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James Dalton – ‘an innocent man’?

John O’Callaghan writes: An 1896 All-Ireland football winner with Limerick Commercials; coach of the 1918 All-Ireland-winning Limerick hurlers; a decorated fighter and trainer on the local boxing scene; a prominent rower: James Dalton was a Limerick sporting hero. Tall, handsome and athletic, he looked the part and cut a dashing figure. To add to his stature, he was an intelligence officer in the 1st Battalion of the city’s IRA. He was married to Annie Kelly. The couple had eleven children and lived at Clare Street. Dalton was a clerk in Limerick Corporation’s Electric Power House at Frederick Street. At about 6 pm on May 15th, 1920, around fifty yards from his home, just outside his son-in-law’s pub and in front of his thirteen-year-old daughter, Kitty, Dalton was shot dead at point blank range by IRA assassins. He was forty-eight years old. His youngest child had just turned two.

Dalton had been one of the first officers of the Limerick City Battalion of the Irish Volunteers and was instrumental in establishing companies elsewhere in the county. He was also a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Sinn Féin and the republican youth organisation, Na Fianna. In the knowledge that his words were being noted by detectives from the RIC Special Branch, Dalton delivered a colourful address to a Volunteer rally in west Limerick in September 1915, condemning the war and those who enlisted:

I don’t give a damn who is listening and I am prepared to take the consequences. We the Irish Volunteers are meant to defend Ireland but if we are asked to defend England then to hell with England and if we are asked to fight for Germany to hell with Germany … Those who have volunteered or would volunteer to fight with England are only traitors, cowards and prostitutes.

He was subsequently acquitted of charges brought against him under the Defence of the Realm Act. He was out at Easter 1916 and was arrested but quickly released. He campaigned for Sinn Féin in the successful parliamentary by-elections in East Clare and North Roscommon in 1917 and the unsuccessful by-election in South Armagh in 1918. At a de Valera rally in Clare he declared that “We must have a revolution and this country will run red with blood.” These comments were among the most extreme made by any Sinn Féiner from an election platform at the time. Dalton never traded on diplomacy or discretion, even if one might think these essential qualities for an effective intelligence operative.

Dalton’s demise was mired in half-truths and hidden agendas. The circumstances of his death were highly unusual. Of nearly 200 individuals executed as spies by the IRA during the War of Independence, as few as four came from within its own ranks. Dalton was never arrested or court-martialled and was not formally executed. Instead, he was ambushed by members of the Limerick city IRA’s rival 2nd Battalion (a noxious enmity between the two city units originated in disputes over the inaction of the Limerick Volunteers at Easter 1916) despite the fact that he had already been cleared of the charge of spying by a Dáil inquiry. He would be exonerated again by a GHQ investigation shortly after he was shot. Such absolutions were unique.

It was as mentor to a RIC boxing team that Dalton made the acquaintance of Detective James O’Mahony of William Street barracks. O’Mahony had not only participated in the post-Rising arrests in Limerick but had run a network of informants in the city before the Rising which spied on leading rebels, including the Daly family, who were key figures in the republican movement nationally. In the midst of an intelligence war that was becoming increasingly murky and brutal, and as IRA warnings were posted up on church gates and in town squares warning people that they would be treated as spies if observed having any form of contact with the police, the association of Dalton and O’Mahony continued outside the ring. After Dalton stayed overnight in O’Mahony’s house in December 1919 he came under intense scrutiny. A fearful Dalton pleaded with the Dáil to hold an inquiry into his actions in the hope of quashing talk that he was a spy. It was “common property”, according to Volunteer John J Quilty, that members of the 2nd Battalion were “anxious to dishonour him, or attribute dishonour to the 1st Battalion, by saying all kinds of things about him, which I feel were not correct”. In such circumstances, the combination of fact and rumour amplifies the power of gossip, particularly if it harbours animus or is fuelled by malicious intent. In revolutionary Ireland, rumours were sometimes potent enough to kill or be killed over. In January 1920 Dalton protested his innocence to local TD Michael Colivet and to Arthur Griffith, acting president of the Dáil. Minister for home affairs Austin Stack raised the prospect that a national arbitration court might consider his case. Before anything official materialised, however, an effort was made to kill Dalton. On February 14th, two gunmen fired four revolver shots at him near Howlett’s Lane, close to Barrington’s Hospital, as he made his way home. The top of the middle finger of his right hand was blown off. Dalton publicly condemned the conjecture about him but his situation only deteriorated, threatening graffiti being daubed on walls around the city: “A bullet is waiting for Dalton the spy”.

