James Emmet Dalton MC, Irish soldier and film producer, is born in Fall River, Massachusetts, on March 4, 1898. He serves in the British Army in World War I, reaching the rank of captain. However, on his return to Ireland he becomes one of the senior figures in the Dublin Brigade of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) which fights against British rule in Ireland.
Dalton is born to Irish American parents James F. and Katharine L. Dalton. The family moves back to Ireland when he is two years old. He grows up in a middle-class Catholic background in Drumcondra in North Dublin and lives at No. 8 Upper St. Columba’s Road. He is educated by the Christian Brothers at O’Connell School in North Richmond Street. He joins the nationalist militia, the Irish Volunteers, in 1913 and the following year, though only fifteen, is involved in the smuggling of arms into Ireland.
Dalton joins the British Army in 1915 for the duration of the Great War. His decision is not that unusual among Irish Volunteers, as over 20,000 of the National Volunteers join the British New Army on the urgings of Nationalist leader John Redmond. His father, however, disagrees with his son’s decision. He initially joins the 7th battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers (RDF) as a temporary 2nd Lieutenant. By 1916 he is attached to the 9th Battalion, RDF, 16th (Irish) Division under Major-General William Hickie, which contains many Irish nationalist recruits.
During the Battle of the Somme in September 1916, Dalton is involved in bloody fighting during the Battle of Ginchy, in which over 4,000 Irishmen are killed or wounded. He is awarded the Military Cross for his conduct in the battle. Afterwards he is transferred to the 6th Battalion, Leinster Regiment, and sent to Thessaloniki then Palestine, where he commands a company and then supervises a sniper school in el-ʻArīsh. In 1918 he is re-deployed again to France, and in July promoted to captain, serving as an instructor.
On demobilisation in April 1919, Dalton returns to Ireland. There, finding that his younger brother Charlie had joined the IRA, he himself follows suit. He later comments on the apparent contradiction of fighting both with and against the British Army by saying that he had fought for Ireland with the British and fought for Ireland against them.
Dalton becomes close to Michael Collins and rises swiftly to become IRA Director of Intelligence and is involved in The Squad, the Dublin-based assassination unit. On May 14, 1921, he leads an operation with Paddy Daly that he and Collins had devised. It is designed to rescue Gen. Seán Mac Eoin from Mountjoy Prison using a hijacked British armoured car and two of Dalton’s old British Army uniforms.
Dalton follows Collins in accepting the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922 and is one of the first officers, a Major General, in the new National Army established by the Irish Provisional Government of the Irish Free State. The Treaty is opposed by much of the IRA and Civil War between pro and anti-treaty factions eventually results.
Dalton is in command of troops assaulting the Four Courts in the Battle of Dublin which marks the start of the war in June 1922. At Collins’ instigation he, as Military liaison officer with the British during the truce, takes control of the two 18 pounder guns from the British that are trained on the buildings. He becomes commander of the Free State Army under Richard Mulcahy‘s direction. He is behind the Irish Free State offensive of July–August 1922 that dislodges the Anti-Treaty fighters from the towns of Munster. He proposes seaborne landings to take the Anti-Treaty positions from the rear and he commands one such naval landing that takes Cork in early August. In spite of firm loyalty to the National Army, he is critical of the Free State’s failure to follow up its victory, allowing the Anti-Treaty IRA to regroup resuming the guerrilla warfare started in 1919.
On August 22, 1922, he accompanies Collins in convoy, touring rural west Cork. The convoy is ambushed near Béal na Bláth and Collins is killed in the firefight. He had advised Collins to drive on, but Collins, who is not an experienced combat veteran, insists on stopping to fight.
Dalton is married shortly afterwards, on October 9, 1922, to Alice Shannon in Cork’s Imperial Hotel. By December 1922 he has resigned his command in the Army. He does not agree with the execution of republican prisoners that mark the latter stages of the Civil War. After briefly working as clerk of the Irish Senate, Seanad Éireann, he leaves the job to work in the movie industry.
Over the following forty years, Dalton works in Ireland and the United States in film production. In 1958 he founds Irish Ardmore Studios in Bray, County Wicklow. His company helps produce films such as The Blue Max, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and The Lion in Winter, all of which are filmed in Ireland. His daughter is Irish actress Audrey Dalton.
Dalton dies in his daughter Nuala’s house in Dublin on March 4, 1978, his 80th birthday, never having seen the film that Cathal O’Shannon of RTÉ had made on his life. During the making of the film they visit the battlefields in France, Kilworth Camp in Cork, Béal Na Bláth, and other places that Dalton had not visited since his earlier years. He wishes to be buried as near as possible to his friend Michael Collins in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin and is buried there in March 1978 after a military funeral. None of the ruling Fianna Fáil government ministers or TDs attend.
(Pictured: Dalton photographed in lieutenant’s uniform, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, taken circa. 1914-1918)