A friend of mine, now a distinguished landscape photographer, began her apprenticeship on Country Life, featuring upper-class “girls with pearls” who had become engaged or presented at court. She never forgot one particular session with a large, determined, furiously mutinous girl from a Devon county family: no amount of blandishment or air-brushing could confine her into the accepted demure image. A decade and a half later, in April 1974, the same face stared out of every newspaper, identifying Dr Bridget Rose Dugdale as the leader of an IRA gang who raided Russborough House, the Co Wicklow home of Sir Alfred Beit, and stole a cache of priceless paintings by Velázquez, Goya, Vermeer, Hals and Rubens, intending to use them as bargaining counters in a campaign to free IRA prisoners.
Arrested soon afterwards, Rose Dugdale was incarcerated in Limerick prison, but her life was to contain plenty of other dramas. She had previously commandeered a helicopter and attempted to bomb a police station at Strabane in Northern Ireland; Before her adoption of Irish republican terrorist tactics, she had been a far-left activist in Tottenham, giving away much of her sizeable fortune to revolutionary comrades and causes. During her imprisonment she stayed in the news, giving birth to a son fathered by her IRA comrade Eddie Gallagher, who kidnapped a Dutch industrialist, Tiede Herrema, and held him to ransom in an inept attempt to have Dugdale released. After her release, living in a working-class area of central Dublin, she became a leading activist in the Provisional IRA-backed campaign to eradicate drug dealers from the council estates. She also – as revealed in this riveting biography – continued her commitment to developing armaments for IRA terrorist operations in Britain.
Dugdale belongs in a novel – perhaps Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist or, at a pinch, Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima. As was the case for Yeats’s muse Maud Gonne, Irish nationalist extremism provided the arena in which she could forcefully reject her upper-class English identity – though not the money that came with it and enabled many of her subversive activities. Dugdale would have admired Gonne’s ambition to plant bombs in the coal bunkers of British troop ships and the way she spent her honeymoon reconnoitring opportunities to assassinate Edward VII.
Her background echoes earlier avatars too. Born in 1941 to a family with a large Devon estate and a Chelsea townhouse, she reacted against a pushy upper-class mother, previously married to Oswald Mosley’s brother, who imposed a pretentious existence (nannies, elbow-length gloves, dressing for dinner) that was already outmoded in the 1950s. Dugdale suffered the debutante circuit, but escaped to St Anne’s College, Oxford, where a love affair with the celebrated lesbian tutor Peter Ady brought her into the Iris Murdoch set. She visited Cuba, worked as Ady’s research assistant and successfully pursued a doctorate in development economics. Then, already a radical activist and in full-blooded rejection of her utterly conventional family, she adopted Northern Ireland – to her mind a straightforward matter of colonial occupation and capitalist rule.
Sean O’Driscoll faces the usual problems of writing a biography of someone still living, and handles them adroitly. He has clearly befriended his compelling subject to a certain extent, but sees both her contradictions and the unpleasant side of her character; The frequent descriptions of her kindness and generosity to comrades sit oddly with incidents such as organizing a barrage of electric kettles in order to throw scalding water in the face of a female prison officer, with disfiguring results. Nor does he mince words about the brutal treatment of the elderly Beits and their household, and the traumatic aftermath. O’Driscoll has interviewed a wide and rich variety of witnesses to Dugdale’s progress, from her early days to her eventual notoriety, ranging from the journalist Virginia Ironside to the elusive Eddie Gallagher. Pseudonyms are employed as sparingly as possible, and incidents such as the Herrema kidnap and siege are reconstructed moment by moment.
Above all, O’Driscoll has provided fascinating new material about Dugdale’s involvement, with her partner Jim Monaghan, in developing booster techniques for IRA weaponry such as the “biscuit launcher”. (Its recoil was moderated by a cylindrical packet of biscuits.) In the 1990s, while other members of the republican movement were inching towards a ceasefire, Dugdale and Monaghan were every spare moment developing and trying out new weapons in sand dunes on the remote Mayo coast. (The republican family who aided them provide another example of the author’s ability to garner revelatory interviews.) O’Driscoll shows a direct and grisly connection to the deaths of soldiers in Armagh and civilians at Warrington and the Baltic Exchange in London in the early 1990s . Monaghan would in 2001 gain unwelcome notoriety as one of three IRA munitions experts captured in Colombia, where their insistence that they were discussing peace and reconciliation strategy with Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces, rather than instructing them in mortar explosion techniques, rings as convincingly as the claim that Russian operatives visited Salisbury in order to admire the cathedral. This nearly derailed the peace process established over this period by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, an initiative that did not appeal to Dugdale and Monaghan: “they missed the war”.
Equally fascinating in O’Driscoll’s account is the life of the son born to Dugdale in jail in Limerick, Ruairi Gallagher. Farmed out to a republican family, he knew his mother through prison visits in the first years of his life, as he would know his father in similar circumstances later on. After Dugdale’s release he lived with her in her tiny Dublin cottage during her campaign against drug dealers. He spent working holidays at a Gallagher uncle’s abbatoir, where he stunned sheep and pigs, and slit their throats. Unsurprisingly, he took to dealing in (soft) drugs at the same time as his mother was leading vigilante gangs in besieging heroin dealers’ flats, wrecking their interiors and threatening them with recriminations from the IRA. The wonder is that his reaction against his unconventional upbringing did not take him further; his escape to a stable life in Germany with his partner and family strikes a rare note of normality. Ruairi’s English family maintained contact with him, against his mother’s wishes; her contact with them was mainly confined to receiving dividend checks and income from ground rents. To judge by O’Driscoll’s sympathetic interviews, Ruairi holds his mother in a kind of rueful affection and deeply admires her principles.
He was not alone in this. Iris Murdoch, inclined to approve of Dr Ian Paisley and unequivocally opposed to Dugdale’s politics, nonetheless remained fascinated by her old Oxford acquaintance. She entered into correspondence on her behalf when Dugdale was imprisoned and considered writing a novel about her. The final stage of the Dugdale story could indeed be out of Murdoch’s fiction; The octogenarian terrorist now resides in a Dublin nursing home run by the Poor Servants of the Mother of God. Aged nuns hobble in to visit her on zimmer frames, and she is liked by all. Asked recently by her biographer what was the happiest day of her life, she replied that it was the day she bombed Strabane from a hijacked helicopter with milk churns full of explosive. “It was the first time that I felt I was really at the center of things, that I was really doing what I said I would do. It was what you might call an electric feeling.” The Strabane operation was ludicrously ineffective, but this seems a minor consideration. As Sean O’Driscoll’s thoughtful book shows, Dugdale’s addiction to psychological electricity sent charges of high voltage in various directions. Her story illustrates the way Ireland can provide a force field for English fantasy fulfilment, a syndrome we have not seen the last of yet.
Roy Foster‘s most recent book is On Seamus Heaney2020
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