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Local gardai at the scene. Alamy Stock Photo

Russborough heist, 50 years on: 'It was an ordeal for everyone there that night'

At the time, it was reported as “the world’s greatest art robbery”.

ON THIS DAY, 50 years ago, Rose Dugdale led a gang of armed thieves into Russborough House near Blessington in Co Wicklow, the stately home of Lord and Lady Beit. 

The Georgian mansion was home to one of the most notable art collections, including works by masters such as Jan Vermeer, Jacob van Rusidael, Adriaan van Ostade and Gabriel Metsu. Paintings by British painters such as Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough were also part of the collection. 

Among them was Lady Writing A Letter with her Maid by Johannes Vermeer.

title-lady-writing-a-letter-with-her-maidcreator-johannes-vermeer-date-c-1670medium-oil-on-canvasdimensions-72-2-x-59-5-cmlocation-national-gallery-of-ireland-dublin Lady writing a letter with her Maid by Vermeer. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The gang entered the house under false pretences around 9 pm and tied up the staff and the couple. Some of the staff were injured and Alfred Beit received a blow to the head with a pistol. The raiders stole an assortment of 19 valuable works of art worth roughly £8 million. At the time, it was reported as “the world’s greatest art robbery”.  

It later emerged that the gang consisted of members of the IRA, led by British heiress, Rose Dugdale, who had left her life to take up the Republican cause. Following the robbery, the identity of the mastermind was the focus of much of the reporting, as was the value of the stolen artworks, but not as much attention was paid to the locals working in the house and what they went through that night in 1974.

But before we get to those events, a brief history lesson.

Rose Dugdale, the heiress

Born into British high society, Dugdale was the daughter of a millionaire who lived a life of privilege and was undertaking a PhD at Oxford University. She turned her back on that life and joined the IRA in the 1970s.

Dugdale was the brains behind the robbery at Russborough.

1-million-from-the-home-of-diamond-millionaire-sir-alfred-beits-home-russborough-house-blessington-co-wicklow Rose Dugdale. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The IRA had intended to exchange the paintings for the release of two female IRA prisoners in England, but the paintings were recovered and Dugdale was jailed.

She gave birth to a son in jail and in another high-profile case of the 1970s, her boyfriend, fellow IRA member Eddie Gallagher, kidnapped the businessman Tiede Herrema in Limerick to demand her release. A two-week siege ensued and Gallagher and a co-kidnapper were jailed. He and Dugdale married in Limerick Jail in 1978 where they were both prisoners.

Dugdale was released two years later.

404Rose Dugdale_90658447 Dugdale at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in 2008. She died last month. Rolling News Rolling News

In her later years, she lived in Dublin and worked in adult education. In 2012, her story was featured in a six-part TG4 documentary series on women in the IRA, Mná an IRA. Another documentary on her life aired last year, The Heiress and the Heist

Dugdale died last month aged 82 and her coffin was draped in the Irish flag at her funeral. Former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams and several party colleagues were in attendance. A film about Dugdale’s exploits, Baltimore, is currently running in cinemas. 

The Beits

Alfred Beit was born in 1903 in London, the son of Sir Otto Beit, a wealthy industrialist, and his wife Lillian. Otto had inherited a fortune from his late brother, Alfred, who had made his money through diamond mining in South Africa.

Eton educated, and active in British Conservative circles, Alfred became an MP for St Pancras and later served as secretary of state for the British colonies. He also served in World War II as an RAF squadron leader.  

sir-alfred-beit Sir Alfred Beit (1903-1994) & Lady Clementine Beit (1915-2005). Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Clementine was also a British aristocrat. She was born in 1915, the daughter of Lady Helen Alice Wyllington Ogilvy and Clement Freeman-Mitford. Her father had died in the war five months before she was born.

Had she been a boy, she would have inherited the title of Lord Redesdale. Her cousins became known as the famous socialites, the Mitford Sisters and Clementine spent time with them in aristocratic circles. That included a brief phase of mingling with Adolf Hitler and senior Nazis in Germany in the days before the war.

Screenshot 2024-04-25 at 17.29.22 Alfred and Clementine Beit after the robbery.

Alfred met Clementine in the 1930s and they married in 1939. They lived for some years in South Africa. He later inherited his father’s extensive art collection and bought Russborough House in 1952. The Palladian-style stately home was restored and then housed the prize art. 

The couple were active in Irish life and Alfred served on the Board of the National Gallery and Wexford Opera. The Beits established the Alfred Beit Foundation in 1976 to protect the house and art collections and support Fine Arts in Ireland as a gift to the Irish State. 

The Robbery

On the night of 26 April 1974, Alfred and Clementine Beit were in residence at Russborough. Some staff were also there and the family members of those staff.

