Patrick Rooney was a good kid. It was 1969 and he had just moved into Divis Flats on the Falls Road in Belfast with the rest of his family. I say kid because he was only nine years old when his life came to an abrupt end forty-eight years ago today. On that fateful night, Patrick became the first child victim in the long struggle that came to be known as Ireland’s Troubles.
It is not a distinction anyone should wish on any child, or on any parent. Patrick was not out in the street causing trouble. He was not old enough to be a threat even if he had been outside, but there was a lot of rioting that day. The Civil Rights movement had exploded and it boiled over in Belfast. The Rooney’s new home in Divis Flats happened to be right in the center of the mayhem but the family wasn’t involved. Patrick’s father worried so much about where the family slept that he pulled his son out of bed and had him stand against a wall in the flat. That decision haunted Neely Rooney for the rest of his life. The young Rooney was shot where he stood in his house (not in his bed as was reported at the time) and so was his father. His dad was lucky because the bullet only grazed his forehead, but Patrick was hit directly in the back of his head. At first, his parents thought he had fainted after seeing his father’s wound but soon they were confronted with something much more awful. Their son died after their house was randomly sprayed with bullets which had been fired recklessly at the tower by the police outside. When he realized his son had been shot in the head, Neely Rooney ran outside directly into the riots and the sectarian mobs to try to get his son into an ambulance. The medical attention came too late.
Eventually the police admitted to indiscriminately firing heavy machine guns in the area but they blamed their bad decision on the rioters. At least thirteen other homes were hit with their high caliber gunfire and Hugh McCabe, another tenant at the Divis Flats was also killed. Across the city homes burned, thousands were injured, and rioting continued for many days. Young Patrick Rooney’s funeral couldn’t happen where it was originally planned because the Falls Road was barricaded and off limits. His parents had to be escorted around to Andersontown to bury their innocent son.
Investigators at the time found the use of heavy machine guns to be “wholly unjustifable,” but no one was ever charged with young Patrick Rooney’s death. There have been many instances where the police lost control and/or escalated violence in the region and this was one of the first. Patrick Rooney and his parents paid the price. Nearly 50 years later I snapped a picture of young boys who were playing outside of Divis Tower. They were smart, bratty, and curious like all kids should be at that age. They wondered why I was taking photos and complained that nothing ever happens in that area. I didn’t share the tale of a boy near their own age named Patrick Rooney because it was not my place, but I thought of him while they posed for my camera. Here’s hoping those boys are right and that nothing will ever happen there again. The last thing they or any other child should ever have to worry about is another rogue bullet.
In 2016 the police ombudsman’s office requested that anyone with information about Patrick Rooney’s senseless death and the deaths of three others on that night call and speak with them. They acknowledged that given the time that has passed, it was unlikely that anyone would ever be charged but they are still interested in any first-hand news that anyone might have about wee Patrick’s tragic death. Better late than never.