Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Loved Not Wisely (1941)

Sep 25, 2022 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


“You cannot defeat us ever. The tyrant will be brought down.”

     In his seventeenth-century home in Delft, Holland, Johan van der Meer captured on canvass scenes of domestic tranquility: Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, The Guitar Player, Girl with a Pearl Earring. While immortal works of art end up adorning the walls of palaces, mansions, and museums, van der Meer’s masterpieces spent time in a trunk of a car and an Irish cemetery due to a rebel with a religious-like passion.

    In 2016, in the upstairs room of a Dublin bar, Bridget Rose Dugdale and Liam Sutcliffe sat downing their drinks. What was atypical of the scene was the man and woman were radical legends. Rather than showing remorse for the rebellious acts of their youth, they felt they were entitled to the respect accorded martyrs. Sutcliffe’s claim to infamy was he had orchestrated the 1966 Operation Humpty Dumpty. His plan resulted in the destruction of the 1809 Nelson’s Pillar, a statue that featured the British Nelson’s likeness peering down from his 121-foot column. His tactics paled in comparison to that of his female companion.

     Bridget Rose’s middle name is an apt metaphor as her life encompassed many a thorn. She was the daughter of multi-millionaire James Frederic Compton Dugdale, a large shareholder in Lloyd’s of London, and his wife Caroline whose family had initially made their fortune from the slave trade. The trappings of their wealth were a six-hundred-acre estate, Yarty Farm, in Devon, an estate in Chelsea, and a mansion in Scotland. Rose, along with her elder sister Caroline and younger brother James, spent Sunday morning services at Chelsea Pensioners Chapel, watching Margot Fonteyn starring as Cinderella from the Dugdale family box in the Royal Opera House, and riding their ponies at Yarty Farm. 

    From an early age, Rose butted heads with her authoritarian mother. When Caroline had Rose’s ears pierced without her permission, the child became enraged and claimed she was “disfigured.” The adult Rose never wore earrings. Not being allowed to talk to the common, local children in Devon also did not sit well. Rose related more to her elderly French governess, whom she called “Mam’zelle.” The sisters attended the exclusive Miss Ironside’s School for Girls in Kensington where Rose and Caroline wore identical white dresses for piano duets. Her classes never satiated Rose’s intellectual thirst as they focused on skills such as learning to curtsey. At age fourteen, her parents sent Rose on a grand tour of Europe where she visited Italy, Greece, and Austria. There was also a stay at the hope of a well-heeled French family and four months as a guest in Germany in the home of former secretary of Nazi propaganda, Joseph Goebbels.

        Upon her return to England in 1958, Elizabeth II started the social season by welcoming 1,200 debutants to Buckingham Palace. Afterwards, the upper-class women embarked upon a four-month season of glittering gowns and balls in the hope of meeting eligible bachelors. Rose remarked that the ritual brought on her eureka moment, “I loathed the season. I think it is probably from that date that some kind of awareness or, understanding of the limitations of the way in which people of my parents’ class lived came in on me. My coming-out ball was one of those pornographic affairs which cost about what 60 old age pensioners receive in six months.”

     In exchange for agreeing to serve as a debutante-what she referred to as a “marriage market,” she had extracted from her parents’ their agreement that she would be allowed to further her education. Rose attended St. Anne’s College, Oxford, where she studied philosophy, politics, and economics and became, as she put it, “an intellectual of the worst sort.” Despite her trust fund, Rose lived, even by student standards, in squalor. Along with her studies, she had imbibed the seeds of rebellion, and Rose crashed the Oxford Union Debating Society dressed as a man to protest their male only members’ policy. In the United States, she enrolled in a journalism at Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts and interviewed John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for the school newspaper.

     Over the next decade, Rose earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at London University, visited Cuba while it was in the throes of revolution, and she was also part of the sit-ins at universities protesting the war in Vietnam. She worked for the United Nations in their offices in England, New York, Rome, and Geneva. What tarnished the silver spoon of her birthright was the activism of the 1960s. Throwing her lot in with the downtrodden, Rose turned to social causes and worked to better the lives of the poor in Tottenham, North London. Too fit in, she learned to camouflage her posh accent that outed her as a member of the upper crust. She gave away thousands of pounds from her trust fund that furnished her with $200,000 annually, millions in today’s currency. Her reasoning, “For years my family have been taking money from the poor. I am just trying to restore the balance by giving some of it back.”

