Review of 'Emmet Dalton - Somme Soldier, Irish General, Film Pioneer' by Sean Boyne

Publisher: Merrion Press (An imprint of Irish Academic Press)ISBN: 978-1-908928-95-5

It is quite remarkable that no-one has written a full biography of Emmet Dalton until now, and Mr Boyne is to be congratulated on having done so. His most excellent book reflects his long-held admiration for this relatively unsung Irish patriot and is written with the warmth and regard of one who has delighted in finding common ground with his subject (they attended the same school).  Emmet Dalton, by the way, is not to be confused with the Emmett Dalton (note different spelling) who was a member of the notorious Dalton gang in 1890s America and who would become a Hollywood film star of the 1930s.

Born in the USA but raised in Dublin from the age of two, the Emmet Dalton who is the subject of this book enjoys a privileged and fairly idyllic childhood in the warm bosom of a prosperous, devoutly Catholic and fervently nationalist family. At sixteen he is running illicit guns into my own grandparents’ village, Ballyhaunis in County Mayo, and at seventeen he joins the Royal Dublin Fusiliers as a 2nd Lieutenant. He sees fierce fighting at the Somme and is awarded the Military Cross for his own bravery. Like so many thousands of his fellow Irishmen, he goes to fight with the British against the Germans, then later chooses to fight against the British for an independent Ireland.

His valuable military skills and experience are put to good use in training the Irish Volunteers and his ability to pass himself off as a British army officer enables him to mount an audacious if unsuccessful attempt to free senior IRA commander Sean MacEoin from Mountjoy Gaol, using an armoured vehicle stolen from the British military. His bravery and his commanding presence greatly impress Michael Collins and a strong bond quickly develops between the two men.

Soon Dalton becomes Collins’ close friend and right hand man, acting as his Director of Intelligence, and is Chief Liaison Officer with the Irish delegation which sets off for London in October 1921 to enter discussions with the British over the Anglo-Irish Treaty. He takes the lead in the discussions on defence issues and thus his role in establishing the Irish Free State is an undeniably pivotal one. He will go on to establish Ireland’s Defence Forces.

Above: Dalton (left) seated on the right hand of Michael Collins as they head for the Anglo-Irish Treaty talks in London in the Autumn of 1921.

Ever loyal to Collins, it is Dalton who leads the fight against the anti-treaty forces in the ensuing Civil War, directing the bombardment of the Four Courts and leading the sea-borne invasion of Cork. It is Major General Dalton who is seated at the right hand of Michael Collins during the fateful journey through Beal na Blath when the ‘big fella’ is shot and dies in Dalton’s arms. Dalton will never fully recover from this tragedy.

Boyne continues to follow Dalton’s career beyond his public life, and charts his rise and his successes as a film maker. Hooking up with such Hollywood magnates as Sam Goldwyn, Dalton becomes the pioneer of Ireland’s film industry, establishing the country’s first film studios at Ardmore in Bray, County Wicklow and attracting a great array of Hollywood stars to the country. He is the founding father of what remains today one of Europe’s most successful film industries.

Boyne’s book is the culmination of a huge amount of most thorough research and, although factual, is written in a compelling and pleasing style. His account of the killing of Michael Collins I found unexpectedly moving. Other writers’ accounts of the two month long treaty talks are often confused and conflicting and even Boyne’s determined research was not able to establish for certain whether Dalton was physically present at the actual signing of the treaty which took place in the early hours of the morning of Monday 6 December 1921.

He does not mention that the signing actually took place at Heatherden Hall in Iver, Buckinghamshire. I mention this fact only because Heatherden Hall would, in the following decade, become Pinewood Film Studios, and this is a little ironic in view of Dalton’s future career in the film industry. The Pathé Films newsreel of the event (which wrongly states the signing took place at 10 Downing Street!) clearly shows the signatories and delegates emerging, along with King George V, onto the distinctively balustraded upper terrace at Heatherden Hall. 

The amount of research which Boyne has invested in this unique book is impressive. Dalton was so well connected and so deeply involved in the heart of the independence movement that readers will find a great many famous names of the Irish Revolution here, including Ernie O’Malley and Tom Barry. The truth behind the rumours of Collins’ love affairs is also explored. Moreover, the detail Boyne includes of Dalton’s family (and the book was written with the consent and collaboration of Dalton’s daughter, the film actress Audrey Dalton) helps present Dalton the man, as well as Dalton the legend. This is a great read for anyone interested in the period of Irish Independence and the Civil War and I cannot recommend it highly enough.



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Tags: Arts, Buckinghamshire, Cork, Dublin, Film, Freedom Struggle, Irish Civil War, London, Reviews, United Kingdom, More…War, Wicklow

Comment by DJ Kelly on July 19, 2015 at 4:32am

This book has received a further positive view at 'The Irish Story':

Comment by David Lawlor on July 19, 2015 at 6:16am

I've always been fascinated by Dalton. Sean Boyne's book looks like it will give him some of the recognition he so richly deserves. Thanks Denise


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