Turtle Bunbury

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EMMET DALTON – Somme Soldier, Irish General, Film Pioneer

‘Emmet Dalton – Somme Soldier, Irish General, Film Pioneer’ by Sean Boyne is published by Merrion Press (2014).

Ginchy on the Somme, 9th September 1916. Captain Murphy blew his whistle and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers sallied over the top. 18-year-old friend Emmet Dalton charged over alongside his friend Tom Kettle, one of the brightest intellects of his generation. By the close of day, Murphy, Kettle and 65 other ‘Dubs’ were dead, but Dalton would survive to become one of the most influential players in the early days of the Irish Free State.

Dalton’s life is told in a fascinating new book by Sean Boyne called ‘Emmet Dalton – Somme Soldier, Irish General, Film Pioneer’. If the title seems a little clunky, that is arguably because Dalton packed so much into his life that a shorter title simply couldn’t do him justice.

James Emmet Dalton was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, on 4 March 1898, and named for the patriot Robert Emmet with whom he shared a birthday. His parents were both of Irish extraction; his devoutly Catholic father James Dalton was the son of émigrés from Kilkenny and Laois.

Dalton was still a toddler when his parents moved to Ireland at the turn of the century, settling in Drumcondra, north Dublin. James established a fashionable laundry enterprise at 60 South William Street. He also became a major fund-raiser and event organizer for the Irish Parliamentary Party, the political party whose foremost stars included the Belfast-born orator Joe Devlin and young Tom Kettle.

Like Kettle, Emmet Dalton was educated by the Christian Brothers at O’Connell School on North Richmond Street, Dublin. He also studied under the Cistercians in Roscrea. In November 1913, the 15-year-old signed up with the Irish Volunteers at their inaugural meeting in Dublin’s Rotunda Rink. The following year, he personally delivered a hefty cargo of seven Mauser rifles to County Mayo for Patrick Moylett, a future President of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

However, when the Great War broke out, Dalton answered John Redmond’s call to enlist. Assisted by a letter of recommendation from Joe Devlin, he joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in 1915. Moylett tried to talk him out of it but to no avail. Dalton’s father was likewise appalled. ‘The first he knew was when I’d walked into my home dressed as a second lieutenant,’ Dalton recalled. ‘He told me to get out, that no bloody redcoat would enter his home.’

Dalton was undergoing training at Kilworth Camp near Fermoy, County Cork, when the Easter Rising took place. Approximately 125 past pupils of O’Connell School served under Pearse and Connolly but Dalton, wearing his British uniform, regarded it as madness. Unconfirmed reports place him at Wexford and Enniscorthy where the rebels surrendered without a fight. Dalton would later doubt the merits of the Rising, reasoning that there was not ‘a whale of a difference between the Home Rule Bill at that time and the Treaty as it was subsequently accepted.’

In August 1916, Dalton was sent to the Western Front where the battle of the Somme was continuing to wreak a horrific toll on German and Allied soldier alike. Transferred to the 9th Battalion, he found himself marching through heavy rains for hours on end alongside Tom Kettle.

They served together during the battle of Guillemont. On the eve of the battle, Kettle recited a poem he’d just written to Dalton. Called "To My Daughter Betty, the Gift of God", it would become one of the most outstanding poems of the Great War. The final line inspired the title of Sebastian Barry's book, 'The Secret Scripture'.

Kettle and Dalton came through Guillemont unscathed but the 9th lost seven officers and 200 men to ‘the Bosch shell fire’. As they raced to refill the upper ranks, Captain Murphy, the son of a nationalist greengrocer from Tullow, County Carlow, took command of the battalion while Kettle took over ‘B’ Company and Dalton became second in command of ‘A’ Company.

On September 8th, the Dubs advanced on the village of Ginchy with a mission to clear out its Bavarian occupants. There had been many Allied attempts to conquer Ginchy; none had succeeded. As they dug into trenches outside the village, Dalton recalled how ‘the stench of the dead that covered our road was so awful that we both [ie: he and Kettle] used some foot powder on our faces.’

At length, Murphy’s whistle sounded and Dalton led his company over. German bullets and bombs slashed through the rain-sodden skies and the Dubs began dropping left and right. Many weeks later, Dalton found the strength to write to Mary Kettle and explain what happened to her husband.

