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Ira volunteer How heiress Rose Dugdale ended up masterminding one of world's biggest art heists


Rose Dugdale

Rose Dugdale

Rose Dugdale

She began life as a rich young debutant who was presented to the Queen but she became the inspiration for Martin ‘The General’ Cahill to conduct one of the most daring raids of his career.

Republican renegade Rose Dugdale was an aristocrat born into extreme wealth in Devon but she turned her back on her life of privilege to join the ‘Irish cause’ and is to date the only woman to pull of a major art heist.

A new book, The Woman Who Stole Vermeer, by art detective Anthony Amore details how Dugdale planned and carried out the first major raid on Russborough House in County Wicklow stealing a number of paintings including the famed ‘Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid by the Dutch master Vermeer.

Amore is the Director of Security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston where he is charged with recovering 13 masterpieces stolen by a gang in 1990.

He has followed leads all over the world, including those which have led to Ireland, chasing the paintings which he believes will one day be recovered.


Rose Dugdale

Rose Dugdale

Rose Dugdale

Art thieves fascinate him but none more so than the one time heiress Rose Dugdale, who he claims, inspired the criminal mastermind The General and his gang when they also pilfered the collection belonging to Sir Alfred and Lady Beit.

“The fact is that Rose Dugdale was an art thief who knew art. She knew what to take. Martin Cahill was a great aft thief and the same can be said of Martin The Viper Foley who robbed Russborough House later.

"These are not people who know art they just know the big names but Rose was different she knew both sides of the business,” Amore says in an interview for sundayworld.com podcast Crime World.

Dugdale had earlier stolen from her own family home, Yarty Farm, in England when she ran out of her inheritance and needed more money to fund her fight for Irish freedom.

She led a gang that picked out valuable paintings, silver and antiques from the house and was later caught but because of her status was given a suspended sentence.

After moving to Ireland, in 1973, following the robbery she hooked up with the renegade republican Eddie Gallagher and took part in a failed attempt to drop bombs in Strabane from a helicopter

“She had been running guns for Ireland but if you look at the timeline she gets to Ireland and very quickly takes up with Eddie Gallagher and they became very active right away,” says Amore.

“Eddie, Mad Eddie, as he was known was part of a renegade section of the IRA, making too rash decision to help the cause and with no strategy behind his crime which made him a perfect fit for Rose.

"Without any permission or thinking in advance the two of them came up with a plot to try to pull off a terrorist attack for lack of a better term. Rose posed as a journalist and chartered a helicopter.

"When she returned for the flight she, Eddie and two others came back and hijacked the flight and forced the pilot to head to Strabane with milk churns full of explosive.

"They missed their targets but the fact of the matter is that what they tried to do, had they pulled it off, would have been catastrophic.

"They would have killed everyone in sight with the amount of explosives they had. So while the RUC was happy to tell the press they were amused by this effort they were not.”

Soon afterwards wanted posters of Rose Dugdale popped up around the border and into the Republic where she and Gallagher went on the run and plotted the robbery of Russborough House which housed a priceless collection of artwork.

Her motivation, according to Amore, was to help free the Price sisters who were jailed in the UK and being force fed.

“It’s an unbelievably fascinating story.

"In April 1974 there was a knock on the servants quarters door and a young 14 year old, a child of one of the workers opened the door and found a woman speaking in broken French saying her car was disabled and she needed help.

"The child opened the door and two men with guns swooped in. They were relatively gentle with the workers at the house but when they got to the drawing rom where Sir Alfred and Lady Clementine were listening to music they were very rough with them.

"They yelled at them and called them capitalist pigs. They stuck him, cut him and hog tied him on the floor and dragged his wife onto the dirt floor in the cellar.

"Then something remarkable happened in the annals of crime because these thugs are then directed by the woman and she tells them what to steal.

"They wouldn’t know what but she knew and that woman was Rose Dugdale. She knew art because her mother worked in a gallery and was an artist herself,” explains Anthony.

“They took 19 paintings, picked out by a discerning eye, and they took a Vermeer. If you tried to sell it on the open market that would fetch hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Dugdale and Gallagher made way with the collection and holed up in a safe house in West Cork where they were soon caught. This time, Rose Dugdale would be incarcerated in prison where it was discovered she was pregnant with Gallagher’s child.

Later when the collection was taken again by Martin Cahill and his gang, Amore says that it was Dugdale who woke up his criminal mind to the value of the paintings that were in Russborough.

“His plan was brilliant. The guy was a brilliant thief. He set off the alarms at the hosue but didn’t break in and when the alarms went off a second time they thought it was a false alarm and didn’t respond.

"Cahill is an exclusive class in terms of ingenuity. When Cahill stole the paintings he buried a number of them in a forest, two are still missing nobody knows where they are.

"I did get a call from a person in Ireland who said he saw him burying paintings in the woods and thought they were mine from the Gardner Museum but when he told me the timeline it was more possible they were the Russborough ones,” he said.

Amore also dismissed claims that Martin Foley knows where the Gardner painting are despite a BBC documentary claiming they are in a house in West Dublin stored since the theft after the Boston mob boss Whitey Bolger gave them to the IRA.

“Two thieves disguised as police officers came to the Gadener and subdued the two guards.

"They went upstairs and stole 13 pieces of art including a Vermeer and Rembrandts which are together worth half a billion dollars. It was the biggest heist in the history of mankind.

"We have a 10 million dollar reward, whoever has them just has to tell me how to get them back to claim the money. In reality these older cases like mine are solved because wives become ex wives and children become estranged and the bad guys become less scary.

“I’m not inclined to believe the Foley connection at all.

"I and the FBI have made it clear there had never been one iota of evidence pointing to the IRA or anyone in Ireland associated with with our crime.

"I am more than happy to be proven wrong. If two people came off Aer Lingus and gave me my paintings back I would be thrilled,” he says. “The truth is there are zero signs to point to Ireland. As regards Whitey Bolger we have pretty much excluded him for many reasons.”


Anthony Amore

Anthony Amore

Anthony Amore

Anthony says he has affection for Rose Dugdale who was a first in many things in her life and who has continued to be active in the Republican cause into her twilight years.

“Rose is an outlier. And it is hard not to like her. I would say I abhor her crimes especially given I have dedicated 15 years of my life protecting art.

"Also the bombing of Strabane would have been horrific if it had succeeded. But I have an grudging admiration for her, for her dedication and her fervor.

"She still holds those values that motivated her at the beginning and she she never went back to the money or the luxuries she was born with,” he said.

The Woman Who Stole Vermeer by Anthony M Amore is on sale in bookstores now and his interview is available on Crime World now.

Crime Word Podcast can be found on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Soundcloud.

Online Editors