The Dáil inquiry was held on May 8th, 1920, chaired by Judge Cahir Davitt in a shoe shop on O’Connell Street. That Dalton had stayed in the policeman’s house was not in dispute. The question of his intentions was more complex, as reflected in the findings of the arbitration:

[Dalton] had entered certain premises [O’Mahony’s lodgings] at 1 o’clock a.m., and remained there till morning which fact had brought suspicion upon him. Having heard the evidence, I [the Dáil arbitrator – not necessarily Davitt] was of opinion that [Dalton] had been guilty of a grave indiscretion and error of judgement in acting as he had done, and that his conduct very naturally gave rise to such suspicions. As against this I was clearly of opinion that there had been no guilty or dishonest motive on his part, and that the suspicions in this regard were unfounded.

These findings were not published until after Dalton’s death but had been furnished to Dalton himself and were common knowledge in Limerick for nearly a week before the shooting. The February attempt on Dalton’s life having been unsuccessful, the second attack was much more clinical. Reports suggest that as many as six men surrounded him (Kitty Dalton remembered three). Nine or ten bullets were fired. Dalton was hit six times according to his post-mortem, which detailed two wounds in his chest and one in his right hand. The remaining wounds could have been in his back – Kitty’s account was that the three men she saw continued to fire after he fell. A bystander, a six-year-old girl, was hit in the calf. At the inquest into the killing, District Inspector Patrick Marrinan of the RIC produced a number of £1 notes which were riddled with bullet holes and which he claimed were found on the deceased. Marrinan implored the jury to condemn the IRA:

For God’s sake have pluck … stand up against these cold-blooded murderers that are disgusting and ruining our country. … I beg of you to take your courage in your hands, and I say damn these people who would shoot myself tomorrow if they could do it. Take your courage and do as I would do, and you will soon have Ireland a land that every man can be proud of.

The jury ignored Marrinan and returned the verdict that “Death was due to shock and haemorrhage caused by bullet wounds inflicted by some person or persons unknown.” Kitty claimed that she recognised the men she saw shoot her father, but she took their identities to the grave.

Frank Thornton, IRA deputy assistant director of intelligence, was sent to Limerick to clarify matters. Reporting that Dalton had been shot by members of the 2nd Battalion on the assumption that he was a spy, Thornton concluded that Dalton, in the course of his duty as an intelligence operative, had contacted enemy agents and “met them fairly frequently and secured some very valuable information from them”. “After a week’s careful survey”, Thornton was sure that he had been “able to prove conclusively … that Dalton’s name was completely clear”. Thornton was no novice, but a century later there are things about the case that remain unclear. The Dáil inquiry arbitrator’s qualified assessment of a complex situation seems more realistic than Thornton’s absolute interpretation. Even if Thornton was confident at the time that he had a perfect understanding of the dynamics at play, his recollection three decades later was imperfect: his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History in 1951 times events to March and aligns them with the arrival of the Black and Tans in Limerick. Such an error is relatively minor and easily made. More substantive is his  allusion to important information apparently secured by Dalton. No other contemporary of Dalton’s echoes these claims. No other commentator suggests that it was Dalton who was manipulating O’Mahony. The Office of the Adjutant General of the Free State Army did confirm to the Army Pensions Department in 1925 “That he [Dalton] was killed while performing his duty as a member of the Irish Volunteers and there was no serious negligence or misconduct on his part.” This formula of words had to be employed before awards were made under the Army Pensions Act. It does not tell us anything new about Dalton. Thornton’s theory also seems at odds with the fact that the 1st Battalion had been largely redundant since 1917 and if Dalton did have intelligence successes, no aspect of it has ever come to light. Granted, his espionage work would naturally be as clandestine as possible, but particulars of any significance often emerged over time. Many witness statements refer to daring escapes or ambushes accomplished on the basis of good intelligence. Thornton himself is not sparing of detail on the who, what and when in other instances. Neither, however, is there any evidence that Dalton provided information to the RIC. On this point, the contribution of John J Quilty to the Dáil inquiry is pertinent. Dalton was aware of Quilty’s role in the kidnapping and beating of a RIC officer. Other Volunteers had been arrested in connection with this incident, but not Quilty. Quilty was happy to concur with Dalton’s representative (one of his brothers) that Dalton had not incriminated him: “the fact that I was not arrested was a proof of his not being guilty of any such thing as spying”. Dalton then asked a question himself: did Quilty consider him a man who could be trusted implicitly? Quilty avoided answering directly. Not even those sympathetic to Dalton condoned his actions.