‘I was just behind Tom when we went over the top. He was in a bent position and a bullet got over a steel waistcoat that he wore and entered his heart. Well, he only lasted about one minute, and he had my crucifix in his hands.’

When it became apparent that Kettle was dead, Dalton removed all his papers and personal items from his pocket. He handed them to 2nd Lieutenant William H. Boyd, a Londonderry accountant, with instructions to send them back to Mary. Just minutes later, Boyd was atomized by a howitzer shell, and all Kettle’s belongings with him.

With Captain Murphy also dead, it fell to the teenaged Dalton to take command of both ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies for the final push. Night was falling fast as he led the men onwards, under intense fire. By a combination of strategic genius and good fortune, he and a sergeant managed to capture an enemy patrol of twenty-one Germans.

Dalton was wounded in the chest and knee and would go through the rest of his life with a bullet scar on his face. The following year he was awarded a Military Cross at Buckingham Palace for having displayed ‘great bravery and leadership in action’ although he apparently refused to bow to the king because of his strong feelings about the execution of the Easter Rising leaders.

The Irish conquest of Ginchy turned out to be one of the few victories the Allies could claim in the terrible year of 1916 and proved to be a game-changer of a sort in the inch-by-inch battle for the Western Front. The cost to the Irish was immense. Over 4,350 casualties were recorded by the 16th (Irish) Division between 3 and 9 September, as compared to 884 of the village’s Bavarian defenders.

Promoted to Major, Dalton served out the remainder of the war in Salonika, Germany, Palestine and France. De-mobbed in 1919, he reverted to his pre-war empathies, re-joined the Irish Volunteers as a training officer and rapidly rose to become the organization’s Director of Training and Munitions during the War of Independence. He also managed to play for Bohemian Football club during the 1919-1920 season.

Dalton also conceived and took part in the daring plan to rescue the IRA’s flying column leader Sean MacEoin from Mountjoy Prison in May 1921. In the wake of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, he supported Michael Collins and the pro-Treaty side and was one of the leading military brains involved with the National Army’s subsequent campaigns. On 28 June 1922, he commanded the Free State troops assigned to dislodge the Republicans from the Four Courts in Dublin, an event generally considered to be the start of the Irish Civil War.

Depending on one's convictions, Major-General Dalton is to be either credited with, or blamed for, breaking the back of the Anti-Treaty forces in the ‘Munster Republic’ during the summer of 1922, including a dramatic amphibious attack on Cork City. In August, he was in the convoy with Collins when the latter was gunned down at Béal na Bláth.

Dalton resigned his army commission in December 1922, having marked his card as an opponent of the Free State government’s policy of executing anti-Treaty IRA prisoners without trial. After a short stint as Clerk of the Senate, he quit politics to try and rescue his father's ailing wholesale goods business.

A fan of the silver screen, he moved to London to work as a film distributor and producer. In 1958 he co-founded the Irish Ardmore Studios in Bray, County Wicklow. Its first production was an adaptation of Walter Macken’s play, ‘Home is the Hero’. Ardmore went on to produce films such as ‘The Blue Max’, ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ and ‘The Lion in Winter’, all filmed in Ireland. In more recent years, Ardmore has been the base for movies such as ‘Braveheart’, ‘My Left Foot’, ‘The Commitments’ and ‘Veronica Guerin’, as well as ‘The Tudors’, ‘Moone Boy’ and ‘Penny Dreadful’.

Emmet Dalton died on his birthday in 1978, over sixty years after Ginchy. He was survived by his son Richard and three daughters, Audrey (an acclaimed actress), Sybil and Nuala.[i]


[i] On the off-chance that you’re a Perry Mason fan, Audrey Dalton appears as Kate Eastman in an episode called ‘The Case of the Injured Innocent’. Richard Dalton, son of Emmet, emailed me in December 2014 to say: “My two sisters, Sybil & Nuala who were alive at the time of my father’s death have since passed on so now there are just two of us! Sounds like a Agatha Christie story.”

‘Emmet Dalton – Somme Soldier, Irish General, Film Pioneer’ by Sean Boyne is published by Merrion Press (2014).