- Anthony Amore alleges IRA bomber Rose Dugdale stole The Guitar Player in 1974
- The American museum security expert says she was involved the Vermeer heist
- The painting worth £22.5 million today was stolen from Kenwood House, London
Published: 6 September 2020
The upstairs room of a Dublin bar in 2016 and I’d just taken part in a fiery debate in which I had uncompromisingly denounced terrorism to an audience largely composed of dissident Irish republicans.
The organiser approached and said gleefully to me and my friends: ‘That’s Bridget Rose Dugdale over there, sitting beside Liam Sutcliffe, the man who blew up Nelson’s Pillar.’
The old man with a granite face and the shabby old woman were living republican ‘legends’ I realised — neither of them regretful for the suffering they’d caused and basking in the kind of respect that Battle of Britain heroes might have commanded in the Home Counties.
Sutcliffe’s claim to fame was that in 1966, as a militant republican who thought the IRA too tame, he and a couple of friends decided to rid Dublin of that Pillar, its most famous landmark. By some miracle there were no casualties.
But it was the dowdy woman beside him who fascinated me because I could remember the violent ‘heyday’ of this beautiful former English debutante turned rebel and convicted terrorist who claimed to rob for the poor — and who bombed for the IRA.
Now 79 years old and living quietly in Ireland, she is back in the news after a new book has linked her to one of Britain’s most notorious — and hitherto unsolved — art thefts.
It was 1974 when The Guitar Player, one of the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer’s best-known paintings — worth around £22.5 million at today’s prices — was stolen from Kenwood House in North London.
It was eventually retrieved from a cemetery after an anonymous tip-off, but the culprit was never found.
In The Woman Who Stole Vermeer, to be published later this year, American museum security expert Anthony Amore, alleges it was Dugdale because of her record as a ‘society art thief’ and two ransom notes linked to IRA terrorists.
So who exactly was the upper class, Oxford-educated rebel Rose Dugdale and what triggered her to reject her background so completely?
She was born in 1941, the daughter of a multi- millionaire Lloyd’s underwriter Eric and his wife Carol who had a house in Chelsea and a 600-acre estate in Devon.
She and her older sister Caroline and younger brother James enjoyed a privileged upbringing, attending Sunday morning services at Chelsea Pensioners Chapel and watching Margot Fonteyn in Cinderella from the Dugdale family box in the Royal Opera House.
For afternoon piano duets at Miss Ironside’s School for Girls in Kensington, West London, the sisters wore identical white broderie anglaise dresses.
When in Devon, they would practise dressage on ponies in a specially constructed ring.
Popular at her Kensington school, Dugdale was remembered as warm-hearted, irreverent and very funny.
‘Everyone adored this generous, clever and dashing millionaire’s daughter, who was life and laughter,’ wrote Virginia Ironside, the agony aunt and journalist who is a great-niece of the school’s founder.
Dugdale attended finishing school abroad and then, in 1958, came out as a debutante, although she was already showing signs of rebellion, and consented only under duress to participate in ‘the season’.
In 1959, she went to St Anne’s College, Oxford, to read philosophy, politics and economics and chose to live in what, even by student standards, was squalor.
She became famous for gate-crashing the Oxford Union debating society dressed as a man to protest against the bar on women members.
After graduating, Rose acquired two more degrees and became a government economist.
But she was becoming increasingly radicalised by the student protests of the late Sixties, a visit to Cuba and the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972.
That year, she resigned from her job, sold her Chelsea home and moved into a flat in Tottenham with her married revolutionary socialist lover Walter Heaton, a former Guardsman who had done time for minor offences.
She cashed in her share of the family syndicate at Lloyds, and gave the £150,000 to her lover’s wife and daughters and the poor in North London.
With Wally she ran the Tottenham Claimants’ Union and developed an interest in the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, travelling there to join demonstrations and consort with IRA members.
A year later, in 1973, the couple were arrested and charged with stealing paintings and silverware worth £82,000 from the Dugdale family home in Devon — allegedly to send the proceeds to the IRA.
At the trial, which made headlines nationally, Rose pleaded not guilty, claimed to have been coerced by others, denounced her family and background, cross-examined her father who was a witness for the prosecution, and told him: ‘I love you, but hate everything you stand for.’
When they were found guilty, she told the jury: ‘In finding me guilty you have turned me from an intellectual recalcitrant into a freedom fighter. I know no finer title.’
She was given a two-year suspended sentence on the grounds that she was most unlikely to commit any further criminal acts, while Wally got six years.
Dugdale denounced the disproportionate sentences as a blatant example of capitalist injustice, and disappeared to join an IRA active service unit.
In January 1974, she and other IRA members, including her then lover Eddie Gallagher, hijacked a helicopter in County Donegal in the Republic to drop bombs in milk churns on an RUC station in Strabane in Northern Ireland.
Miraculously, the bombs did not detonate, but a warrant was issued for Rose’s arrest on charges of conspiring to smuggle arms.
It was one month later that the Vermeer went missing from Kenwood House and a subsequent ransom note demanded the transfer of IRA bombers, sisters Dolours and Marian Price, from prison on mainland Britain to a Northern Irish prison.
Then in April, masquerading as a Frenchwoman, Rose raided Russborough House in County Wicklow with three IRA accomplices, pistol-whipped the owners Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, and stole 19 Old Masters, worth around £34 million at today’s prices.
Again there was a ransom note offering to ‘swap’ the paintings for £500,000 — and for the release of Dolours and Marian Price.
Three paintings were later discovered in a cottage Dugdale was renting in Cork and the rest in the boot of a borrowed car outside.
It is the ransom note link in both heists that, according to the new book, is the giveaway.
The author, Anthony Amore, suggests that Dugdale went after the Russborough haul after the Vermeer theft failed to deliver.
Rose Dugdale pleaded ‘proudly and incorruptibly guilty’ and was sentenced to nine years for her part in the robbery and attack on the RUC station.
While in prison she gave birth to Ruairí, Eddie Gallagher’s son. Gallagher, who was serving 20 years for IRA activities, was allowed to marry Dugdale in Limerick prison in 1978.
Since her release in 1980, Dugdale has kept a low profile in Dublin and so far has not responded to the claims in the forthcoming book about the Kenwood Vermeer. (She did not respond to the Mail’s request for comment.)
In a rare interview with RTÉ two years ago, Dugdale said she had no regrets: ‘You mustn’t forget it was very exciting times…the world looked as if it could change and was likely to be changed and, whoever you were, you could play a part in that.’
Of the RUC bombing, she has said: ‘It was military action which had a chance to succeed.’
I would still remember the weirdness of that evening in the Dublin bar with Dugdale in the audience with some amusement were it not for one tragic fact.
One of the friends who’d come to support me in the debate that night was a young journalist called Lyra McKee. Last year she was murdered by a dissident republican.
There is nothing romantic about terrorism.