The enigma that was Rose Dugdale 


by Rose Barrett
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Aged 83, the death occurred last weekend of Rose Dugdale – less than a month before a movie covering her extraordinary life, was due to be released in Northern Ireland.

Her name is synonymous with the 1974 great art robbery of Russborough House near Blessington, Co Wicklow. Nineteen high-value paintings were stolen on the night, including a Vermeer, two Gainsboroughs, a Goya, and three Rubens.

Dugdale was later tried for that offence, along with a failed bombing attempt in Strabane. She was convicted in 1974 and jailed while pregnant, and sentenced to nine years in prison. There, she gave birth to a son Ruairí; in 1978, she married the baby’s father, Eddie Gallagher, a well-known IRA activist, remembered for having kidnapped industrialist Tiede Herrema in 1975 and holding him in a house in Monasterevin, Co Kildare for 36 days.

Dugdale’s life and politics have long since fascinated the media and an international audience. She is portrayed always as the well-heeled daughter of a millionaire who worked for Lloyd’s of London. A socialite born with a silver spoon, she went to the best schools and was sent to a finishing school in advance of her launch as a debutante before Queen Elizabeth 11.

So, how did the young English socialite who grew up on the family’s 600-acre estate in Devon, become a dedicated and active member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army? Sometimes, she has been portrayed as perhaps being a gullible, rich but bored young woman, who was simply swayed by men she met within the IRA.

Her earlier education and qualifications suggest otherwise. Dugdale took an interest in philosophy and politics during her years at Oxford where she also read up on economics. She protested even then against the misogynistic controls of university life, where women were refused to be admitted as undergraduates to the law faculty. Having completed her studies in Oxford, she later obtained a master’s degree in philosophy in Massachusetts, US and also achieved a PhD in economics in England. 

Following her release from Limerick Prison in 1980, Dugdale resumed her IRA activities, and became an expert bomb maker over the following 20 years. She also campaigned vigilantly for the release of Irish prisoners on hunger strike. Author of ‘Heiress, Rebel, Vigilante, Bomber‘, Sean O’Driscoll wrote of Dugdale’s expertise in which she and accomplice Jim Monaghan developed the ‘biscuit launcher’, which entailed packets of biscuits absorbing the recoil when a missile packed with Semtex was fired. The device was favoured by the IRA, and used in South Armagh and West Belfast.

Monaghan and Dugdale were also credited with the bombing of Glenanne barracks in 1991, killing three soldiers and causing 11 to be seriously injured.  The same style bomb they devised was used in the bombing of the Baltic Exchange in London, which killed three people and reputedly caused £800m worth of damage. 

Once she robbed her own family home, was subsequently charged but let off as the judge believed she was unlikely to ever offend again. The funds raised from the botched robbery were undoubtedly intended for the IRA.  Monies accrued through her wealthy background she gave to the poor.

Was she a ruthless killer?  A mastermind in bomb making? Or was she a genuine Robin Hood figure who saw injustice in Northern Ireland and sacrificed an easy life of privilege to pursue her ideals? 

Rose Dugdale died in the care of retired nuns in a nursing home in Dublin. And since her death was announced earlier this week, the accolades are mounting from across the Sinn Féin spectrum, as she is seen as a dedicated freedom fighter intent on achieving a 32-county republic.

I for one, am curious and can never quite figure out the enigma that was Rose Dugdale. I await the release of ‘Baltimore’, the new feature film which might give some insight into the psychological character and development of the late Rose Dugdale,  may she rest in peace.

Featured image: British Heiress Rose Dugdale who was part of a IRA gang which stole 19 painting during an art theft at Russborough House in Wicklow 1974 at a Gay Right Protest in Dublin.

Picture Eamonn Farrell/

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