Emmet Dalton and the raid on Mountjoy Prison

This is a story about one of the rebels against British rule over Ireland and about one incident in that rebellion in the early 20th century.

Emmet Dalton was born in the United States in 1898, his family moved back to Ireland in 1900.  By age 15 Emmet had joined the Irish Volunteers and was involved in smuggling arms into Ireland.

In 1915, aged 17, the young Emmet volunteered to join the British army, as did thousands of other Irishmen.  He joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers as a 2nd Lieutenant.

In April 1916 while he was serving in the British Army, the Easter Rising took place, culminating famously with the capture of the Dublin Post Office.  The rebellion was put down, the Post Office recaptured, the rebels executed and Britain got on with fighting the Great War.

In September 1916, the RDF was involved in the Battle of the Somme.  Casualties were heavy and Emmet distinguished himself in action in the fighting around the village of Ginchy, re-forming parties of men who had lost their officers and leading them forward to take their objectives.  For this, he was awarded the Military Cross.

He was presented with his MC by the King, promoted to Major, and sent to Palestine where he commanded an infantry company and ran a sniper school.  By 1918 he was back in France as a staff officer.

In 1919, the majority of serving soldiers were demobilised and they returned home, the 21-year-old Dalton among them.

This was the calibre of men demobbed, and Emmet returned home with his medals and his uniforms.  With hindsight, disbanding an army of trained fighters into a country in rebellion might not have been the best of ideas.  Didn’t something similar happen after the second Gulf War when Saddam’s army was dispersed?

When he got home Emmet saw no contradiction in fighting for the British in France and against the British in Ireland.  As he saw it, he had fought for Ireland with the British and now he fought for Ireland against them.  He joined the IRA, became its Director of Intelligence and was close to its leader, Michael Collins.

By 1921 the rebellion was at its height.  In May 1921 the Dublin Brigade of the IRA carried out over a hundred attacks.  British troops came under regular attack and even the most routine lorry movements required an armed escort through the streets of Dublin.  An indication of the British Army’s state of mind can be inferred from the standing orders issued to the gunners in escorting armoured cars, who were required to keep their shoulders below the level of the turret hatch at all times.  They were literally told to keep their heads down.In February 1921, IRA member Sean McEoin had been arrested and he was being held in Mountjoy prison.  Together, Dalton and Collins came up with a plan to rescue him.

Jim Walshe, Going Postal
The Peerless Armoured Car
Hohum [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
At around 6am on Saturday 14th May 1921 a ration lorry set off for the corporation abbatoir on North Circular Road in Dublin, escorted by a Peerless armoured car.  The Peerless was based on a lorry chassis, to which armour and two turrets had been added.  It was capable of a maximum speed of 16 mph and it must have driven like a pig.  There was a crew of five – Lance-Corporal Whetstone, drivers Ruck and Harvey, and turret gunners Jordan and Wheeler.  They made an uneventful trip to the abbatoir and escorted the ration lorry back to the barracks.  Whetstone sent his men to have breakfast and about 9.30 they arrived back at the abbatoir.  The lorry driver parked up and went to look for his breakfast, Jordan got out to find the latrine, and Whetstone got out to ask the lorry driver where they were going next.

At this point the raiders appeared.  Jordan never got to the latrine; as he turned the corner he saw a soldier being shot and he bolted back to the armoured car.  Pistols were pointed and he was hit exchanging fire.  Whetstone was held up and relieved of his gun, and the crew were forced to restart the armoured car, then told to make themselves scarce, or they would be shot.

The IRA cut the phone line at the abbatoir and set off in their new capture.  Along the way, they picked up two men in British Army uniforms, Emmet Dalton and Joe Leonard.

Around five minutes before ten the armoured car arrived at the gates of Mountjoy Prison, where Dalton announced that they were coming in on duty.  The Gate Warder and Johnston, his assistant, opened the three-gate complex and admitted the armoured car.

They made an odd contrast – the Gate Warder, 50, had served in the Boer War, re-enlisted in the Great War, and returned home from France fit only for sedentary duties.  Dalton was a 23-year-old decorated combat veteran at the peak of his powers.

Dalton gave his name as Dawson and said they were coming to transfer a prisoner to Dublin Castle.  The Gate Warder went off to record the arrivals in the gate log book.

While the fake officers went off looking for their target, the armoured car turned around and passed out through the inner two gates, so that they could not be closed.  At this point a woman knocked on the outer gate with a parcel for a prisoner.  Johnston opened the wicket gate and was rushed by a body of men.  The IRA were now in possession of all three gates.

Dalton and Leonard were by now in the prison governor’s office where Governor Munro and his deputy, Meehan, were opening the post.  They presented their paperwork for the prisoner transfer.  Munro recognised it was fake and the IRA men drew their pistols.  The atmosphere got very tense, and just at that moment they all heard gunfire in the prison.  Dalton and Leonard retreated speedily to the armoured car.

The raid was foiled by Private Barnes of the Lancashire Fusiliers.  He was on sentry duty on the prison roof and when he saw the gate warders with their hands in the air he opened fire on the IRA men at the gate, who fired back.  This was what had startled the group in the Governor’s office, and the IRA now left the prison and made off, still with the stolen armoured car but without McEoin.  The raid had lasted five minutes.

Believing that there was a general attack on the prison, Munro and Meehan barricaded their door and phoned for help.  The relief guard arrived and the incident ended with something approaching internecine warfare at the Governor’s office door, Munro holding it against what he thought were rebels, and the relief party of soldiers battering in the door under the impression that the Governor was still at the point of a revolver inside.

The armoured car broke down a few streets away from the prison.  The fuel valve was faulty and the car had been running on the reserve tank and it had simply run out of petrol.  The IRA dismounted the machine guns, improvised a fire in the armoured car, and vanished.  The car was later recovered and repaired, at a cost to the public purse of £299 11s 4d.

There was a Court of Inquiry that afternoon.  It found that no blame could be attached to anyone at the prison and that the capture of the armoured car was down to the inexperience of its crew.

Later in 1921 peace negotiations took place and the Irish Free State came into being.  In Ireland, the negotiators were held to have given too much away (another echo down the years?) and the Irish Civil War broke out between those who supported the Treaty with Britain and those who opposed it.

Emmet Dalton commanded the Free State army on the pro-treaty side.  In 1922 he was with Michael Collins when their convoy was ambushed and Collins was killed

Jim Walshe, Going Postal
Emmet married Alice Shannon in 1922 and resigned from the army that year
National Library of Ireland on The Commons [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
Eamon  De Valera, another IRA leader, was on the anti-treaty side and later founded the Fianna Fáil party, becoming President of Ireland.

In later life Emmet set up a film company, Ardmore Studios, which still exists today.  He died in his daughter’s house in Dublin in 1978 on his 80th birthday and was buried in Dublin.  Although he had a military funeral, it’s reported that Fianna Fáil did not attend.  Long memories.

Why have I told the story of Emmet Dalton using this one incident from the many that took place in the Irish rebellion all those years ago?

The Gate Warder was James Walshe.

He was my grandfather.

© Jim Walshe 2019

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