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My school days with the IRA terrorist, Rose Dugdale, who has died at 82. By Virginia Ironside

Blog | By Virginia Ironside | Mar 18, 2024

Wanted after Strabane bombing, 1974

Virginia Ironside recalls Rose Dugdale – the deb who beat up her parents’ friends, stole Old Masters and built missile-launchers. Her life has just been made into a new film, Baltimore, released on March 22. And Dugdale has just died, at 82

When someone is in a class above you or below you at school, they might as well not exist. The age gap appears much greater during your childhood.

Rose Dugdale (born in 1941), the notorious IRA terrorist, was two classes above me at Miss Ironside’s day school – my two spinster great-aunts’ dame school in Kensington. Even though she was three years older than me, she made a great impression not only on me but on every girl in the school. She has just died at 82.

She was a bit gawky and masculine-looking – a big girl with a deep voice – and not conventionally pretty, but she exuded such energy, positivity, intelligence, generosity and, yes, even kindness that she was instantly attractive.

Rose Dugdale, front row, fifth from left. Her brother James, second row, third from right, as Henry VIII. Virginia Ironside far left as a Velasquez princess. 1953

The last thing I would have imagined, at school, was her dropping bombs, constructing missile-launchers, trying to kill people and tying up her parents’ innocent friends to steal their valuable Old Master paintings.

But I sometimes wonder if the ethos of our old school had any part to play in her Marxist tendencies.

Rose had been brought up with stultifying conventionality. The two girls in the family – Caroline, her older sister, and Rose – were obliged by their mother to wear only blue frocks with matching ribbons in their hair – the best colour, apparently, for girls. They had to change into formal clothes for dinner and wear long white gloves. They had to curtsey to every visitor to their homes: one consisted of two town houses knocked together in Chelsea; the other was a vast estate in Devon, where Rose learned to ride and practise the piano.

Every hour of every day was regimented by her parents – her mother was the ex-wife of John Mosley, Oswald’s brother. Rose agreed to ‘come out’ as a debutante – the last time this archaic ritual of young girls being presented to the Queen took place – only on condition that her father would allow her to try for Oxford.

In contrast to this bizarre and outdated home life, my great-aunt’s school was based on exceptionally liberal lines, inspired by Friedrich Froebel, the 19th-century German educational pioneer.

Dressed as a man (left) for the men-only Oxford

All the teachers – a bizarre, broken-down lot, sprinkled with eccentric geniuses – were called by only their Christian names. Rene, my great aunt, was known only as Rene.

Most were spinsters or lesbians. They were oddballs with no formal training – not a requirement at that time.

A teacher who loved Rose, because of her musical talent, was Stella Kelvin, an Austrian refugee working illegally who could fly into tremendous rages. She’d been taught by Theodor Leschetizky, who’d been taught by Carl Czerny, who’d been taught by Beethoven.

There was no staffroom. Loos – there were only two for 140 pupils – were for teachers and pupils alike.

There were no RE lessons. Although we sang a daily hymn at so-called ‘Prayers’ every morning (Rene played the piano), God or Christ was otherwise rarely mentioned.

Bullying was highly disapproved of, and punishment was non-existent. The idea was for the school to be entirely egalitarian. However, if anyone was caught, say, whispering in class, we risked being ‘sent to Rene’, which involved waiting outside her sitting room before being called in to face her.

‘And why have you been sent to me?’ Rene would ask, in her faintly Scottish accent. When you tremblingly explained, she would fix you with a beady eye and simply say, ‘Well, I hope you never have to be sent to me again!’ And that was that.

Very few people wanted to be sent to Rene more than once.

Like a lot of the girls, I had a secret crush on Rose who, I suspect, had always been bisexual. Every girl wanted to sit next to Rose at lunchtimes – ‘Oh, Rose, sit here!’ the cry went up.

After leaving school, Rose did indeed ‘come out’ and was presented to the Queen. Afterwards, she even spent a year going to dances and cocktail parties with a view to finding a husband.

Rose hated every minute.

At one ‘debs’ dance’, as they were known, Rose danced with a young ‘debs’ delight’, our editor’s father, the writer Ferdinand Mount.

After the dance, and making polite conversation on the balcony, Ferdy remarked something smarmy about the night and the party; he was rebuffed with a merry chuckle from Rose. She added, ‘It’s a complete and utter waste of money!’

When Rose finally got to Oxford, she had a passionate affair with Iris Murdoch and a tutor called Peter Ady (a woman). She made university history by posing as a man to get into the male-only Oxford Union debating society, which resulted not long after in women being officially allowed in for the first time.

After writing my first book, Chelsea Bird, in 1966, I spent the advance on going to New York. One of my contacts there was James, Rose’s brother, who had attended the kindergarten at Miss Ironside’s.

The only day we could meet was when he had a date with his sister – but that didn’t matter. Rose arrived, energetic and breathless, in an open-top red sports car and drove at great speed to Greenwich Village to take us to see a Greek tragedy.

Afterwards, she drove me back to my hotel – and I was impressed by her spontaneity, generosity and sheer fun. She seemed golden and blessed.

She was, however, becoming increasingly enamoured with the IRA cause. When she returned to England from the States, she became involved with Eddie Gallagher, an IRA sympathiser. Together, they decided to steal those Old Masters from friends of Rose’s parents, Sir Alfred and Lady Beit.

The Beits were immensely rich – Sir Alfred inherited diamond mines in South Africa and owned a huge art collection. They lived at Russborough House, County Wicklow, a wonderful Palladian pile, reputedly the longest house in Ireland.

In 1974, Rose, now a fully fledged IRA sympathiser, went with her partner (and later husband), Gallagher, to Russborough House.

They attacked the poor Beits in the middle of the night, pistol-whipping Alfred and tying him up. They ‘gave him a clattering’, according to Rose.

Among the pictures they stole were Gainsborough’s Madame Baccelli and Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid. They plotted to keep the pictures in exchange for the release of three IRA prisoners.

Like most of their schemes, it didn’t go to plan. In 1974, she took part in a helicopter bombing raid on Strabane Barracks, County Tyrone. Rose was caught and sentenced to nine years in prison.

During her imprisonment, Rose gave birth to Ruairi, her son by Gallagher, also jailed (for kidnapping a Dutch industrialist). Martin McGuinness was one of Ruairi’s godparents.

On leaving prison, she became a weapons expert with her new partner, Jim Monaghan. Together they developed a shoulder-fired missile-launcher, dubbed the ‘biscuit-launcher’ because it used two packets of digestive biscuits to absorb the recoil.

She died, aged 82, in a nursing home, the Poor Servants of the Mother of God, in Chapelizod, a Dublin suburb.

So Rose became a monster. And yet, throughout her life, many people fell for her charms. Even now, I can’t think of her without smiling, despite knowing that I should be viewing her with horror.

I often wonder what Rene would have said.

Heiress, Rebel, Vigilante, Bomber: The Extraordinary Life of Rose Dugdale is by Sean O’Driscoll (Penguin £18.99)