Father Daniel Kelleher MC Chaplain to the Irish Brigade

During April 1944, close to the village of Caira to the north of the abbey of Monte Cassino, Father Daniel Kelleher went out to tend for several wounded men despite coming under sustained very heavy shelling.

For his acts of valour on that day, Father Kelleher would be awarded the Military Cross, the full citation for which stated that:

 “On 6th April 1944, Rev Kelleher was at 1 RIrF’s Bttn HQ in the Caira area when heavy shelling was reported in the village of Caira causing several casualties to one of the platoons. Rev Kelleher immediately raced to the village which was under heavy shelling. He found the wounded men and assisted the stretcher bearers in their work, carrying men in his arms, at great personal risk, to the shelter of a ruined building.

He comforted the badly wounded men and assisted the over worked stretcher bearers in applying bandages to their wounds.

His cheerfulness and practical assistance undoubtedly saved the lives of two men and gave fresh proof of his unfailing devotion to duty.”  

Father Kelleher had joined up with the Irish Brigade in early December 1943 after they had just returned from their battles north of the River Sangro and would be attached to the Royal Irish Fusiliers for the next 18 months traveling with the Brigade all the way from the central Apennine mountains to the Po River.

CQMS Edmund O’Sullivan would recall another occasion when Dan Kelleher offered succour to men of the Brigade when 2 LIR suffered heavy casualties on the day before their assault on the Gustav Line:

“I went over and found the battalion’s commander, Colonel Goff, seriously wounded and in agony. I helped unload him…Goff had been on reconnaissance and a shell caught him and his ‘O’ Group. Father Dan Kelleher called me over and asked if I would help him with some burials…”

A most notable occasion would occur a month later when Father Kelleher helped to arrange a visit to meet the Pope at the Vatican for some of the men of the Irish Brigade and the events of that memorable day was later described in detail by Brigadier TPD (Pat) Scott:

“….I had gone back to Rome with Dan Kelleher to see how the Pope would react to a formal visit from the Irish Brigade. The advance was going so quickly that it seemed a question of now or never. Everyone in the Brigade of all denominations seemed to think that it would be a good thing to do. The Pope thought it would be a good idea too. The only trouble was that, being on the fringe of the battle as were, it was impossible to send more than a representative body. However, subject to battles, I arranged for a hundred and fifty odd to visit the Pope on the 12th of June. I was only sorry it wasn’t the 12th of July. The General agreed to this and said he would be prepared to do without me, the COs and the party I was taking out with me…

…I handed over to John Horsfall and set off for the Vatican early on the 12th. A special audience had been arranged with the Pope and it was to have been at ten o’clock, but at the last minute the Papal authorities had had to change it to nine. The only snag to this was that I was unable to get hold of the official photographers that I had laid on for the most interesting part of that memorable day.

At a quarter to nine, we ‘fell in’ in military array in the neutral territory of the Vatican City and marched behind the Pipes and Drums up the steps of the Vatican. We were led by gorgeously dressed officers through courtyards and ante chambers until we eventually arrived in the audience chamber. There had been great competition among the warriors to join the party. I had to lay down, therefore, that all the ORs going were to be Roman Catholic chosen on the basis of length of service in their battalion. It may seem strange that it was necessary to put in the religious clause but many influential members of Orange Lodges were trying to get a seat in the party by virtue of their high rank or long service. I gave a quota of six officers to each battalion. These could not entirely be filled on the religious score, so I made Irish nationality a requisite qualification. The ‘heretic’ element was almost entirely made up of out and out Orangemen. I would like to mention a few names, both of these officers, and of some of the other ranks, who afterwards visited His Holiness, but it might be unkind to put their names in print and have them read out in their local Orange Hall at home.  There is, however, one exception to this to which I will refer later.

