From dropping milk-churn bombs from a hijacked helicopter to stealing from her family estate, Dugdale’s story is a reckless but intriguing one
If Netflix ever got the bright idea of making a drama out of Rose Dugdale’s life, the opening scene could well be in the powder room of Buckingham Palace before a nervous débutante was presented to Queen Elizabeth.
Young Dugdale would look in the mirror and wonder what she was doing there, knowing that this was not a world she wished to inhabit.
In Heiress, Rebel, Vigilante, Bomber, Sean O’Driscoll takes us on a tour of the life she chose instead. What makes it intriguing is not so much the retelling of well-documented exploits, but how it touches on that single unknown. That is, why?
This book can’t truly answer that. Other than routine Marxist maxims and republican homilies, there is little to suggest Dugdale ever knew herself. She was presented to court in March 1958, and at that point all Dugdale knew was she wished to be as far away as possible from the stultifying embrace of her starch-stiff family and what she had already identified as the torturous banality of upper-class English society.
At that point Oxford University was far enough. It was there that chance, circumstance and a still unidentified thirst for the subversive and quixotic led Dugdale down a path not on any road map.
While she would acknowledge her happy childhood, it was a rigid one. Little Miss Dugdale was required to curtsey to guests and wear white gloves to dinner. Perhaps her mother’s obsession with status was a consequence of her failed marriage to John Mosley, a ‘womanising cad’ and younger brother of the fascist Oswald.
By puberty, friends noted how Rose had become tomboyish in her habits and behaviour. If her father Eric Dugdale hoped that a few years at the all-female St Anne’s College would sate his daughter’s inquisitive and unorthodox tendencies, he was to be sorely disappointed.
She read philosophy, politics and economics and effortlessly excelled, but her more formative experiences came in her lesbian love affair with a tutor and through student politics where she campaigned subversively and successfully to open the stuffy Oxford Union to women in 1962.
A number of disparate routes led the brilliant academic to an unlikely passion for Ireland. Perhaps being a student of Iris Murdoch at St Anne’s — at a time when the writer was researching a book sympathetic to the Easter Rising — was an early prompter.
Certainly Dugdale’s work in post-colonial economics opened her eyes to the legacy of imperialist capitalism and began to put shape and reason on a long-felt discomfort with the world that had bestowed so many unearned privileges.
After gaining a masters in Massachusetts — during which time she had her new MG sports car shipped to the States — Rose returned to England to research her PhD. It was then that she met radical Irish students in Manchester. Ulster was in turmoil and the restless tomboy posh girl with a penchant for rebellion was all ears. By 1971, Rose was independently wealthy and in search of ways of ridding herself of her inherited burden and fight social injustice at the same time. She set up the Tottenham Claimants Union in north London, which gave advice and financial sustenance to those struggling.
This was when she met Wally Heaton, a militant shop steward and ex-soldier who had seen service in Malaya, an experience that had turned him rabidly anti-imperialist. It was this garrulous character, just the sort of working-class chap she had read so much about, who would first bring her to where she would ultimately belong: Ireland.
But not before he helped her steal from the family home in Devon, leading to a criminal record for Dugdale and social humiliation for her ever-indulgent family.
Not that she had shed all the trappings of privilege. In June 1972, Dugdale and Heaton drove to Belfast in her sporty Lotus. As the author so succinctly puts it: “For two minds so attracted to melodrama, tragedy and revolution, Northern Ireland offered bounteous riches.” Dugdale had found her tribe, and joined the IRA. The book then faithfully recounts this complicated, obdurate woman’s revolutionary exploits, adding some trinkets to make the retelling worthwhile. In January 1974, she and Eddie Gallagher — he would later father Dugdale’s son Ruairí and gain notoriety for the Tiede Herrema kidnapping — hijacked a helicopter and dropped milk-churn bombs on Strabane barracks.
A few months later Dugdale and Gallagher knocked on the door of Russborough House, the Wicklow pile of Lord and Lady Beit, tied them up and drove off with a treasure trove of old masters. The paintings were soon recovered. Dugdale’s sense of theatre was not matched by the necessary attention to detail.
The next phase of a chaotic life was in Limerick Prison. After her release she threw herself back into the cause and later again was prominent in the Shell to Sea environmental campaign.
Sean O’Driscoll interviewed Dugdale extensively for this book in her Dublin nursing home.
At 81, she’s as rigidly committed as ever. For a woman with a brilliant academic pedigree, she always seemed to shy away from serious critical thinking, personal or political.
The cause she adapted as a young woman — for no other reason than it happened to be the one that turned up — still consumes her.
This pacey, well-researched book valiantly attempts to find coherence in a life lived fully if recklessly. The truth is there was none.
Biography: Heiress, Rebel, Vigilante, Bomber by Sean O’Driscoll
Sandycove, 362 pages, hardcover €22; e-book £9.99