Obituary: Rose Dugdale, the London debutante who became an art thief and IRA bomber

An unrepentant idealogue, she said the happiest day of her life was when she took part in an attack on Strabane RUC barracks

Born: March 25th 1941

Died: March 18th 2024

Rose Dugdale, the former British debutante, wealthy heiress, Wittgenstein scholar and IRA member and bombmaker, who has died aged 82, said it was Bloody Sunday in 1972 that prompted her to join the Provisional republican paramilitary group, although her ideological direction of travel was set in motion years earlier.

Dugdale gained her notoriety – or for many republicans, her fame – as an art thief and for a failed helicopter bomb attack on the Royal Ulster Constabulary barracks in Strabane, both carried out with her former lover Eddie Gallagher. But while, for some, this conferred a certain Bonnie and Clyde romanticism to her actions, she was instilled with a hard, narrow vision that allowed her to consider Provisional IRA killings with a cold Marxist indifference.

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She told TG4 that Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972, which resulted in 14 people being killed by the British army, demonstrated that she needed to work “to free the Irish people” from the stranglehold of British imperialism. To that end she added, “If you were involved in this you needed to accept the possibility that at the end of the day you may have to kill people.”

Over many years people have wondered how and why this privileged woman from a wealthy English family took this path of violence. She was born Bridget Rose Dugdale in Devon in 1941 and, despite the Irish first Christian name, did not have recent Irish ancestry. Her father, Eric, who served as a lieutenant-colonel with the British army in north Africa during the second World War, ran a large estate in east Devon and a house in Chelsea, and was a successful name at Lloyd’s.

And although her glamorous mother, Caroline, from a wealthy Gloucestershire family, was strict, Dugdale said she enjoyed a “brilliant childhood”. Nonetheless, from her late teens she was determined to detach herself from the affluence of her parents. Sean O’Driscoll, who wrote her biography, Heiress, Rebel, Vigilante, Bomber: The Extraordinary Life of Rose Dugdale, said her radicalisation happened “incrementally”.

As a 17-year-old in 1958 she resisted the idea of debutantes being presented to Queen Elizabeth, describing it as a “pornographic affair”. But she struck a deal with her parents whereby if she attended the ceremony and curtsied to the queen in Buckingham Palace she could go to Oxford.

At St Anne’s College, Oxford, where she studied philosophy, politics and economics, she formed a lesbian relationship with her tutor, Peter Ady, whom she later described as the love of her life.

Also at college, with another student, she dressed as a man so she could infiltrate the then all-male Oxford Union debating society, as part of a campaign to break the bar on women, a ban that ended in 1963.

Described as a woman of “formidable intellect” she gained a master’s with a thesis on Wittgenstein at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and later a doctorate in economics from the University of London.

These were the swinging and rebellious 1960s. She went on a tour of Cuba and took up with a former British soldier and left-wing union organiser, Wally Heaton, who encouraged her along the path of “armed struggle”.

As she began offloading her inheritance to the poor in London, Heaton introduced her to the developing civil rights movement and sectarian strife in Northern Ireland. She was involved in smuggling guns to the IRA and, while a number of its leaders initially were suspicious, she gradually demonstrated that she could be as committed as the most fanatical Provisional member.

In 1973, with Heaton and other accomplices, she stole paintings and silverware valued at £82,000 from her own family home in Devon, with proceeds believed to be destined for the IRA. Apprehended, she cross-examined her father at her trial, telling him she loved him but that she hated “everything you stand for”. She received a two-year suspended sentence; the judge said it was unlikely she would reoffend.

In January 1974 with Eddie Gallagher and other IRA members she hijacked a helicopter. Posing as journalists on a photo-mission to Tory Island, they loaded the craft with milk churns of high explosive and forced the pilot to fly to Strabane. They dropped two of the churns but failed in their mission to blow up Strabane RUC barracks.

That April they broke into Russborough House in Co Wicklow, home of former Tory MP and South African mining heir Sir Alfred Beit, and stole 19 masterpieces by artists such as by Vermeer, Goya, Velázquez, Rubens, Hals and Gainsborough – a haul valued in today’s terms at about €120 million. Dugdale, knowledgeable about art, identified which paintings were to be taken and which left.

They demanded £500,000 and the release from English prison of IRA members, the Price sisters, Dolours and Marian, and Gerry Kelly and Hugh Feeney.

Dugdale was arrested in west Cork the following month and all 19 paintings were recovered. She was sentenced to nine years. She had a baby in Limerick Prison, Ruairi, fathered by Gallagher. While the relationship had dimmed she married Gallagher in prison in 1978 in order to avoid subsequent extradition to Northern Ireland.

Ruairi, after an itinerant and at times troubled early life, went on to have a successful business career in Germany.

In 1975 Gallagher and Marion Coyle kidnapped the Dutch industrialist Tiede Herrema, demanding the release of Dugdale and two other IRA prisoners. Herrema was released after an 18-day siege with Gallagher sentenced to 20 years.

On her release from prison Dugdale resumed her republican activism, getting involved in the vigilante group Concerned Parents Against Drugs, which targeted a number of drug dealers operating in Dublin working class estates.

O’Driscoll, in his biography, revealed that Dugdale, much below the radar, from the mid-1980s was an experienced and innovative bombmaker for the IRA, working with her new partner, Jim Monaghan. He was one of the Colombia Three who in 2001 were arrested in Colombia and subsequently sentenced to 17 years in prison on charges of training FARC rebels. They managed to flee the country and return to Ireland.

A film about Dugdale called Baltimore – its US title is Rose’s War – went on release in Ireland and Britain on Friday, March 22nd.

Dugdale spent her last days in a Dublin care home run by nuns. She had no regrets and was unconcerned about any suffering she caused directly or indirectly. Ever the ideologue, she said the happiest day of her life was the attack on Strabane RUC barracks. “It was the first time I felt I was really at the centre of things.”

Rose Dugdale is survived by her partner, Jim Monaghan, her son Ruairi, and Eddie Gallagher, to whom she remained married.

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