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- Kevin Pearce
- The Bol Weavil and the Lightning Bug 2: On the Ground
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Once upon a time there was a little girl called Rose. Her father was a Colonel in the Hussars and a millionaire and she grew up on the family’s 600-acre estate in Devon, and their home in London. With an older sister and younger brother, Rose had a very happy childhood, went to a private school in Kensington and then to finishing school in Europe. She was rich, clever, popular and outgoing and in 1958 was one of the final group of debutantes ever to be presented to Queen Elizabeth, and her family threw her a massive ‘coming out’ ball. After a primary degree in Oxford, Rose did a Masters in Philosophy in Massachusetts and later got a PhD in Economics in London.
It was the time of Swinging London, the Beatles, youthful idealism, student protest, unrest in Northern Ireland, civil rights, Maoism, the Women’s Liberation Movement, sex and drugs and rock and roll. Rose worked in a London University and as a Government economist but resigned her job, sold her house in Chelsea and moved with her then lover to a deprived part of London where she spent her time – and her money, including her own share of the family’s syndicate at Lloyd’s – helping the poor and underprivileged.
In 1973, after the theft of a fortune in paintings and silverware at her family’s estate in Axminster, Rose and her boyfriend Wally were arrested and charged with burglary. In order to benefit from the open floor of cross-examination, she pleaded not guilty. Wally was sentenced to six years imprisonment, but as the judge said he considered the risk of her committing any further criminal acts “extremely remote”, Rose was given a two year suspended sentence.
By 1974 Rose was spending a lot of time in Ireland and was involved with the Provisional IRA in the Six Counties. She was suspected of being part of the gang which hijacked a commercial helicopter as the crew left their hotel for a regular flight to the islands off the west coast, loaded it with milk churns filled with explosives, and used it to drop the bombs on a police station in Strabane. They failed to explode, but Rose was now wanted by police in Britain and a warrant was issued for her arrest on charges of conspiracy to smuggle arms.
In April 1974, nineteen Old Masters paintings valued at £8million, including works by Gainsborough, Rubens and Goya and the Vermeer “Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid” were stolen by an IRA gang at a mansion in County Wicklow. The owners, an elderly couple, Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, were not treated gently, and were left tied up and gagged, he bleeding from a pistol whip to the head. (Sir Alfred Beit, a diamond millionaire, was a former British Conserative Party politician, art collector, philanthropist and honorary Irish citizen. His wife was a cousin of the famous Mitford family. They left South Africa for Ireland because of their opposition to the apartheid system and moved their extensive art collection from London in the Nineteen Fifties but continued to visit Africa, endowing schools, libraries and health clinics. The Beits lived quietly in Ireland and were supporters of opera and the fine arts. Both are now deceased. The Vermeer “Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid” was donated to the National Gallery of Ireland in 1987.)
A note from the IRA offered to hand over five of the paintings in return for the repatriation of Irish prisoners in British prisons, including two sisters who had been convicted of car-bombings in England and who were on huger strike in Brixton. The other 14 works would be returned for a ransom of £500,000 (a scheme which did not make sense, and could never have worked, as the pictures were stolen in a different jurisdiction.)
Two weeks later in early May, a local Garda (Irish police) found most of the paintings rolled up in the boot of a Morris Minor car in Glandore in West Cork. The car belonged to a local farmer from whom Rose had rented a seaside cottage, and had borrowed his car to ‘run an errand’. The other paintings, including the Vermeer, were found in a wardrobe inside the house. She was arrested and charged, and by the following month, was beginning a nine year prison sentence. She was also pregnant, and said the child’s father was a fellow IRA member. Her baby boy was born in December 1974 in Limerick prison.
The following year in early October, Tiede Herrema, the Chief Executive of one of Limerick’s largest employers, was kidnapped on his way to work. Following a huge manhunt all over Ireland, the kidnappers were traced to a house in County Kildare. A two week siege began based on demands for the release of Rose and two other IRA members from prison, but the authorities refused to capitulate and in November 1975, after 36 days in captivity, Herrema was released and the two IRA kidnappers, Marion Coyle and Eddie Gallagher, were arrested. Gallagher was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. Three years later, in January 1978, Eddie Gallagher and Rose were granted a dispensation to marry in Limerick prison and given a five hour ‘honeymoon’ but were not allowed to see each other again. On her release in October 1980, Rose visited her husband in Portlaoise maximum-security prison once a week, but the relationship did not survive his release in 1990.
Decades have gone by and Ireland and the world have changed. Inequalities and injustices still persist and Rose, now aged 70, is still idealistic, politically active, still concerned with prisoners’ rights. (In 2007 in a slip of the tongue at a Sinn Féin conference, she said “I’m here to support the revolution – I mean the resolution…”)
Recently, I saw a vaguely familiar name of a friend-of-a-friend on Facebook….Rose Dugdale. In June 1974 I had been distracted by the fripperies and fantasies of my wedding that month, but I remember my mother, as a journalist, covering the story of the art heist, driving down to Glandore on the recovery of the paintings and her amusement that they were found in the boot of the same make of car that she drove herself. My sister (the elder) also reminds me that when our mother visited the Dugdale family with mutual friends, her impression of the young Rose was of a somewhat neglected child. I also remember the way the country was gripped by the unfolding story of Tiede Herrema, his forgiveness and his (believed ongoing) relationship with his kidnappers….
This is the image which Rose Dugdale uses as her Profile Picture on Facebook: