James Emmet Dalton, known to his friends as Emmet, might have ended up being better known for the distinguished company he kept rather than for anything he did himself, but he managed to avoid that unfortunate fate. Nonetheless the story of his life is dominated by two events in which he witnessed the deaths of two of this country’s most significant 20th century figures.
Dalton was born in America in 1898 to an Irish-American father and an Irish mother but the family moved back to Dublin when the young Emmet was just two years old.
His remarkable military career began in 1913 when he joined the Irish Volunteers. Note the date. He was fifteen years old at the time. He was still underage when he joined the British Army in 1915 as a second lieutenant in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. He saw action at the Somme in September 1916 and it was here that he crossed paths with the first of those two great Irishmen, the poet, economist and politician Thomas Kettle. Kettle, a fellow officer, was a good friend of Dalton’s father. In an RTE radio interview given in the 1960s Dalton recalled how Kettle had read to him his most famous poem, the poignant sonnet ‘To My Daughter Betty a Gift From God’ a couple of days before the Battle of Ginchy. Kettle’s death in the battle was witnessed by Dalton, who himself won a Military Cross and was promoted to Major.
In an RTE television interview with Cathal O’Shannon, which took place in the year of his death, Dalton admitted to having been taken completely by surprise by the 1916 Rising and to have believed, as he put it himself, that ‘we thought it was madness’. He was, however, to become closely associated with one of the minor figures being swept up by the British Army in Dublin and transported to Frongoch camp in North Wales, a previously obscure London based IRB man by the name of Michael Collins.
Despite his opposition to the Rising when Dalton was demobilised in 1919 he quickly threw in his lot with the IRA. Putting his war experience to good use he became director of training. He also earned his corn by talking his way into Mountjoy Prison in an outrageous but ultimately failed attempt to spring the IRA leader Sean MacEoin.
His association with Collins brought him to London for the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations in late 1921 and, unsurprisingly given his huge admiration for Collins he took the pro-Treaty side in the Civil War. It was Dalton who commanded the artillery bombardment of Rory O’Connor’s rebel garrison in the Four Courts, the event that, in effect, precipitated the bitter fraternal conflict.
It was against Dalton’s advice that Collins made his final fateful journey to Cork in 1922. The killing of his mentor at Bealnablath on 22 August traumatised the young man, who, despite his seniority in military terms – he was a Major General – was still only twenty-four years old.
What do you do when you have been through eight years at the sharp end of continual warfare. In the case of Dalton you get into the film industry and eventually you set up Ardmore studios. This he did at the age of sixty, a time when most men would be thinking of slowing down. In this capacity he brought films like The Blue Max, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Lion in Winter to the Co.Wicklow studio facility.
An interesting footnote, the Slievenamon, the ill-fated armoured car against which a desperate Dalton propped Collins as he tried to save his life at Bealnablath, later featured in an Ardmore based Hollywood movie, Shake Hands with the Devil, which starred James Cagney.
Emmet Dalton died on his eightieth birthday – he was born one hundred and eighteen years ago on this day