, were also present.
“No one in this country would ever have thought your walk across Hoey’s Lane would be such a difficult walk,” said Fr Derek Ryan, the parish priest and chief celebrant, in his opening words.
Among the dignitaries were President Michael D Higgins, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Tánaiste and Minister for Defence Micheál Martin, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald. Lt Gen Seán Clancy, the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, and Eamon Martin, the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, were also present.
Irish soldiers on UN service in Lebanon and Syria were among those watching the live television broadcast of the obsequies.
An unlit Christmas star hung poignantly outside the church where Seán Rooney was baptised on December 12th, 1998, and confirmed in March 2010 and which was too small to accommodate even half of the vast turnout of those wishing to pay their respects. In nearby car parks, vehicles bore registrations from all over Ireland.
As the Mass progressed inside, two photographs of the dead young man gazed out through the side windows of the hearse. It was a lovely face that exuded vitality, embodying the words being spoken about him inside.
“Seán was placed in my arms when I was 16 years old and he gave me purpose,” said his mother in a voice racked with broken-heartedness. “I wanted to do better for Seán. I wanted to go back to school. I wanted to go to third level ... so he could be proud of me. In his life he has made me proud and in his death he has made me proud. I promise my son that I will stay strong.”
She said: “He was the most beautiful baby, the most gorgeous wee boy and the most handsome man you’ll ever meet but that was only a fraction of what was on the inside.
“I could stand here all day telling you all the different nice things that Seán did for people,” she said. “I don’t have the words to express my love for him and my pride as I look at everybody here today for Seán – not just because he is a national hero.” At this, applause filled the church, at the centre of which lay the coffin draped in the Irish and UN flags. On top lay the young soldier’s army beret.
Fr Ryan told how Natasha used to pack lunches and dinners for Seán to take back to Dundalk on his visits home to Newtowncunningham in Co Donegal, giving him instructions to put the food in the fridge as soon as possible. “But he took a little detour to the love of his life, Holly, and a lot of that food never made it,” said the priest. “It was eaten in Derry by Holly and her flatmates.”
Fr Ryan said Holly had asked him to read out a statement for her because she felt unable to speak from the altar. She said that until she met Seán, she could never understand why people called their partner their other half. He was, she said, her better half. “He would have been a fantastic husband and an even better father. He could always protect me and make me feel safe.
“I am absolutely heartbroken that our life together has been cut short.” But, she said: “I feel absolutely honoured that I have been afforded three wonderful years with him.” Her words won more applause.
At the prayers of the faithful, Fr Ryan stepped in to finish the petition that “God may welcome Seán” by his youngest sibling, Robyn aged 11, when she was overcome by her loss. Other prayers were said by his brother Callum, sister Carragh, uncle Cpl Eugene Rooney of the 27th Battalion, best friend Christopher and representatives of the Marist secondary school and the Gaelscoil he had attended.
Music and songs, including Silent Night! and O Holy Night, emphasised the particular sadness of a young man’s funeral taking place just three days before Christmas. In the offertory procession, the gifts were brought to the altar by his grandfather, Eugene, and his dad, Paul.
His aunt Lauren read from the Book of Ecclesiastes – “There is a time to be born and a time to die ... a time to kill and a time to heal ... a time to laugh and a time to cry ... a time for war and a time for peace.”
The second reading from St Paul to the Romans was by his aunt Maria. “Death has no power over him now,” she read.
Following prayers of commemoration by Fr Paschal Hanrahan, the Army chaplain, a guard of honour flanked the hearse as Private Rooney’s coffin was placed inside it for the short journey to Aiken Barracks in Dundalk, where he was based. There, in a brief ceremony, veterans and serving personnel paraded in the square in honour of their fallen comrade, following a moment’s silence as the cortege stopped at the national flag flying at half mast.
As the procession moved away from the church, one of his little cousins, her face white against her black coat, cried inconsolably: “I don’t want to leave him, mam. I don’t want to leave him.”
Standing in rigid silence, members of the Defence Forces wearing Irish Army berets and Unifil insignia wiped away their tears
Seán Rooney was a national hero. He was also a mother’s son, a fiancee’s love of her life and, by numerous accounts, a good man who, until December 14th, had a wonderful future.