He was a top bloke who will “never” be forgotten.
Such were the heartfelt words of one of Seán Rooney’s close friends yesterday.
Alex Tate was speaking on the day on which the 24-year-old private’s memory was honoured with a wreath-laying ceremony and a formal visit by Tánaiste Micheál Martin.
As part of his visit to the southern Lebanon Unifil Camp Shamrock, the Tánaiste had also eaten with troops and then addressed them in their canteen.
Some of them would have travelled on the convoy with Pte Rooney on the night he died.
Away from the ceremonies, the speeches and the handshakes, Trooper Tate’s words were brief but poignant. He paused after the first “never”, looked up at the assembled reporters, and repeated it again, his voice faltering momentarily.
He was speaking for the first time about Pte Rooney, who was shot dead last December.
“He was a genuine bloke, you know,” he said. “He supported his friends.
“If you ever needed a chat, he was there. He’d have a laugh, and he was a top bloke and he never will be forgotten.
“Like, there are so many things you can say about him because everybody loved him."
Speaking of his colleagues in the 121st Battalion that had arrived in the country last November for their six-month peacekeeping stint, he said: “There wasn’t a person on this trip who didn’t like him, every single person.
“He was good at his job and he was a top bloke, that’s all I can say.”
Earlier in the day, Pte Rooney’s battalion commander, Lt Col Damien Murphy, had also paid tribute to him.
“Seán's death has left an indelible mark on this unit and Seán will never be forgotten,” he said.
“It continues to inspire us to carry out our duties to the best of our ability.
“I just want to say that Private Seán Rooney is a fine example of the best traditions and values of the Defence Forces.
“Prior to the incident, Seán was carrying out his duties to an excellent standard, a fine soldier on a second tour of duty here in Lebanon.
“During the incident, as well, he carried out his duties to the best of his abilities. We are very proud of Seán and his sacrifice will never be forgotten.”
On the way to the camp at 6.30am on Thursday in a convoy of Unifil vehicles, it was impossible not to think about Pte Rooney as we passed certain landmarks on his ill-fated last journey.
The first is Raee Hospital, where he had been taken on the night of December 14 after he was struck in a hail of bullets fired into the vehicle carrying him and three other colleagues, before it crashed and overturned.
While he was taken to a separate room, two colleagues who managed to escape any injuries were in another room. A few corridors away was their other colleague, Shane Kearney.
Lt Col Murphy said yesterday that the 23-year-old Cork native, who sustained head injuries in the crash, is making “great progress in his recovery” but acknowledged that he “still has a long road ahead of him”.
Ali Saad, a liaison official for the Lebanese Red Cross and someone who has a long personal history with the Irish Defence Forces missions, was one of those at yesterday's wreath-laying ceremony, which he helped organise.
“Seán Rooney was lost from every house of Tibnine and the people in south Lebanon,” said Mr Saad, who is also director of the Tibnine orphanage which has been heavily supported by the Irish Defence Forces.
“Our hearts go out to Seán’s mother, his fiancee, and his friends and family.
The Irish Defence Forces are carrying out their own investigation while the other two investigations include an international one led by the United Nations, and an investigation being carried out by Lebanese Authorities.
The Tánaiste is accompanied on the trip by the Secretary General of the Department of Defence, Jacqui McCrum, and the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Seán Clancy.