The story of Major General Emmett Dalton
An American in the Irish Civil War
Researched, complied & edited by Rodney G. Dalton
The birth of the Irish Free State coincided with the Irish Civil War, a conflict between two forces who supported and opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty. At that time, two factions emerged in Ireland, with the pro treaty forces led by the interim Prime Minister and de facto commander of the rebel forces, Michael Collins, and the 'irregulars', the anti treaty forces led by Eamon De Valera. The first task the Irish Free State faced was to win the Civil War, and in doing this, they recruited a large military and slowly gained the upper hand in the conflict. 75% of the people voted the pro treaty government into power (at the time, known as the pro treaty Sinn Fein). Historians have criticized the argument that the nation wanted a Free State government, pointing out that the voters were left with the choice of war with the British Empire or peace. The Irish people were war-weary and voted for an end to conflict, not an endorsement of the Irish Free State; de Valera ignored those popular wishes and launched a poorly organized civil war that had little popular support and less military success. Michael Collins, the effective head of the new government, built an army from the pro-treaty remnants of the IRA, plus new recruits; and he was funded and supplied by the British government. Collins was ambushed and killed by anti-treaty elements near his home in August, 1922, a move that shocked the country. Even without Collins' leadership, the Irish army speedily destroyed the insurgency.
Major General Emmett Dalton
Considering that Emmet Dalton was a Secretary to the Senate, played such a prominent role in the IRA during the Anglo-Irish War, commanded the artillery that attacked the Four Courts, broke the back of the 'Minister Republic' and was with Collins when he was killed at Béal na Bláth it is astonishing that so little information about his life seems to have survived. His name crops up again and again in accounts of Ireland's revolution, yet a casual search of the internet turns up very little. He left no published memoirs and except for a series of interviews for RTE, no biography of Emmet Dalton has yet been written.
Born in the USA on Friday 4 March 1898, James Emmet Dalton grew up at 8 Upper St Columbus Road, Drumcondra, a solidly middle-class Catholic suburb of Dublin, and was educated by the Christian Brothers at their school in North Richmond Street. The O’Connell School still survives and has an extensive museum commemorating its former students; however, neither Dalton nor Brendan Finucane - the youngest wing commander in the RAF during World War II - receives a mention.
Dalton's father was a third-generation Irish-American Republican who had returned to Ireland in 1900 and his family's political activism probably explains why Emmet joined the Dublin Volunteers at their inaugural meeting in 1913, at the tender age of 15, and was actively involved in smuggling arms by the time he was 16. His younger brother Charlie also joined, and went on to become a member of Collins' inner circle.
Much to the chagrin of his father, in 1915 Dalton answered Redmond's call to arms, joining the British Army as a temporary 2nd lieutenant in the 7th Service (Dublin Pals) Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers (RDF) at 17. By 1916, he was attached to the 9th Battalion, RDF, 48th Infantry Brigade, 16th Irish Division under Major-General W.R. Hickie. Most of the officers and men in this Division were Redmondite Home-Rulers and, like Dalton, were horrified by the news of the Easter Rising.
It was while serving with the 9th 'Dubs' that Dalton befriended an old acquaintance of his father, Lieutenant Tom Kettle MP, the 36-year-old Nationalist MP, for East Tyrone and Professor of Economics at University College Dublin. It was Kettle who had famously declared that Irishmen should fight “not for England, but for small nations”, a sentiment that Dalton seemed to fully endorse. Kettle hoped that, “with the wisdom which is sown in tears and blood, this tragedy of Europe [World War I] may be and must be the prologue to the two reconciliations of which all statesmen have dreamed, the reconciliation of Protestant Ulster with Ireland, and the reconciliation of Ireland with Great Britain.”
By the summer of 1916, the 16th Irish Division was fully embroiled in the bloody battle of the Somme. On 9 September, RDF attacked the Germans near the village of Ginchy, and Kettle, then acting as OC of B Company, was shot and killed within sight of Dalton. The fighting around Ginchy was bloody and along with Kettle, over 4,314 Irishmen became casualties; 1,167 of them were never to see Ireland again. It was also a battle where heroism went hand in hand with sacrifice. Dalton was among those recognized for their courage and was awarded the Military Cross.