We formed up in the audience chamber with the officers on the flanks, the Pipers in front and all the troops behind them. It was a fine room and well suited for the occasion. There was something very impressive about the Vatican. Such wealth of history lies behind it. The Swiss Guards, the Noble Guard, the highly placed Primates, all in medieval garments, added to the atmosphere. I took up position in front of the gathering with Hugh Montgomery of Five Mile Town, who was secretary to the British Minister, and who had helped to arrange audience. At nine o’clock, the Pope entered, surrounded by his Noble Guard and gave an excellent address in English in the following terms.

“Dearly Beloved Sons, We bid you welcome. You belong to the nation which has ever belonged to God’s church since St Patrick.

We are well aware of the good which the Irish have done in spreading the faith from the shores of their green isle into the United States of America, Australia, South Africa and many other nations.

We greet you and bless you with all our Heart’s affection, and your dear ones at home. God be with you always. We bless also all he religious objects you have with you.”

After his short address, he gave the Papal Blessing.

I presented His Holiness with a scroll in memory of our unique visit, which he was very pleased to accept. I asked him if he would like to hear the Pipers. He said he would and they duly struck up, of all inappropriate tunes ‘The Wearing of the Green’. Everyone seemed to enjoy the Pipes. After this, all the officers and men present were presented to the Pope and he spoke to many of them personally. He had told one of his Cardinals that he was very much looking forward to this visit of the Irishmen and judging by his manner, it certainly seemed to be true. After the presentations were over, another tune on the Pipes was suggested and nothing daunted, they started up on another rebel tune, this time ‘The Minstrel Boy’. However, it is a fine old air, which the Pope thoroughly enjoyed. It was then time for him to depart.

We had been with him for about half an hour. He said goodbye and I called for three cheers followed by a ‘Faugh a Ballagh one’. With a smile and a wave of the hand, he left the room and the appalling yells and shrieks produced by the Faugh a Ballagh cheer.  

Dan Kelleher, who had played a leading part in all the proceedings so far – I think he hopes to be made a Cardinal out of it – had laid on a special mass in St Peter’s. We marched round St Peter’s Square a couple of times led by the Pipes and Drums and into the cathedral where we all attended the mass.

After this, the Pipes and Drum beat Retreat on the steps of St Peter’s. This was a great success especially among the innumerable Irish priests, who always frequent Rome. They went mad with excitement, shouting for their favourite tunes. I had to lay on one or two of these to keep them quiet, of them all I think ‘The Boys of Wexford’ was the most popular. They were great chaps, these Irish priests. Many of them had done splendid work looking after our prisoners of war and doing many an act of gallantry and kindness on their behalf. One day, I hope, the full story of the good they did will be published…”  

Dan Kelleher had been born in Rathmore, Kerry, in 1909, and ordained in the Archdiocese of Liverpool in 1934. He was commissioned as an Army Chaplain in 1941 and went to Egypt with the 1st Armoured Division in August of that year, and was present during every major battle fought by the 8th Army through the desert campaign. After serving with a Beach Group during the invasions of Sicily and mainland Italy, he was eventually posted to 38 (Irish) Brigade, and attached to the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers.

Tragically, in June, 1956, Father Kelleher would be killed as the result of a motor accident in Berlin. A contemporary report stated that:

“Many people in Berlin, Catholic and non-Catholic, British, German and American, have lost a very real friend in the death of Father Dan Kelleher. We find it hard to believe that dear Father Dan is gone. Nobody entered more into the spiritual and social life of Berlin than he did. He was so happy that last evening at the Catholic Officers’ dinner which he had organised, when he had as his guest of honour, Major-General and Mrs. Rome, which delighted him so much. He made an extraordinarily good and witty speech. Everyone, from the General down, knows that a very real and good friend has gone. Father Dan recovered consciousness long enough to respond to the prayers of the Last Sacraments, and he died completely at peace and quietly.

His influence was felt so widely — not only in the Catholic community, but everywhere. We will never get another Chaplain like him. Father Dan was a keen follower of sport, and could often be seen taking an active part in the Trotting Races, at which he excelled. He brought many recruits to this sport, and his most recent and ardent recruit was Major-General Rome.”

Faugh a Ballagh.


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