On rare occasion, a jewel of an anecdote, quite by accident reveals itself. Such is the story of an enlisted World War I soldier, Irish freedom-fighter and later first commanding general of the Irish Free State. This key figure played a pivotal role in the establishment of the Irish Home Rule. He should be of interest to anyone drawn to the history of Irish rebellion. Largely lost to history, however, is a side note that makes his story particularly compelling for American readers. Emmet Dalton, a major protagonist in the founding of modern Ireland drew his first breaths along the salty shores of New England.
Some background. I recently read A World Undone, by G. J. Meyer, a fascinating, well-researched history of the First World War. In it, Meyer vividly recounts the horrors of the Battle of the Somme, which piqued my interest in this particular engagement of the war. I began researching further and happened to come upon a video of an interview with one Emmet Dalton, an Irish volunteer who joined the British Army in 1915. He initially signed on with the 7th battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers (RDF) and was later attached to the 9th Battalion, RDF, 16th Irish Division.
In the video, Dalton shares the harrowing details of the Battle of the Somme. He received the Military Cross for his conduct during the fight.
Dalton continued to fight as a British Army recruit for the duration of the war. He saw duty in Salonika and Palestine and rose to the rank of captain.
After the war, Dalton returned to Dublin and joined the Irish Republican Army, the clandestine organization that led the charge for Irish independence. Rising quickly to IRA Director of Intelligence, Dalton became a very close confidante of Michael Collins. Many consider Collins the leading figure in the 20th-century struggle for Irish independence.
Dalton accompanied Collins as his principal attaché to the Anglo-Irish Treaty talks in London in 1921. Leading the talks for the British Crown was Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty. Dalton aligned himself with Collins in accepting the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922. In recognition of his military acumen, the Irish Free State’s Provisional Government gave him the rank of major general in the new National Army.
Many in the IRA opposed the treaty. As leader of the Free State Army, Dalton was at the center of key engagements in the ensuing civil war. He commanded troops assaulting the Four Courts in the Battle of Dublin. He also led the seaborne landing in Cork that wrested away the Anti-Treaty positions in the summer of 1922.
That would prove a particularly fateful summer. On the 22nd of August, 1922, Dalton accompanied Michael Collins in a convoy as it toured rural west Cork. In the ambush and gun battle that followed near Beal na Blath, Collins suffered a mortal gunshot wound to the head. This we all know from the history books. What many may not know is that, after being lifted into the armored car he had been traveling in, Collins died in Emmet Dalton’s arms.
Emmet Dalton, Film Pioneer
In December 1922, Dalton resigned his command in the army, but his remarkable story does not end there. He would later go on to become a pioneer in the Irish movie industry, establishing Ardmore Studios, in Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland. His company attracted the leading actors of his day, including Peter Ustinov, James Cagney, Fred Astaire, Katharine Hepburn, Peter O’Toole, Ursula Andress and Richard Burton. He produced films such as The Blue Max, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Lion in Winter. Directors who filmed out of Ardmore during this period included John Huston, Stanley Kubrick, Neil Jordan, Kevin Reynolds and Francis Ford Coppola.
Shortly before Dalton’s death at 80, in 1978, Cathal O’Shannon of Ireland’s National Public Service Media (RTE) made a fascinating two-part documentary about his life, titled Emmet Dalton Remembers. In the making of the film, Dalton and O’Shannon visited the Somme in France, Kilworth Camp in Cork, and, most notably, Beal Na Blath. The documentary includes a 20-minute clip that focuses on the ambush and death of Michael Collins at Beal Na Blath. Unfortunately, Dalton died without having seen the finished film. Dalton expressly requested that he be buried as close to Michael Collins as possible. His grave can be found a few yards away from that of Collins, in Glasnevin Cemetery, in Dublin.
A New Englander
Why do I share this story? Well, it turns out that, upon viewing the video in which Dalton describes his ordeal at the Somme, I happened to notice a wee hint of an American accent in his voice. It intrigued me and, researching further, I found the reason for it. James “Emmet” Dalton was born in Fall River, Mass., of second-generation Irish-American parents, on March 4, 1898. Around 1900 his father, James F. Dalton, having never previously set foot in Ireland, uplifted his family from America and moved to Dublin. They settled in the village of Drumcondra.
Growing up, Emmet Dalton naturally acquired the local accent. However, his parents were American-born, moving to Ireland well into their twenties. Emmet invariably grew up in a household where his parents spoke with an American accent. He never lost that wee hint of his American roots.
It’s particularly fitting that portions of the 1996 award-winning movie, Michael Collins, starring Liam Neeson, were filmed at Ardmore Studios. To this day, Ardmore Studios continues as a leading world film studio. It attracts such luminaries as Clive Owen (King Arthur), Pierce Brosnan (Evelyn), Meryl Streep (Dancing at Lughnasa) and Helen Mirren (The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone). In the last decade, feature films have included Asterix, Byzantium, All Is By My Side (Jimi Hendrix biopic), Run and Jump and Frank, according to its website.
And it can all be traced back to Emmet Dalton, a son of Fall River who grew up to become a pivotal figure in Irish independence and a film pioneer in Ireland. In 2014, the Irish author, Sean Boyne, published a biography of Dalton, Emmet Dalton: Somme Soldier, Irish General, Film Pioneer. An excellent read, it is available on Amazon and Bookshop. A recent review of Boyne’s book declared, “it is high time that Emmet Dalton resumes his rightful place in the Pantheon of Irish Rebellion.
Aug. 22, 2022 marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Michael Collins. Commemorations took place throughout Ireland. With this in mind, we would do well to recognize the pivotal role that this local boy played in establishing Irish Home Rule. Ireland has reached a consensus that an acknowledgement of Dalton’s pivotal contribution is long overdue. I would suggest the same for America.
To see a video, Emmet Dalton remembers: The Irish Civil War, Michael Collins, Beal na Blath, Ardmore Films, click here.
Kendall Brostuen is vice president of academic affairs at EF Education First College Study Abroad, Cambridge, Massachusetts. He resides in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.
Images: Lion in Winter By The poster art can or could be obtained from Avco Embassy Pictures., Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5047149. Michael Collins poster By May be found at: http://www.impawards.com/1996/michael_collins.htmlhttp://www.impawards.com/1996/michael_collins.html, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3512888.