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Author Sean O’Driscoll pictured at Cappahard Lane Ennis.Pic Arthur Ellis.

Clare writer on extraordinary life of debutante turned bomber

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Rose Dugdale, who spurned a life of privilege to join the IRA, is the subject of a book by writer Sean O’Driscoll

A DÉBUTANTE presented to Queen Elizabeth in 1958, young Rose Dugdale had a life of privilege among England’s upper class at her feet, but instead she turned her back on her upbringing, joined the IRA and spent most of the 1970s in prison.

Her extraordinary life story has now been told by Ennis journalist Sean O’Driscoll in his second book, Heiress, Rebel, Vigilante, Bomber: The Extraordinary Life of Rose Dugdale.

Dugdale co-operated with the book and Sean spoke frequently to her during his research, while he says he was aware of the privileged revolutionary from his youth.

“We used to visit cousins in Dublin and we’d pass Portlaoise prison and my mother or father  would say that’s where Eddie Gallagher (the father of Dugdale’s child, whom she married while in prison) is. On the way back down passing Limerick my mother would say that’s where Rose Dugdale is, she’s a very wealthy English woman.

“Then when the Columbia Three thing happened, three IRA members were caught in the jungle in Columbia teaching FARC rebels how to make weapons and stuff.

“Sinn Féin had an office for released prisoners after the Good Friday agreement and I went down there, there were a lot of Belfast accents, it was a tough crowd, and then this English woman came in and said we won’t be commenting, but would you like a cup of tea? I was wondering who the hell is she, but outside the door I heard someone say ‘Goodbye Rose’ and I thought, ‘Oh my God, that must be the famous Rose Dugdale’.”

Sean, who will be interviewed at the Temple Gate Hotel on March 3, also wrote the very well received The Accidental Spy about an American trucker who infiltrated the Real  IRA, and he wanted to again look at someone who was up to their neck in Republicanism, despite coming from a very different background.

Rose pictured in the 1970s

Obviously Rose fit the bill having been born into considerable wealth at the heart of the British establishment, before going to prison having committed bombings and a multi-million pound art heist.

After being released she immediately recommitted to the cause and would spend years working on the development of weapons in Mayo.

It’s a unique trajectory for a life and Sean says her persistence with Republicanism is difficult to understand.

“Most people run out of steam with radical politics by their mid-twenties; she kept it going her whole life. Her son Ruairi is convinced that she was just born to be like that and nothing was going to stop her. She just had that kind of personality.

“There are certain people throughout history, like Ulrike Meinhof in the Baader Meinhof group in Germany, who have something in them that they will not back down and will take it to whatever extreme. I think she’s like that; I’ve never really fully understood why.

“Her sister Caroline married a Tory MP and lived the British upper class life completely, and never spoke to Rose after the early 70s. It’s something psychological Ruairi thinks, and I’d say that’s true.”

Dugdale now lives in a Dublin nursing home, and Sean frequently visited her, but the interactions were somewhat mixed in terms of getting her perspectives and recollections of the past.

“We had good days and bad days. Some days she was excellent and recalled her childhood and joining the Foreign Aid Ministry, she had quite vivid memories. Other days it was quite frustrating, because it just wouldn’t come to her.”

He says her brother James declined to be interviewed, while her brother in law – the former Conservative MP Patrick Ground – was very definitive about not talking.

“He hung up the phone as soon as he heard the words Rose Dugdale. He didn’t want to discuss it at all. I can understand it from his perspective, he and all the other Tories in the ‘80s were given police training in how to look under their car for car bombs and things. To think that your sister-in-law is in that organisation, it must have been horrendous.”

Certain other family members wouldn’t go on the record, but provided him with very valuable information nevertheless.

“In the ‘70s there was a huge amount of speculation about Rose’s wealth, what she had and what she gave away. It was only through family members being able to open up the details of the family trust that I could only get a very specific and detailed account, which had never been published before.”

Dugdale had access to two family trusts, one from each parent’s side, but Sean found that she had kept none of it for herself.

“She gave it all away, gave away every penny of it to the poor of London.”

When Dugdale was before the courts in the 1970s there was huge media coverage of a unique defendant, but Sean knew the hardest part would be finding out what she did in the years after her release, when she was still part of the Republican movement, but with a far lower profile.

“It had never been documented before and that was the most challenging part of the book by far,” he admits.

“I got some lucky breaks along the way and was able to really open up that experience of her and Jim Monaghan of the Columbia Three who were kind of the weapon development unit of the IRA, working from a farm in Ballycroy in Co Mayo.”

In the immediate aftermath of her release from prison in 1980 Dugdale busied herself with the IRA’s intimidation of drug dealers in the capital.

“She was running a Sinn Féin office and she was very involved in Concerned Parents Against Drugs, which from the very beginning had a very strong IRA element to it, in terms of intimidation of drug dealers. She was up in court quite a few times for that. She had no fear whatsoever. There was a woman called Ma Baker, she was the biggest heroin dealer on the Southside of Dublin and Rose would walk up to her and tell her she was going to shoot her.”

