Emmet Dalton: Somme Soldier, Irish General, Film Pioneer
Like Eamon de Valera, he was reared in Ireland from the age of two, but that was probably the only comparison that Dalton would have accepted, because he grew to despise the Long Fellow as a “sanctimonious hypocritical megalomaniac.”
As a 17-year-old, Dalton lied about his age to get into the British army as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1915. He did not join up to fight for king or country; he was just looking for excitement in the first world war. The following year he saw action in the Battle of the Somme, and was awarded the military cross for his leadership initiative during the bloody battle for Ginchy.
He saw further action in the Middle East the following year before returning to the front in France with the rank of captain, while he was still only 20. When he got out of the British Army in April 1919, the War of Independence had already begun at home. His younger brother Charlie was involved as an active member of Michael Collins’s intelligence operations.
Emmet Dalton joined the IRA and was appointed assistant director of training. In May 1921 he played a leading part in a daring attempt to spring Seán MacEoin from Mountjoy jail, where he was awaiting execution.
Shortly afterwards he was highly critical of the IRA attack on the Custom House, for which Eamon de Valera was largely responsible. De Valera never really thought of fighting the war in military terms. He recognised that the IRA could not defeat the British militarily; he saw the conflict as a means of outmaneuvering the British politically.
Dalton believed the Custom House assault was a military disaster. But Seán Boyne overlooks the fact that it provided the propaganda impetus that prompted the British to seek a negotiated settlement.
In the ensuing Treaty negotiations Dalton acted as a military advisor to Collins in talks with Winston Churchill on defence issues. Dalton so admired Collins he did not appreciate the extent of the Big Fellow’s macabre activities in the run-up to the Civil War. He had great difficulty accepting that Collins was behind the murder of Field Marshal Wilson in London. This was the spark that ignited the Civil War, after the British — mistakenly believing that the Republicans occupying the Four Courts were behind Wilson’s assassination — gave Collins an ultimatum to clear out the buildings.
During the ensuing Civil War Dalton was in charge of the Four Courts assault and he later led the seaborne invasion of Cork. The people of Cork City generally welcomed the Free State troops, and this was seen at the time as a devastating blow to the Republicans.
There was little doubt that Collins came down to Cork to demonstrate that the provisional government was gaining control of the country. Dalton was criticised for allowing Collins to tour West Cork with a “totally inadequate” escort on the fatal day on which the Big Fellow was killed, but the author astutely recognises that even though Dalton had the rank of major-general, he was still only 24-years old and was in no position to order Collins not to endanger himself.
There was some whispering about the possibility that Collins was a victim of friendly fire, but it was not until after Dalton’s death that anyone dared to intimate openly that Dalton could have fired the fatal shot. Captain Seán Feehan insinuated as much in his book The Shooting of Michael Collins.
Few have placed much credence in those arguments, because Feehan propounded the absurd suggestion that WT Cosgrave and his colleagues staged a coup d’etat by appointing Collins commander-in-chief of the army and ousting him as chairman of the provisional government. This ignored the fact that it was Collins who actually issued the statement about his appointment and only subsequently asked Arthur Griffith and the provisional government to lend democratic credence to the move by formally announcing the decision.
If there was any coup, it was Collins who staged it by taking charge of the Free State army before the move was approved by his government colleagues. Questionable aspects of Collins’s behaviour were ignored after his death. Those closest to him were so distraught they figuratively lost the plot to an extent that is suggested but only superficially covered in this biography.