The Heiress and the Heist: Rose Dugdale was a figure almost too riotous for real life

British debutante turned IRA armed robber reminds us how during The Troubles truth was routinely stranger than fiction

Rose Dugdale’s life and times would make for a hair-raising movie, but until Hollywood learns of her existence, a three-part RTÉ documentary must suffice.

Not that part one of The Heiress and the Heist (RTÉ One, 9.35pm) lacks cinematic oomph. Dugdale, the British debutante turned Provisional IRA armed robber, emerges as a figure almost too riotous for real life. Whether burgling her own father’s house with the help of a scallywag boyfriend or taking to a helicopter to drop weaponised milk churns over an RUC station in Strabane, she seems more like a figure from a ripe 1970s thriller than a living, breathing person (who is now aged 82 and living quietly in Cork).

It’s a great story – a cracking one, really – and skilfully told via archive footage and talking head interviews with figures such as journalist David Davin-Power, historian Diarmaid Ferriter and British politician Edwina Currie, a contemporary of Dugdale’s at Oxford.

She and Dugdale were two of just a handful of female students at this bastion of tradition and privilege. Currie recalls how Dugdale stood out for her attachment to Irish republicanism, even as a stylish scruffy undergraduate.


“She simply wasn’t going to go back to being daddy’s little rich girl,” she says.

Dugdale ended up in London, where she took up with left-winger Wally Heaton. “Walter and Rose meet at a union protest and they strike it off immediately and they become like Velcro,” says author Anthony Amore. “They’re inseparable. They’re together all the time. Although he’s still living with his wife and children, he’s taken up an extramarital relationship with Rose Dugdale when the two become lovers.”

The Provisional IRA’s UK bombing campaign was now at full pitch – though this didn’t dissuade Dudgale from painting a Tricolour over her office or playing “republican” songs at full volume. “She is driving around in an open car with IRA music blaring from it,” recalls Pete Ayrton, a union activist turned author and publisher with whom she crossed paths. “I’m in the back seat, terrified.”

Her adventures later took her to Northern Ireland, where she took up with roguish IRA man Eddie Gallagher. They cut quite a dash as a sort of Bonnie and Clyde of The Troubles – where their antics included that helicopter raid in Strabane. It was, in fact, too much of a dash: their escapades were looked upon disapprovingly by IRA leadership. They were supposed to be a legitimate army, not bandits having adventures.

“Eddie had no temperament for leadership structure within the IRA,” says Anthony Amore. “You can judge the IRA in whatever way you want. But they had a very formal decision-making structure for which Eddie had no time and would go off and commit his activities without permission.”

If part one of three has a flaw, it ends as the story only feels as if it is beginning. The “Heist” of the title refers to the 1974 raid on the Beit Collection at Russborough House in Co Wicklow, of which Dugdale was the mastermind. It, too, is an incredible tale, but viewers will have to wait until part two to hear it told in full.

Until then, this scene-setting first instalment serves as a gripping appetite whetter. It humanises Dugdale without letting her off the hook for the terrorism in which she became involved. And it reminds us how, in the darkest days of The Troubles, truth was routinely stranger than fiction.

Tuesday, RTÉ One, 9.35pm-22.30pm