“No, no, I don’t want him to go,” sobbed a little girl, dressed immaculately in black, as Private Seán Rooney’s body was lowered into a freshly-dug grave in Co Donegal.
All around her was the impressive pomp of a full military funeral in the cemetery of the Church of All Saints in the small village of Newtowncunningham. Senior Army figures and political leaders wore long coats in the winter chill, during a meticulous ceremony.
But the little girl’s cries cut through it all. Stiffened lips quivered.
The 24-year-old soldier was killed in south Lebanon last week while taking part in a United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission. He was the first Irish peacekeeper to die in the country for almost two decades.
Three investigations into the circumstances surrounding Pte Rooney’s death in the coastal town of Al-Aaqbieh are ongoing. A source in the Lebanese Hizbullah group on Thursday confirmed that at least one person was to be handed over to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in connection with the gun attack, in which trooper Shane Kearney was seriously injured and two other Defence Forces members were hurt.
Hizbullah is cooperating with the LAF’s inquiry into the shooting, sources said, with the UN and Defence Forces carrying out their own investigations.
In full uniform, soldiers of the 27th Infantry Battalion from Aiken Barracks in Dundalk formed a guard of honour as their colleague’s coffin was carried by six pall bearers along a matrix of paths in the country graveyard. Dressed in green and saffron traditional costume, lone piper Corporal Vincent Murray led the way. The Irish tricolour was draped over the coffin, and at one end the UN flag.
Moments from reaching the graveside, it was too much for Pte Rooney’s mother Natasha, who buried her head, wailing, in the arms of a loved one, who supported her for the remainder of the walk.
The grieving family were ushered under a canopy in front of the boat-shaped church, designed to suggest the Barque of St Peter. Nearby were President Michael D Higgins, Tánaiste Micheál Martin and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald. Garda Commissioner Drew Harris was also among the mourners.
Dozens of retired United Nations veteran peacekeepers had gathered, dressed in their distinctive pale blue berets and green blazers, medals on their breast denoting their tours of duty. They wore white gloves.
One elderly veteran placed both his hands on a headstone to steady himself throughout. There were red berets too, of the military police, and the black of the infantry troops.
As the UN flag, first, then the Irish Tricolour, were removed from the coffin, the silence amplified the thrum of a generator powering lights to illuminate the burial spot as light faded in Newtowncunningham.
Regimentally folded, the flags were handed to Pte Rooney’s family under the canopy. Natasha clutched the Tricolour.
A mother of another serving Irish peacekeeper – “he just came back yesterday” – stood by herself looking on.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Defence Forces chaplain Fr Paschal Hanrahan declared standing over the grave as Pte Rooney. “For they will be called children of God.”
In a field across the road, seven soldiers from the 27th Infantry Battalion stood under the command of Sgt Stephen Flanagan. At around 3.45pm, they fired a volley of shots into the darkening Donegal air. They fired a second time, and again a third.
The three shot volley is an historical signal to break battle so an army can bury its dead.
A bugler sounded The Last Post before Reveille. All around Pte Rooney’s grave the military stood to attention and saluted.
One by one, each of his family stepped forward and threw a single white rose on top of his coffin.