However when she began a relationship with Monaghan, she moved onto another aspect of the IRA’s deadly campaign.

“Jim Monaghan got out of prison in 1985, and he went to rejoin Sinn Féin in the Coombe. Rose was running the office and they fell in love instantly.

“Jim had always been the IRA’s number one weapons developer so he took her into that unit. They kind of worked independently.”

During the course of his research Sean got the chance to visit the Mayo farm where they had worked on the IRA’s weaponry, but because the opportunity came up suddenly, he had to bring his baby son along.

“I’ll never forget it, I was down at the parents’ house in Ennis at the time, and next thing I got a call from an IRA member to say I could go up. I knew I had only a small window of time before someone told them not to do it.

“Myself, my wife and our three month old baby took off up the west coast to the farm and it worked out pretty well!”

On that farm Dugdale and Monaghan had sought to improve the efficiency of weapons, coming up with a means to improve the accuracy of rocket launchers by using first digestive biscuits and then rice to absorb gases that had been distorting the aim of the weapons.

They also worked on developing mortars and the infamous fertiliser bombs that did so much damage in the UK in the 1990s.

Incredibly they were able to operate largely unhindered for many years.

“From 1985 until well past the Good Friday Agreement they were still working on them.  They were at it for a good 20 years.”

It was an exceptionally difficult matter for the Gardai to deal with, and even when a huge initiative was taken, it was only partially successful

“I spoke to a former, very senior, Special Branch Officer who said they knew what they were at, knew which farm it was, their information was quite precise but they could never quite pin it down.

“Across the road from the farm there was a commonage bog owned by 20 farmers collectively. They were storing the rockets there but it was very hard to pin down the ownership legally.

“It wasn’t until the Columbia 3 that the Special Branch went down to the farm in huge numbers and really went through it. They drilled down into the cowsheds, they really took the house apart, had dinghies on the coast, it was a huge operation. They did manage to find some stuff, but they were never able to pin it to Jim and Rose.”

While she was involved in illegal and subversive activities for decades more, Dugdale was never convicted after 1974.

“She was up for Concerned Parents Against Drugs for intimidating one of the Dunne brothers, who were big heroin dealers. He failed to show up in court because he felt intimidated by them. She came out of court an even bigger hero.

“The cops dropped the case in the Ma Baker thing for reasons no one quite understands, so her last conviction was in 1974.”

While she had been uncompromising in her commitment to Republicanism, she unequivocally backed  the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

“The training unit in Mayo had several meetings to discuss it and the consensus was that the IRA had taken it as far as it could and like any revolutionary group they had to hand it over to the politicians to negotiate from that position.

“When Sinn Féin officially endorsed the PSNI she spoke quite passionately in favour of it.”

An elderly woman now, Sean doesn’t think Dugdale has any qualms about anything she did.

“No, I really don’t think she does, no. She was just that type of personality that was going to follow it through to the end. There were so many opportunities for her to drop it. When she got out of prison in 1980 she could have walked away from it having proven herself, but she only got deeper into it then.”

While he has spent plenty of time with her and more talking to people who were around her at different stages of her life, he still doesn’t comprehend why she followed the path she did for so long.

“I do understand the move to radical politics in the ‘60s, but I don’t quite understand why she stuck with it for so long. And I think it came to the detriment of her son.

“He loves his mother very dearly, but he was born in prison and it wasn’t long before his father kidnapped the businessman Tiede Herrema in Limerick and got 20 years in prison, while Rose was doing nine years in prison. That was really tough for him growing up in an IRA safe house until Rose got out of prison.”

Despite the damage inflicted on him, he says Ruairi still has a loving relationship with his mother.

Dugdale was once arrested while visiting West Clare, and while her son saw it, he wasn’t overly upset.

“Rose and Jim were arrested in Christy Moore’s house in Miltown Malbay at one point in the ‘70s. Anne Rynne was a Sinn Féin activist at the time and the Special Branch knew Rose and Jim were up to something in the west, but they picked the wrong moment to swoop on them because they really weren’t doing anything wrong.

“They were on the Sinn Féin education committee and they were meeting Anne. Everybody in the house got arrested except for young Rory. What he remembers best about it is that all of the biscuits were still on the plates so he got to eat them all!”

Dugdale’s story is a unique and fascinating one, and Seán enjoyed working on it.

“I got a lot further than I thought I would. I thought the book would have been a failure if I hadn’t been able to explain what she was up to after she got out of prison. I’m very glad to have got that, I don’t think it would have worked without that.

“I did enjoy the process, very much so. I felt it was a real challenge. There were plenty of times I could have given up and I’m glad I followed it through.”
With two Republicanism-in-the-Troubles books behind him, he still has a hunger for writing on the theme.

“At some point I’d like to complete an IRA trilogy of the Troubles because I feel that generation are dying off and getting too old to tell their story. It’s a last chance to tell these stories before they disappear.”

Owen Ryan
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Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.

About Owen Ryan

Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.