     The 1972 Bloody Sunday protest where British paratroopers gunned down unarmed protestors in Derry led to Rose’s twin crusade: a free Ireland and the end of capitalism. She had also found her comrade in arms and bed, the petty criminal Walter Heaton. In a mea culpa to his wife and children, she gifted them $50,000. He was a product of a Leeds slum and was a self-described “revolutionary socialist.” Although the Irish Republican Army (IRA) never officially recognized her as a member, Dugdale embarked on a number of missions for the paramilitary organization. Aware her parents were at the Epsom Derby, Dugdale, along with Walter, raided the Dugdale Devon estate of paintings, silverware, and antiques worth 82,000 pounds in order to finance her cause. At her trial, she shouted at her father, “I love you-but I hate everything you stand for.” No doubt Mrs. Dugdale bought a lifetime supply of smelling salts; however, in the words of Al Jolson, “You ain’t seen nothing yet, folks.” The judge, Sir Hugh Park, since this was her first brush with the law, considered the risk of her committing any further criminal acts to be “extremely remote.” While the judge gave her a two-year suspended sentence, Walter received a six-year jail term. Dugdale denounced the disproportionate sentences as a blatant example of capitalist injustice. The defiant defendant told the jury, “In finding me guilty you have turned me from an intellectual recalcitrant into a freedom fighter. I know no finer title.” Rose further disproved the judge’s words when, along with her new lover Eddie Gallagher, as part of an IRA mission, she was involved in hijacking a helicopter in Donegal that they used to drop milk churns filled with explosives on an Ulster police station. The makeshift bombs failed to detonate, and the rebel Bonnie and Clyde became Ireland and Britain’s most wanted. Making her life on the run even more precarious: Rose was pregnant with Gallagher’s child.

        While some expectant mothers knit booties, Dugdale turned her attention to the eighteenth-century Kenwood House situated on 112 acres, in North London a property deeded to Britain by Lord Iveagh, the Guinness brewery magnate. In 1974, thieves broke into the museum and made off with the multimillion-dollar Vermeer painting, The Guitar Player. A substantial ransom note demanded the transfer of IRA bombers, Dolours and Marian Price, engaged in a hunger strike, from their prison in England to a Northern Ireland prison. Three months later, the police discovered the portrait hidden in a London cemetery. Although the perpetrators were never apprehended, the theft bore the DNA of Rose Dugdale.

     Two months after the heist, a woman, mimicking a French accent, knocked on the door of a baronial Irish manor, Russborough House, complaining of car trouble. Moments later, she, along with three armed men, forced their way in. At the time, Sir Alfred, heir to a South African diamond mine fortune, and Lady Clementine Beit, were listening to classical records. Brandishing revolvers, the intruders shouted slogans such as “capitalist pigs” and “exploiters” and bound the Beits with nylon tights. They pistol-whipped the seventy-one-year-old baronet and dragged his wife down a flight of stone steps to the cellar. Lady Clementine later remarked, “I was convinced that, like the unfortunate Romanovs, I was to be shot in the cellar.” Their female ringleader calmly ordered the removal of masterpieces by Rubens, Gainsborough, and Goya, as well as the only privately held Vermeer in the world, Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid. Once again, a ransom note offered to return the paintings in exchange for the release of the Price sisters.

      All nineteen masterpieces were eventually found in the cottage that Rose had rented in County Cork and in the trunk of her car. Dr. Bridget Rose Dugdale’s trial in the Special Criminal Court was pure theater. She described herself as “the perpetrator of a calm political act to change the corporate conscience of the Cabinet.” Far from contrite, Rose accused the Irish government of collaborating with the British who had tortured six brave Irish prisoners who yet languished in their jails. Moreover, she kept interrupting Judge Andrew O’Keefe during the two-hour trial. In a lengthy speech, she declared that the court had no right “to deprive us of our freedom to fight for Ireland and the freedom of the Irish people.” The judge disagreed and sentenced her to nine years in prison. Upon hearing the sentence, Dugdale gave a clenched fist salute. The case garnered global headlines; Time magazine called her the Renegade Debutante. Gallagher, who had received a twenty-year sentence, and Rose became the first convicted prisoners in the history of Ireland to wed behind bars. The British Bonnie and Clyde married in the chapel of Limerick Prison; in attendance was their three-year-old son, Ruairi. At his prison birth, the doting mother declared, “He’s going to be a guerilla.” Post ceremony, guards returned the groom to his maximum-security prison located sixty miles away.

      Upon her 1980 release-she served six years, Dugdale was active in the campaign in support of republican prisoners during the Irish Hunger strike. Currently, Rose appears no different than the other pensioners living in a drab, Irish housing project.  The only thing that sets her apart is when one detects her upper-class accent that reveals a world where she had curtsied before the Queen. Over the years, she used her well-modulated tone to tell journalists, “Clear off, right. I’m not answering any questions.”  As a speaker at the 2007 Sinn Fein political party conference, in a slip of her tongue, Rose said, “I’m here in support of the revolution-I mean the resolution.” Three years later Rose revealed she had no regrets and reminisced of her 1960s joyride when she played the part of a contemporary Robin Hood, “You mustn’t forget it was very exciting times… the world looked as if it could change and was likely to be changed and, whoever you were, you could pay a part in that.” The renegade debutante remains a rebel at heart.

       In a fit of misguided jealousy, Othello strangled his beloved wife, Desdemona. His parting words could well describe Rose’s life, “Then you must speak of one that loved not wisely, but too well.”