Heiress, Rebel, Vigilante, Bomber: The Extraordinary Life of Rose Dugdale, by Sean O’Driscoll, Sandycove, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1844885558
Contemplating the life of Rose Dugdale can bring to mind an unexpected analogy. I’m thinking of a range of vintage girls’ books with titles like The Most Popular Girl in the School, A Rebel at Rowans, The Exploits of Evangeline, A Dangerous Mission and Nesta Finds her Niche. All these are relevant, but the fact that Rose’s “niche” consisted of dark corners lends a tabloid spice to the story. Indeed, the glee of the press could hardly be contained once it emerged that the English girl presented at court in 1958 with all due ceremony was appearing some years later before a different kind of court, on a charge of burglary. Rose Dugdale had arranged for a theft of paintings and family heirlooms to be carried out at the Devon estate of her upper-crust parents while they were off attending a race meeting at Epsom. The proceeds were intended to be channelled to the IRA.
How had it come to this? Bridget Rose Dugdale was born in 1941 at Yartry in Devon and grew up there and at her parents’ town houses (two of them) in London. In Devon there were ponies and parties, in London blue cotton summer dresses, a French au pair called Mademoiselle and a box at Covent Garden. Between the ages of five and fifteen Rose attended Miss Ironside’s exclusive School for Girls in Kensington, where, by all accounts, she was “very much loved … [being] very friendly and positive”. Her friendship was sought by all and sundry.
But through all this, all the trappings of the beau monde, some devious character trait was getting between Rose and a full acceptance of the conventional role she was expected to play. A growing sense of a different agenda was taking her over. After serving her time as an unwilling debutante, she went up to St Anne’s College, Oxford to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics. Here she promptly embarked on a lesbian affair with her tutor, a female eccentrically named Peter Ady. At the same time, she discovered a talent for playacting, famously impersonating a male student to infiltrate the “men-only” Oxford Union debating society. The escapade got her, and the friend who accompanied her, into the local newspapers under headlines dubbing the pair of them “The Gatecrasher Girls”. Those were jolly days.
It began to seem that hot water was Rose’s element. Nevertheless, she completed her degree and went on to study for a doctorate in economics at Bedford College, London. In the heady atmosphere of the time, her radical leanings were consolidated. Before the end of the ’60s, she was fully aligned with the subversive movements of the day. Impelled, perhaps, by rich girl’s guilt, she gave away a vast proportion of her inherited fortune. She rented an office specifically to minister to the poor of Tottenham, who came in droves once word got around to put in a plea for handouts. In this and other charitable enterprises she was encouraged by her then boyfriend Walter Heaton, himself a beneficiary of Rose’s generosity and a great despiser of the class system and all the iniquities it sanctioned. At some time in the early 1970s, Wally – as he was known – took Rose to Belfast and then on to Derry, where the states of disaffection and disorder reaching crisis point were geared to animate the revolutionary-minded.
Rose had found her niche, but before she threw in her lot decisively with the Provisional IRA she helped the organisation with funds and planned to help further by robbing her parents (from whom she was all but completely estranged). When that didn’t work, and after she was given a suspended sentence by Exeter Crown Court, she joined forces with an IRA man named Eddie Gallagher and helped him to raise money for the cause by selling salmon poached with gelignite from rivers in Donegal.
Two botched operations followed, and it’s largely because of these that the name of Rose Dugdale is prominent in the annals of irregular republicanism. The first was an attempted aerial bombing of the police station in Strabane. It began with the hijacking of a helicopter carried out by Rose in playacting mode. In the guise of an English journalist come to photograph Tory Island from the air, she inveigled a helicopter pilot in Donegal into flying herself and three fellow-republicans on what turned out to be an abortive mission. Bombs loaded in milk churns proved too heavy for the helicopter and half of them had to be jettisoned; the captive pilot, even with a gun pressed into his stomach, refused to hover over the barracks within range of soldiers firing; the single bomb that hit its target did no damage beyond shattering a concrete post. Nevertheless, the whole foolhardy, ruthless and ridiculous episode left the bombers exhilarated, once they had landed safely. Looking back from a distance of nearly fifty years, Dugdale remembered the Strabane fiasco as the happiest day of her life. It was part and parcel of her “high jinks” approach to political activism.
It resulted immediately in a “Wanted” poster – “Have You Seen This Woman?” – with an image of a grinning Rose looking like something from a zombie movie. Evading capture, she went on to plan an audacious “heist” – perhaps the single incident on which her ultimate notoriety rests. (An earlier account of her doings, by Anthony M Amore, was published under the title The Woman Who Stole Vermeer.) Her target was the Co Wicklow estate, Russborough, of Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, and specifically the extraordinary collection held there of works by Goya, Rubens, Franz Hals, Velázquez and Vermeer. These, Rose believed, cut out of their frames and taken away in the back of a stolen station wagon, could be used as a bargaining tool to secure the transfer of IRA prisoners from English to Irish jails.
This time she passed herself off as a French art expert, accent and all, whose car had broken down. Once she had gained admission to Russborough, three masked men bearing assault rifles burst in behind her through the open doors. The elderly Beits were forced to the floor of the library, beaten with rifle butts and subjected all the while to platitudinous name-calling: “capitalist pigs”; “exploiters of the workers of the world”. Nineteen irreplaceable paintings were seized by the intruders.
The theft did not achieve its object. It was, rather, just another instance of freelance activist ineptitude. Far from securing the transfer of prisoners, it ended with Dugdale herself a prisoner in Limerick Prison. She was arrested following an intensive police search and the Russborough masterpieces – largely undamaged despite the threat to burn them – were retrieved from the remote cottage where she had had them stored. She claimed she would never have burned the Vermeer – about the rest she wasn’t so sure. Great works of art were a thing of minor consequence in the eyes of root-and-branch agitators.