Quilty identified the killers as members of the 2nd Battalion, “who were suffering from a terrible hatred of the 1st and were anxious to put Dalton away in order to discredit the 1st”. Volunteer Dave Hennessy was also of the opinion that they did so to disgrace the 1st Battalion. However, Hennessy admitted to Ernie O’Malley that Dalton “may have been foolish [“he was” according to O’Malley] and they said he was very fond of liquor. This sergeant kept a bottle and he’d go into the sergeant’s house.” Kevin O’Shiel, who campaigned with Dalton in South Armagh in 1918, heard about his sorry end from Piaras Béaslaí, who had participated in the Dáil inquiry. Dalton was “an innocent man”, said O’Shiel, his execution “a tragic mistake, indeed a crime”, but he had brought suspicion upon himself:

Poor Jim was no informer. He … used to go, an odd time, to the Limerick RIC barracks for an after-hours drink in their canteen, as he was rather a thirsty soul. That, undoubtedly, was rash of him, and naturally made him suspect.

While there are also inconsistencies in these accounts, taken together they clearly indicate that Dalton’s visit to O’Mahony in December was not a one-off but part of a pattern. The 2nd Battalion would not have killed Dalton if they believed he was doing IRA duty and reaping rich dividends. But they would probably not have killed him either if there had not been such bad blood between the factions. At least two other Limerick Volunteers were exiled rather than executed for informing. Information also flowed in the opposite direction, from Crown forces to the IRA. Cooperating RIC officers did not broadcast their actions of course.

Dalton’s brother John insisted on his innocence to Arthur Griffith and lobbied on behalf of Annie Dalton and her large family:

I therefore appeal to you, as a friend, and an Irishman, that my late brother’s wife and children should receive the financial support from the Dáil due to them. … When instructing the solicitor for the Inquest his wife was informed that if she disowned allegiance to Dáil Éirinn [sic] she could claim £5,000 from the Rates of Limerick. This she declined to do.

In July the Department of Home Affairs decided to make an ex-gratia payment of £500 to Dalton’s family. Michael Colivet wrote to Michael Collins, minister for finance, about the payment:

As regards a public Subscription List, I think it very inadvisable; and am confirmed in my opinion by several whose advice I have asked. Public opinion is not in his favour, and the only help to be obtained is from those who knew him well enough to appreciate the whole circumstances of his case. A call for me for public subscriptions would therefore be of little use, and might be a danger, as seeming to stand over him as an absolutely innocent man, a position I do not wish to take up, for though innocent of the major offence his conduct was reprehensible. If you appoint local trustees to administer your grant, then it will be easy to get subscriptions sent to them privately by those who wish to assist his family without desiring to improve on the verdict of the Court that tried him.

There was compassion for Dalton and a feeling that he was not a spy or informer in any deliberate sense, but republicans did not want to publicly express sympathy because he had contravened clear rules. Other men who transgressed in a similar fashion were also killed, the difference being that the content of their alleged informing was usually itemised or tied to specific Crown actions against the republican movement. The only identifiable repercussion of Dalton’s drinking with policemen is his execution. IRA men in comparable situations were usually granted a reprieve of some kind but the simmering rancour between the 1st and 2nd Battalions proved deadly for Dalton.

Part of the legacy of the killing is apparent in Dalton’s Military Service Pension file. The £500 endowed to Annie Dalton in 1920 was later described by the office of the Free State Army’s director of intelligence as “a vindication of [James’s] character”. In 1926 Annie felt compelled to write to the Army Pensions Department, first in July and then again in October: “I am very badly in need of money at present”; “I am presently in very bad circumstances, depending on two children’s earnings to maintain myself & ten children.” In 1927 nine children were still living with Annie, now at Lelia Street. A Garda sergeant described the Daltons’ situation to his superintendent in May 1927: Annie “used to pledge clothes etc in pawns to meet the demands and needs of her house … she is in a bad way owing to her big family”. After these discreet inquiries, the Garda Commissioner’s office confirmed to the Army finance officer that “the family are not in comfortable circumstances”. Annie was subsequently paid an allowance for herself and her children eligible by age under the Army Pension Act. The 1920 payment and a 1924 payment were recouped from the pension. Annie died of liver disease in 1933, aged fifty-five. Increased allowances were then paid (to an older sibling) in respect of the two children still qualified.

On April 23rd, 1966 Dan Breen petitioned minister for defence Michael Hilliard about “clearing the name of Jim Dalton”:

Dalton was innocent & was shot in order to cover up others. It is a shame his name was never cleared & the right people named … Dalton was not a police agent. He was killed to cover up the crimes of some high up people who were not all they professed to be. His name should now be cleared … it [Dalton’s execution] was agreed as it [the truth of the situation] would not suit many people still about.

