Heiress, Rebel, Vigilante, Bomber Sean O’Driscoll Sandycove, €26.60
While writing his new book, subtitled The Extraordinary Life of Rose Dugdale, the journalist Sean O’Driscoll learns his own grandfather supplied guns to the IRA in the 1920s.
“By pedigree, the task of bombing the Six Counties into a united Ireland would seem to have been likelier to fall to me than to (her),” he notes wryly, “but I never felt the urge. Coercing a million outraged Protestants into a Catholic-majority state always seemed like an exercise in futility.”
Dugdale never came to that understanding. Speaking to O’Driscoll in the course of researching his book, she remains unrepentant; but perhaps her journey isn’t so hard to understand.
As one of the last of a generation of debs brought to Buckingham Palace for their “coming out”, Dugdale grew up in an England going through huge social change. Rebellion was in the air.
Within a year, Rose was at university, studying politics, philosophy and economics, about which her father was initially pleased, though he later warned: “Never send your daughter to Oxford.”
Introduced to a bohemian intellectual world, Rose began to throw off the shackles of an English upper middle-class upbringing, which had never sat easily with her, and, like many well-to-do students at the time, to embrace radical left-wing ideology.
Her commitment was initially to non-violence until she was introduced to Irish students who piqued her interest in what was going on in Northern Ireland.
“So I went to visit Belfast” she recalls. Here she found her cause. “The only question was how to get stuck in.” She spent every subsequent moment of her life getting well and truly “stuck in”.
Always “attracted to radical disorder”, she saw in the North a way to use wider “social upheaval” to bring down the capitalist order. Her aim was to get the working classes back in London to take up arms to “rip apart the British class system”, but they were unenthusiastic, “largely loyal to their country and their Queen”. So Ireland got her attention instead.
From then on, her life was a series of what can only be described as violent escapades. Rose started using her fortune to buy weapons for the IRA, even raiding her own family home to fund the armed struggle.
On the run after dropping an improvised bomb on Strabane RUC station from a hijacked helicopter (the most exciting day of her life, she recalls in old age), she steals paintings from Russborough House while adopting a fake French accent. In court, she puts on a show, denouncing “Orangeman Carsonite lackeys” and “Green Tory lapdogs in Dublin”.
Soon she is in jail in Limerick in the company of what her former Oxford tutor Iris Murdoch, writing to authorities to get her some better reading material, though she loathes Rose’s politics, calls “uneducated IRA ladies”.
On release, Rose lived in inner-city Dublin and got involved in direct action against drug dealers. As one man who knew her then says, she was “constantly about escalating the situation, taking it to the next level”. She always was. In the 1980s, Dugdale worked loyally for Sinn Féin, before the inevitable falling out over her emphasis on Marxism over nationalism, always a bone of contention in the movement.
This is the story everyone knows. The tale O’Driscoll tells in this book is of Rose’s work alongside her partner Jim Monaghan (later one of the “Colombia Three”) in developing new, ever deadlier weapons for the IRA.
They created grenades that were used to kill at least two dozen people, and more effective mortars that almost wiped out the British cabinet in Downing Street in 1991. The detonators Dugdale helped invent were also key to the Canary Wharf bomb, which killed two newsagents.
Even as SF negotiated for peace, Dugdale and Monaghan were developing new weapons. By the mid 2000s, that included fertiliser bombs for the IRA, before the Army Council ordered all units to finally stand down.
It would be hard to overstate how good this book is, and not just for what the author has uncovered about Rose’s secret life. Written in a witty and engaging style, it’s full of amusingly quotable asides, as when O’Driscoll talks of one student group with which Dugdale was involved demanding “among other things, a larger canteen and the overthrow of the capitalist system”.
He manages the rare feat of being personally sympathetic to his subject on a human level while never being taken in for a moment by her delusional creed.
Ultimately, the question remains of how Dugdale reconciled the two sides of her character, “the extraordinarily generous and the disturbingly brutal”. Everyone the author speaks to attests to her kindness, and she felt deeply for the suffering of the poor; but she had and has not one iota of sympathy for her own victims, of whom there were many. Perhaps in truth she never reconciled them.
Throughout her life, family and friends have been patient, loving and indulgent, but her violent fanaticism bewildered them too. With a hint of self-mockery, Dugdale herself concedes at one point how she “grew into the most dislikeable kind of intellectual”; but it could be instead that she never grew up at all. She was always a stubborn teen, with that unsettling mix of sweetness and ruthlessness the young possess.
Her son Ruairi believes “she couldn’t turn back… she was all in or nothing”.
All O’Driscoll can say is his book “presents no prescription or diagnosis, but I hope it offers insights into a complex personality”. It does, magnificently. It’s a fantastic read, and a timely reminder, in Murdoch’s words quoted here, that “the IRA is horribly and incomprehensibly wicked, and I fear not too unpopular with many people in the south”.