No regrets for renegade IRA art robber Rose Dugdale
It was 40 years ago this week that a posh, rich, well bred young English socialite smashed her way into Wicklow's Russborough House and pulled off an art heist that made her infamous around the world, all in the name of the IRA.
Published 04/05/2014 | 02:30
Forty years ago this week, on a late spring evening, as retired couple Sir Alfred and Lady Clementine Beit relaxed to classical records, three men and a woman burst into Russborough House in Wicklow.
Barking wildly about "capitalist pigs" and "exploiters", the intruders bound the Beits with nylon tights, pistol-whipped the 71-year-old baronet and dragged his wife down a flight of stone steps to the cellar. At the eye of the storm, a young Englishwoman with a Masters in Philosophy and a Doctorate in Economics conducted a calm inventory of the treasures lining the library wall. The gang made off with 19 masterpieces by Rubens, Gainsborough and Goya, and the only privately held Vermeer in the world.
The insurers offered a £100,000 reward, insisting that the thieves would find no buyer. The gang responded with a demand for £500,000 and the release of convicted IRA bombers Dolours and Marian Price. After a week, the search had run down a dead end, until two patrolling gardai heard that a lone woman had recently moved into a rented Cork farmhouse. A raid uncovered the paintings. The arrest of Rose Dugdale made global headlines.
In the US, where gun-toting heiress Patty Hearst had been snapped robbing a bank two weeks earlier, Time magazine billed Dugdale as the Renegade Debutante, marvelling: "She had everything that money could buy: a childhood spent romping on a 600-acre estate in western England, the right schools, a grand tour of Europe at the age of 14 and a trust fund set up by her wealthy, doting parents that yielded her thousands of dollars annually. Yet last week, Bridget Rose Dugdale, 33-year-old daughter of a British insurance tycoon, was in jail – again."
Sentenced to nine years, Dugdale declared she was "proudly and incorruptibly guilty".
A year previously, she'd stood trial for robbing paintings and silverware worth £82,000 from her own parents as an IRA fundraiser.
Her father had tried to provide the best upbringing money could buy. As a stepping stone to finishing school and then Oxford, she attended the elite Miss Ironside's School for Girls. Aged 17, her station on society's top tier was confirmed when she was presented as a debutante to Queen Elizabeth.
Her growing discomfort with the sliver spoon hit a tipping point with the international student riots of 1968, which turned the malcontent into a radical activist. She cashed in her Lloyd's shares, worth millions in today's money, and gave it all to London's poor. She shacked up with a convicted criminal. After they burgled her parents' home, he was jailed for six years while the judge let her off with a suspended sentence, saying her chances of reoffending were "extremely remote".
It took mere months to prove him wrong. Pronounced guilty in London, Dugdale had told the jury: "In finding me guilty you have turned me from an intellectual recalcitrant into a freedom fighter." Now she set out to prove this.
In January 1974, as part as an IRA unit that included Eddie Gallagher, she hijacked a helicopter in Donegal and used it to drop milk churn bombs on a Strabane RUC station. The jerry-built bombs failed to go off and Dugdale went on the run as Ireland and Britain's most wanted woman.
When she was captured a week after the Beit robbery, Rose Dugdale was pregnant with Eddie Gallagher's child. In December, she gave birth to a son, Ruairi, in Limerick Prison. Gallagher lay low, biding his time before striking back in October 1975, kidnapping industrialist Tiede Herrema, the Dutch boss of Limerick's biggest employer Ferenka. He and teen accomplice Marian Coyle demanded the release of Dugdale and two others.
During Dugdale's 17 months behind bars, Ireland had gone from bad to very much worse. The slaughter of 35 people in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings had been followed by the Guildford and Birmingham pub bombings, while the Miami showband massacre sent a message that no one was safe.
The kidnapping of a top European industrialist threatened to push Ireland over the cliff as a place no one could do business. Gallagher surrendered after an 18-day siege and many saw his 20-year sentence as a punishment for the economic trauma he'd caused. He was imprisoned alongside Dugdale in Limerick Prison.
Now 73, Rose Dugdale lives in central Dublin, where she keeps a mostly low profile, although she did lend her voice to the Shell To Sea campaign in 2007.
In a rare interview with RTÉ two years ago, she said she had no regrets and, as if recalling her time in some fondly remembered pop group, reminisced: "You mustn't forget it was very exciting times ... the world looked as if it could change and was likely to be changed and, whoever you were, you could play a part in that."