I greatly enjoyed reading “Emmet Dalton, Somme soldier, Irish General, and Film Pioneer” by Sean Boyne published by Merrion Press. Through the life of one man, this book gives a deep insight into Irish history from 1911 to 1960.
Sean Boyne worked as a political journalist and is deeply interested in military history. He has an accessible writing style, but is also meticulous in his research.
Emmet Dalton’s father , James, was active in the Home Rule movement, and was one of John Redmond’s nominees to serve on the Executive of the Irish Volunteers in June 1914. It was probably because of the family connection with Redmond and the Home Rule cause, that young Emmet Dalton lied about his age, in order to join the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in 1915 as a Lieutenant.
He was posted in Ireland at the time of the 1916 Rising and believed then, and subsequently, that it was a mistake.
Later in 1916, he was at the front at Ginchy when Tom Kettle was killed, in a battle in which many other members of the Dublin Fusiliers also died. Dalton himself was awarded the Military Cross for his part in the battle.
He also took part, in 1917, in the long forgotten battles with the Ottoman forces in Gaza, and in the eventual capture of Jerusalem.
When the war ended, he served in the army of occupation in the Rhineland.
He returned to Dublin and became a temporary clerk in the Board of Works and became a member of Bohemians FC, near his home in Phibsboro.
In early 1920, He was asked to join the IRA’s GHQ Intelligence Unit , which brought him into close contact with Michael Collins. He was involved in a daring attempt to spring Sean McEoin out of Mountjoy Jail.
Sean Boyne describes Dalton’s role in this conflict in detail and conveys a sense of the fraught atmosphere of the times in Dublin. For example, he covers Dalton’s efforts during the Truce to help families locate the remains of young members of the RIC who had been “disappeared” by the IRA during the “Truce”, including a constable Joseph Daly of Enfield.
Like most members of the IRA Headquarters staff, Dalton accepted the Treaty of 1921, but the bulk of the active service units around the country did not do so.
Dalton was involved in taking over many of the British military facilities , but the Provisional Government led by Michael Collins was unable to prevent many of them being occupied by anti Treaty forces.
Boyne gives a gripping account of the build up to the beginning of the Civil War.
The murder of Field Marshal Wilson in June 1922 led to pressure on the Provisional Government from Britain to end the situation whereby large areas of the city of Dublin and of the country generally were occupied by forces who rejected the authority of Dail Eireann and the Treaty it had approved.
The British believed, wrongly, that anti Treaty Republicans were responsible for the murder of Wilson. One theory is that Collins himself gave the order for the killing during the War of Independence, but forgot to rescind it.
But the result of the Wilson murder was that Collins was forced to take action to restore the authority of the Dail. From this immediately flowed the shelling of the Four Courts, and the beginning of the Civil War, in June 1922. Again Dalton’s role in this action is described in detail.
The then 24 year old Dalton commanded the pro Treaty forces who retook Cork and the rest of east Munster in the subsequent fighting. His counterpart in west Munster was Eoin O Duffy, and they did not get on well with one another.
As is well known, Dalton was with Collins in his fateful tour of recently recaptured areas of West Cork, during which we were killed in an ambush at Beal na mBlath. Collins died instantly while returning fire against the ambushers.
One of the reasons for Collins visit to Cork was to recover funds, the receipts from excise duties, that had been collected by Anti Treaty forces during their occupation of Cork city and lodged in local banks. But the tour of west Cork was hardly a military necessity.
A few months after Beal na mBlath, Dalton, who was a talented soldier , decided to leave the Army. He did this even though the Civil War was not over, and he was giving up a potentially good career.
Boyne speculates that this may have been because of worries about the execution of prisoners by the Free State.
After he left the Army, he was appointed to be Clerk of the newly established Free State Senate, a rather sedate post in which he did serve for long.
Boyne gives a good account of the Army Mutiny of 1924, in which Dalton’s brother was involved.
Dalton himself went on to make a living as a private detective. In the 1940’s he went to live in England where he got a job with Paramount Pictures, and he supplements his income as a professional punter.
In the 1950’s and helped establish an Irish film industry. In 1956 he started by making the film “Professor Tim” a good part of which was shot in Dunboyne Co Meath. He went on to found the Ardmore Studios in Bray Co Wicklow, with help from the IDA.
He died in March 1978 and was buried with full military honours, although no member of the then government attended.
This is a remarkable book about a truly remarkable man of multiple talents who crammed several lifetimes into one.