During her trial at the Special Criminal Court in Dublin, Dugdale denounced the Irish government, insisted on her right and the right of others to take up arms and showed no remorse for the ill-treatment of the Beits: “They deserved it, every bit of it.” All this to the accompaniment of cheers and claps from her supporters in the gallery. “She seemed to be enjoying herself,” her biographer notes dryly. It was all, you might say, a far cry from Kensington.
Sean O’Driscoll has written a brisk and doughty book about a quasi-Maud Gonne figure and her alarming life. Heiress, Rebel … etc is a product of painstaking research and a fascination with the deviant course of events. The author makes no attempt to “explain” his subject’s psychology. He presents the facts impassively, with no moral slant or undertone of admiration or aversion. Does he like Rose Dugdale, the mature delinquent and advocate of upheaval? It is hard to tell, though he dutifully records her positive effect on those intrigued by her strong convictions and her winning ways (which we have to take on trust). It’s only in the final pages – which I will return to – that a slight personal note enters into the narrative.
The story continues. Dugdale, sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment, arrives at Limerick not a whit abashed to find herself among an intake of prostitutes, shoplifters and petty criminals. The female prison at the time is home to only one convicted republican: Rose herself. (Eventually the total will rise to five.) It isn’t long before she has acquired a certain standing as a dispenser of cigarettes and the “go-to” person for redress of prison grievances. Despite her autocratic tones and upper class English aplomb, Rose proves to be not at all stand-offish. She impresses her fellow inmates as “a really lovely, warm person”. (Incidentally, no young reprobate from west Belfast would refer to “her mummy”; “our mummy”. The word is mammy, and the accent is Falls Road.) What few seem to have noticed at the time, surprisingly, is that Rose is four months pregnant.
Meanwhile, in the outside world, the father of her child, Eddie Gallagher, is devising schemes to spring Rose from the prison. When a plan to rescue her from the prison hospital comes to nothing, another ambitious, though ultimately ineffective, undertaking is set in motion. It is a kidnapping. A Dutch businessman, Tiede Herrema, falls into the clutches of Gallagher and an IRA operative from Derry named Marion Coyle. The kidnappers and their victim end up in a council house in Monasterevin where a siege ensues. It is all very dramatic, with an element of farce. Armoured cars and snipers surround the place. The press is out in force. The captors’ demands include a pineapple and a portable toilet. The requested items are sent up to the first floor of the house in a basket via a pulley arrangement. After thirty-six days the siege ends not with a bang but a surrender. It leaves the infant Ruairi, born to Rose in her prison cell, parentless, with both father and mother locked away for the good of society.
The routines of prison life continue. When a new republican inmate joins the others the alliance between Rose and an older prison acquaintance is disrupted. It’s the familiar school story pattern of the new girl and the established confidante vying for the attentions of the star pupil. Somewhat outside the range of that genre, however, is one particularly vicious incident. In a protest against some annoying restriction or other, Rose organises a group of women to fling pans of boiling water in the face of a female warder. One might wonder how this act accords with lofty principles, or even a vaunted solidarity with workers.
Released after serving six years of her sentence, Rose settles in Dublin, in the least salubrious area – the Coombe – and the smallest house she can find and retrieves her son from the people who were looking after him. Ruairi, however, is frequently deposited with one republican sympathiser or another while his mother gets on with her clandestine activities. She has plenty to get her teeth into. If she’s not engaged in a noisy crusade against local drug-dealers she is reading obsessively to master the techniques of bomb- and bullet-making.
The explosives enterprise to which the final section of Dugdale’s revolutionary career is devoted is a joint effort of Rose herself and her new partner, a former republican prisoner called Jim Monaghan. (She had married Eddie Gallagher in prison, but the two were never really soulmates or even close companions.) Rose and Jim make frequent trips to the West in search of derelict buildings on which to hone their technical skills by blowing them sky high. (In this part of the biography we nearly get bogged down in the details of bomb-making.) The two, at the time, are connected to the IRA’s research and development unit, and can be held ultimately responsible for the deaths of soldiers and civilians alike, following an enhancement of their lethal expertise. Rose Dugdale never relinquished her commitment to terror tactics, though, at eighty-one, she is now mercifully out of action and sits in a wheelchair in a home for retired nuns called The Poor Servants of the Mother of God.
In his short final chapter, Sean O’Driscoll touches on a few of the reasons that provoked his interest in the Dugdale phenomenon. These include an attraction to the history of “1960s radicalism and 1970s urban guerrilla groups”. He is aware that his subject’s “complex personality” doesn’t make it easy to pin her down. The ex-debutante business is excessively colourful, and the no-holds-barred terrorism extremely reprehensible. O’Driscoll gets to grips with some of Dugdale’s contradictory characteristics – the “golden girl”, for example, turned defiant desperado ‑ along with the ideological mishmash she embodied; though why he puts kindness to animals among her more agreeable attributes I do not know. This is someone who hunted them for sport, stunned them with gelignite, blew them up as a side effect of explosives-testing, and raised no objection to her son taking a holiday job as an abattoir assistant in Donegal.
There are bit parts in the Dugdale drama for luminaries of various decades from Iris Murdoch to Martin McGuinness, and O’Driscoll brings them deftly into his narrative. But, in the end, the catalogue of bombings and burnings, atrocities abetted and facilitated, makes chilling and dispiriting reading.
Patricia Craig’s most recent book was Kilclief & Other Essays. It was published by Irish Pages and was reviewed by Eve Patten in the September 2021 issue of the Dublin Review of Books.