Interviewed by RTÉ’s Tom McCaughren, Alfred gave an account of events on the night, saying: “We were sitting in the library, my wife and I, playing the gramophone.

“And at about 10 past nine, the door burst open and three men brandishing pistols rushed into the room and told us to get down and lie down flat on the floor with our heads down. I looked up at one of them for which I got the reward of a blow with the butt of a pistol on my head, which brought about a little blood, but it wasn’t serious.

crime-russborough-house-art-theft-county-wicklow Russborough House Art Theft, April 1974. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The couple spoke to McCaughren at the doorway to the house as the police investigation continued at the scene. Beit explained how the gang had gained entry using a cover story.

“They got in because a woman had called at the side door here and had rung the bell, whereupon a member of our domestic staff went to the door and seeing a woman standing there, opened it and she started seeing in a French accent, so I’m told, because I never saw her, she started saying something about trouble with her car.”

tom reporting Former RTE reporter Tom McCaughren reporting from Russborough House after the robbery. RTE archives RTE archives

The woman with the French accent was Dugdale.

Beit said, “But she didn’t get any further than that because immediately about three men, the men in question, rushed in, knocked the manservant to the ground, grabbed hold of the butler’s 14-year-old son who happened to be there at the time, and made him take them, plus the woman who was the leader of this whole operation, and who knew what she was about, around the various rooms where the woman indicated to the men this that and the picture which they were to tear off the walls.”

In total, 19 pictures were taken, among them the most important and the most valuable. The Beits and their staff and young family members were bound with women’s tights and locked in separate rooms and the gang made away with the paintings.

The staff

One Blessington resident is Gerry Pollard. He is an artist and a child art psychotherapist. Gerry’s father, John, was head butler at Russborough for over 40 years and the family lived on the grounds of the house. 

“It was an interesting experience for us as a family to live in Russborough. Looking back, the Beits came from a very different world, he, in particular, was very much of his time, stiff upper lip, almost Churchillian in his attitude to life”, says Gerry.

“It was like an Upstairs, Downstairs experience at Russborough, a bit like Downton Abbey on steroids. For instance, Alfred Beit would only refer to the staff by their surnames. He was a Tory, a political figure and a million miles from the local community of Blessington.”

police-outside-russborough-house-the-18th-century-home-of-sir-alfred-beit-where-millions-of-pounds-of-paintings-have-been-stolen Local gardai at the scene. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

In relation to the robbery, Gerry says he doesn’t speak for his whole family but he does look back on it all now and see those events differently with the passage of time. 

“I was around 18 at the time, but I wasn’t there the night of the robbery. My father was on duty at the house and my brother and sister were there. My father had a revolver put to his throat during the robbery. Gardaí later told him he was very lucky the gun didn’t go off.

“As a psychotherapist now in my later years, I can see how that experience must have caused some trauma to my family. None of my family has spoken to anyone about the events of that night, they never discussed it.”

Gerry says it never sat well with him that there was so much focus on the art, the aristocratic owners of Russborough and later Rose Dugdale herself, but not so much of a focus on the hardworking staff who were affected by the raid. They were members of the local community.

“Looking back now, I remember the focus being very much on the injuries suffered on the night by the Beits themselves, as was understandable. I know from my work that an experience like this would have been tough going for all the staff on the night, too. 

“My father was back at work the next morning as if nothing had happened. That was just the way things were in those days.  

“A lot has been made of Dugdale too and the gang members involved, but no one has thought of the impact a traumatic event like that has others. No matter the political motivation behind a crime like this, innocent people were hurt along the way.”

The police investigation

Dugdale and her accomplices escaped to West Cork after the robbery. Her then-partner Eddie Gallagher was with them. They were found about ten days later by gardaí in a cottage in Glandore, the stolen paintings found with them. 

Screenshot 2024-04-25 at 18.11.41 A heavy police presence at the Special Criminal Court for Dugdale's appearance in 1974. RTÉ archives RTÉ archives

Dugdale, aged 33 at the time, was charged at the Special Criminal Court with the robbery that May. She refused to recognise the court. She was later sentenced to nine years for the heist and other offences. 

russborough-house-county-wicklow-ireland-august-06-2014 Russborough House, County Wicklow (present day). Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Although the paintings were recovered, Russborough House would later become the target of a second art heist, that by notorious criminal Martin Cahill and his gang. Known as The General, Cahill and his crew broke into the house in May of 1986 and stole 18 priceless artworks. 

That robbery sparked several years of cat-and-mouse interactions between the thieves and Irish and international police forces.

The Beit art collection is now in the care of the National Gallery in Dublin. Russborough House is run under the care of the Alfred Beit Foundation and is open to the public. 

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David Mac Redmond and Laura Byrne
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