Last year, Captain Peter Kelleher read the Proclamation in front of Dublin’s General Post Office, just as Pádraig Pearse had done April 24, 1916, and the ensuing photographs became the face of Ireland’s commemorations around the world.
On the morning of March 27th, 2016, Captain Peter Kelleher, of the 27th Infantry Battalion of the Irish Defense Forces in Dundalk, left his home in County Louth early and repeated the 514 words of the 1916 Proclamation to himself on the way into Dublin, “like a mantra,” he says.
“I was quite nervous that morning, but, as I had practiced so often and delivered it so many times, felt enough had been done to mitigate against any major problem.” He was due to read the proclamation at noon sharp. That morning, Easter Sunday, an estimated 250,000 people turned out in the streets of Dublin’s city center, according to Gardaí figures, for the showcase event of Ireland’s Easter Rising centenary – a military parade past the GPO. It was, he says, a “daunting time.”
“Just before delivery listening for my cue, I almost went into autopilot. I fully soaked up the atmosphere and could feel the energy but did not feel nervous at that exact point. During the reading the silence all around was palpable. When I finished the names of the signatories, rolled up the parchment and saluted there was spontaneous applause. That was immense, it was such a significant moment and as it was such a long document. And, taking over four minutes to read out there was potential for mishap. My father-in-law, who was watching at home, said he was willing me to look down during the reading and praying that I wouldn’t go wrong which thankfully I didn’t.”
Captain Kelleher was selected for the role by army senior staff following a thorough application and audition process that began in January of last year. Kelleher says he hadn’t considered applying until a friend urged him to do so, suggesting his image and voice were in line with what was needed for the reading.
While Kelleher, whose accent and affability unequivocally betray his Cork roots, doesn’t have any direct ancestral ties to the Rising itself, he does have militant republican forbears who were directly involved in the War of Independence in Cork, a hotbed of rebel activity during the war.
“My grandfather, also Peter Kelleher, was a member of the 1st Brigade of the Irish Republican Army in Cork during the War of Independence and my granduncle on my grandmother’s side, Pat Collins, was wounded by the Black and Tans and later died as a result,” he says.
Though his father, who died when Kelleher was young, was somewhat of a detractor with respect to the Irish army, Kelleher enlisted as a private in 1999, hoping to, as he puts it, “get that sense of adventure and get a bit of travel in.” Now 36, Kelleher earned his cadetship in 2002, previously served with the 1st Infantry Battalion and 4th Artillery Regiment, and has been deployed overseas to both Lebanon, with Force HQ, and Chad, where he and his wife Orlaith had their first son, Senan. (They have since had two more boys, Liam and Shea.)
Growing up in Douglas, Co. Cork (a suburb of Cork city), Kelleher had a friend with the Proclamation on his bedroom wall, and, like most people in Ireland, encountered it throughout his childhood.
“It’s a very instantly recognizable almost brand in Ireland. You’d see it in certain areas around the country. You’d see it straight away. It’s a very recognizable typeset and print,” he says. He was also quick to point out that he’d be remiss to say he was overly familiar with it.
“I knew what it said, I had read it a few times, but I was not very fluent in it and I probably couldn’t even have quoted much from it in advance.”
So, preparing for the day, he understood the weight of the text and the importance of his duty. “I was delighted, yet somewhat daunted by the prospect when I learned I had been selected. I knew for sure about three weeks before the parade that I had been selected so got practicing in earnest from then. I practiced constantly as I knew I had to do the document justice and keenly felt that responsibility. I repeated it so often at home that my two older boys, Senan and Liam, can now almost recite it too.
“The document itself was such a powerful progressive text, and indeed the language on it would be seen as somewhat archaic now. And with the type of language that it is, it was tricky, and there were stumbling blocks that had to be ironed out well in advance.”
Speaking of the text itself once he started to memorize it, Kelleher came to appreciate the “concept of freedom and destiny and being able to decide things for ourselves as a nation.”
“It’s powerful language. I actually particularly like the opening line – ‘Irish men and Irish Women, in the name of God and of the dead generations’ – it’s a powerful opening phrase and it really sets the tone for the document,” he says.
“And you know, you hear these arguments saying that they weren’t elected representatives, but these people were poets and dreamers, and that’s reflected in the language of the text itself. [They aspired] to something greater for Ireland, and the fact that they took up arms to do it, I think the whole document has a lot of resonance in it. It’s a very strong language. The mandate, they had the mandate from earlier elections.”
He knew that the document and the signatories were important before reading it on the day, but it was only afterwards that he grasped just how significant the words were. “The feedback was universally positive and I was very grateful for that. I was reading a lot of the comments back on social media, and what I was surprised at was the depth of emotion that it awoke in people,” he says.
Shortly after the Dublin commemorations on Easter weekend, Kelleher was approached by the New York Consulate General to read the Proclamation on April 24 at Battery Park, 100 years to the day after the Rising, and by the Irish Embassy in Washington, D.C. to recite it for the rededication of Robert Emmet Park near the Irish Embassy. Naturally, he obliged both requests.
When asked how it made him feel to be the face of Ireland’s Rising commemorations, he first laughed it off, telling Irish America that his “colleagues would find it hilarious [that I’m being called] face of the commemorations.” But he recognizes that the image isn’t about his face or even his individual identity, but rather, “that strong sense of duty to the nation.”
“I was happy enough that the image was used,” he says. “I thought it was quite a good image and it projected a good image of the Defense Forces, and of Ireland in 2016 in the commemorations. I thought the photo itself was quite good, so I was pleased with how the photo came out.
“As for any feelings I have towards my photo being used in particular, I was just happy that it seemed to project a positive message, and it was well received.” ♦