Hilliard replied that the Department of Defence considered Dalton’s name to have been cleared before his death. Dalton was now being awarded the 1917-21 Service Medal with Bar, which denoted active military service. Breen was not satisfied:

What I am after is to pinpoint the names of men who got him murdered. I don’t want to get them men that fired the shots. I want the people that got him murdered to cover up their deeds. There is some of them alive today.

Breen was alleging that the reason cited for Dalton’s execution was a pretence. The implication is that the 1st-2nd battalion conflict was not the real issue at stake, and that Dalton’s killers were pawns of more senior figures who duped them (whether the trigger men were more concerned with evidence or orders is a moot point). What danger Dalton posed Breen did not state. Thus, the accusation remains in the realm of speculation, but it is an intriguing one.

On May 19th, 1920, the day before Dalton was shot, the 2nd Battalion killed two RIC sergeants. Reprisals were immediate. One civilian was shot dead, others suffered bullet wounds or were beaten. Incendiary bombs were used against Daly’s bakery on William Street and when the fire brigade arrived, rifle volleys from the adjacent police barracks obstructed its work. The police were the guilty party, but fully aware of 1st-2nd Battalion relations and the pervasive influence of the Dalys in undermining the 1st Battalion’s reputation, they attributed the attack to allies of Dalton. In the aftermath of Dalton’s execution, Éamon Dore, an intelligence officer in the 2nd Battalion who was married to Nora Daly, received much unwanted attention from Dalton’s mother-in-law; she called to his business every morning, “and kneeling on the footpath outside came into the shop on her knees cursing me and my people-in-law – the Dalys”. Dore, for his part, “did not agree” with the killing. Dalton’s family held the Dalys responsible.

Dalton had been a member of the Brotherhood and an IRB cadre within the 1st Battalion made a concerted effort to track his assassins. Volunteer Richard O’Connell’s recollection was that Martin Barry of the 2nd Battalion was arrested in relation to Dalton’s death. Kevin O’Shiel suggested that Dalton’s killers were an IRB clique within the 2nd Battalion. Barry was an IRB man. Within a week of Dalton’s killing, IRA adjutant general Gearóid O’Sullivan court-martialled six Limerick Volunteers, including Barry. The six were charged with committing robberies in contravention of GHQ directives. Barry was the only one to face an additional charge, that he attempted to coerce a Volunteer officer into joining another organisation, probably the IRB. 

It could be tempting to link these court-martials to the Dalton case and the timing is highly coincidental. Richard O’Connell does not provide a chronology for his 1952 witness statement narrative of Barry’s time in custody, and he may have misremembered events surrounding Barry’s June 5th court-martial as related to Dalton’s death. Barry should not be discounted from involvement in the Dalton shooting, however. In June County Inspector Marrinan commented that friends of Dalton were “endeavouring to have revenge on some of the leading Sinn Féin extremists who brought about his murder”. On the night of June 24th shots were fired at the houses of 2nd Battalion members John Scanlan and JJ Collopy. The police attributed this shooting to the Dalton feud. Scanlan’s wife was a sister of Barry’s. Barry, according to the police, was mentioned in correspondence found on Dalton’s body. On July 19th James O’Mahony suffered a costly property loss:

the furniture of Sergeant J.J. [James] O’Mahony … which had been taken to the quay early that morning was completely destroyed by fire. The furniture was consigned to ‘J. Wilson, Liverpool’ in order to conceal the identity of the owner. A claim for £1,600 has been lodged.

O’Mahony may have been preparing to depart Limerick and to follow his remarkably valuable furniture. At face value, this had nothing to do with Dalton. But it is another part of the story which remains to be fully understood.

Dalton’s killing was part of the dirty war that lurked just underneath the surface of the War of Independence. It underscores the brutality and ruthlessness of the intelligence war in particular. The IRA intelligence-gathering apparatus was highly functional in Limerick and elsewhere, but the threshold of guilt and the criteria for punishment in cases such as Dalton’s could be capricious. Not everyone was equal before IRA justice. It was not uncommon for instances of putative informing to be shrouded in personal spite, and in some exceptional instances, “spy” or “informer” was a label of convenience. Dalton’s case is entangled in all of these complexities. There are degrees of guilt, and of innocence too perhaps. The first Dáil judged Dalton guilty of poor judgment and bad practice, but not guilty of spying or informing. The Free State and the Republic of Ireland followed suit. His killers, whatever their motivation, were less forgiving.

18/6/2020

Dr John O’Callaghan is a lecturer in the Education Department, St Angela’s College, Sligo. He is the author of Limerick: The Irish Revolution, 1912-23 (Four Courts Press, 2018)