For the rest of his life, Dalton was known as “Ginchy”. According to his Military Cross citation, he “led forward to their final objective companies which had lost their officers. Later, whilst consolidating his position, he found himself with one sergeant, confronted by 21 of the enemy, including an officer, who surrendered when he attacked them.” Later that year, King George V presented him with his medal at Buckingham Palace. In many respects, it was typical of the courage he demonstrated throughout this military career, and such was his pride in the award, that on occasion, he even wore the ribbon on his NA uniform. By 1917 Dalton had returned to his old battalion, 7 RDF, 30th Brigade, 10th Irish Division in Palestine, where he first commanded a rifle company, and then became OC of a sniping school. By 1918, what was left of the 7th RDF and redeployed to the Western Front. Speculation that he once served on the staff of Sir Henry Wilson is unfounded, as is the unsubstantiated innuendo that he was a British spy and shot Collins.
Like thousands of other Irish soldiers, he returned to Ireland after the war. While Dalton was “away at the wars”, his brother Charlie was an active Volunteer who became a member of Collins' “Squad”, his hand-picked team of guerrilla-fighters, and was one of the participants in the Bloody Sunday killing of 21 November 1920. Some say that Charlie used the German pistol his brother had given him as a souvenir, but this is unclear.
It was probably inevitable, given Charlie's connections and his military experience, that Emmett Dalton rejoined the Volunteers on leaving the army. As a disillusioned Redmondite, he probably felt that after the 19I8 General Election, the IRA best-represented the will of the Irish people. He had fought for Ireland during World War I and once said that he had no difficulty fighting for Ireland with the British or fighting for Ireland against the British.
Regardless of his personal beliefs, Dalton developed a close friendship with Collins and in an interview screened by RTE on the day he died in 1978 said, “I loved him. I use no other word. I loved him as a man loves another man, with pure love.”
When Sean MacEoin was captured in March 1921, it was Dalton who led the attempt to rescue him from Mount Joy Gaol. Dressed in his old uniform and leading members of Collins' “Squad”, he had devised a plan that was typically daring and involved a stolen armored car, British Army uniforms and a lot of luck. Dalton and Joe Leonard, dressed as British officers, managed to bluff their way into the Governor's office on the pretence of moving MacEoin to another prison, before they were rumbled and shooting broke out near the prison gate. Although the rescue attempt failed, Dalton managed to extract his raiding party intact.
After fighting at Rochestown and Douglas, Cork fell to Dalton on the 9th, making a Saorstat victory almost inevitable. In fact, Dalton complained bitterly that the war could have been brought to a close in September 1922, if troops had also attacked overland from Dublin at the same time.
On 12 August, the now Major-General Dalton was appointeed General Officer Commanding, Southern Command. He announced that it was his avowed aim to restore normality to the city and helped establish a temporary police force until the Garda arrived on 16 September. In late August, Collins was in Co. Cork, ostensibly on an inspection tour but also attempting to make contact with leading Republicans to end the war. According to Coogan's biography of Collins, Dalton had been central to this peace process and acted as an intermediary.
When Collins was warned that it was not safe for him to drive around the county, he told local NA commander Joe Sweeney that, “whatever happens, my fellow countrymen won't kill me.” When the IRA ambushed Collins' convoy on 22 August, Dalton had shouted, “Drive like hell”, but Collins contradicted him. Dalton attributed Collins' death to his lack of combat experience: “if Mick had ever been in a scrap he would have learned to stay down”.
To this day no one really knows what happened at Béal na Bláth, but it was obvious that Collins' death affected Dalton. When he returned from his honeymoon in September 1922, his heart was no longer in the fight. He objected to the execution of captured Irregulars and resigned his commission in December to work briefly as the Secretary to the Senate. In a military career that had spanned eight years, he had become a retired major-general at 24 on a pension of £117 per annum.
Despite being an accomplished soldier, Dalton had always been interested in the cinema, and by the late 1920s was working as a film producer who gained some trans-Atlantic success. In the late 1950s, he helped establish the Irish Ardmore Studios, where the films The Blue Max, The Spy who Came in from the Cold and The Lion in Winter were filmed.
After 1922, Dalton never held a military appointment again, even though Lord Mountbatten offered him the command of an Irish special operations unit in World War II. Dalton declined, preferring to follow the “sport of kings” - horseracing - and produce his movies. On his 80th birthday, 4 March 1978, Emmet Dalton died in Dublin, barely commemorated by the State he did so much to create.
An armored car like the one in Michael Collins convoy
The day Michael Collins was buried - Major General Emmett Dalton second from right