Notorious activist Rose Dugdale may have been at the center of one of the biggest art heists in history, but according to the new Sundance Now docuseries, The Heiress and the Heist, it was a much more chilling act of near-violence that Dugdale considered to be one of her best days.
Dugdale was a British debutante who ended up rebelling against her life of privilege and becoming part of a militant organization known as the Provisional Irish Republican Army, or the IRA. She’s at the center of this series, which takes place in the Republican landscape of 1970s Ireland, where in 1974 Dugdale was the mastermind behind multiple headline-grabbing schemes.
The first part of the series broke down those schemes, one of which was an art heist where she and others walked away with 19 high-value paintings that are worth between $120-$150 million today.
But a few months before the heist took place, Dugdale and another IRA member who was also her future husband, Eddie Gallagher, hijacked a helicopter and attempted to drop bombs in the town of Strabane. The target was a police barracks of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which had been policing Northern Ireland since the early years of the state.
They had built four explosive devices using 10-gallon milk churns, but the bombs proved to be too heavy for the helicopter and two were jettisoned right away over water. Of the two remaining, one was dropped way off target and the other was near target but did not detonate.
And while the failed act is looked upon as just that, a failure, some interview subjects on The Heiress and the Heist are quick to point out just how potentially deadly it was.
“What seems to be a humorous story about a failed bombing attack was really a narrowly escaped mass murder,” said Anthony Amore, author of The Woman Who Stole Vermeer.
And to take that a step further, historian and broadcast journalist Ruth Dudley Edwards noted how Dugdale was feeling about the incident.
“She says it was the happiest day of her life, pushing explosive milk churns out of a helicopter, and messing it up, too,” Edwards said. “You know, delighted with that. It was the first day of real action.”
It may not have brought the intended harm, but what that bomb did deliver was fingerprints, and not long after the bombing attempt, Dugdale was on WANTED posters everywhere. She was eventually caught after the art heist — where all of the art was also recovered — and was sentenced to prison in June of 1974, six months after the helicopter bombing and two months after the art heist.
She gave birth to a son she shares with Gallagher later that year and married him in 1978 while still imprisoned. She was released in 1980 and became a figure in Irish politics and has been a vocal advocate for several issues in world politics. She and Gallagher both declined to participate in the documentary.
The Heiress and the Heist is on Sundance Now.