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The Heiress and the Heist Disrespects Rose Dugdale With Its Conservative Framing

Sundance Now's docuseries invites members of the British establishment to weigh in on the legacy of the IRA member and political radical.
  • The Heiress and the Heist charts the journey of British debutante turned IRA member Rose Dugdale. (Photo: AMC+)
    The Heiress and the Heist charts the journey of British debutante turned IRA member Rose Dugdale. (Photo: AMC+)

    For a story about left-wing radical and Irish Republican Army (IRA) member Rose Dugdale, Sundance Now docuseries The Heiress and the Heist is shockingly conservative.

    There's no disputing Dugdale's criminal background. In June 1973, Dugdale orchestrated a burglary of her family's home, with the goal of selling the stolen items to raise money for the IRA. The following year, she and partner Eddie Gallagher hijacked a helicopter and launched a bombing attack on a police station in Strabane, Northern Ireland, though the bombs failed to detonate and no one was injured. Just a few months later, in the heist that inspired the docuseries's title, Dugdale and three IRA members broke into Palladian mansion Russborough House and stole 19 paintings, many of them old masters, valued at roughly $200 million today.

    But while Dugdale sought to advance the IRA's goal of creating an independent, unified Ireland, she was also motivated by a greater sense of injustice — and as a British debutante who grew up in a world of immense wealth, she developed an early awareness of global inequity. While at St. Anne's College, University of Oxford, Dugdale and a friend dressed as men and crashed the Oxford Union in protest of the group's refusal to admit women. After graduating, she established the Tottenham Claimants Union, and she put her education in philosophy, politics, and economics to use as an advocate for low-income Britons. Dugdale was so committed to the cause that she cashed in her share of her family's money, an estimated sum of 150,000 pounds, and distributed it to community members in need of financial assistance.

    This Robin Hood narrative underpins Dugdale's story, but after The Heiress and the Heist's first episode, it's largely ignored by director David Harvey, who prefers to focus on her "radicalization," as the show's talking heads describe it, rather than the righteous indignation at the root of that change. (Dugdale declined to participate in the documentary, but the third episode includes a few minutes of audio from a 2012 interview that serves as a worthwhile follow-up).

    Despite speaking with certainty about Dugdale's career as a "would-be murderer," Harvey's interview subjects can't seem to fathom why a British "toff" would reject her aristocratic, privileged background for a life of danger in the Irish republican movement. In the first of three episodes, the talking heads — particularly fellow Oxford alumna Edwina Currie, who, as a former Conservative MP and government minister, is especially ill-suited to speak on this topic — dismiss Dugdale's embrace of left-wing ideals as uninformed or immature. Currie accuses Dugdale of failing to "argue why she was in favor of" Irish unification or "the Catholic cause," despite those beliefs being very much in line with her feminist Union crusade and interest in civil rights.

    Currie goes on to characterize Dugdale's activism as a "violent and quite vicious" rebellion against her parents, while others strip Dugdale of her agency, painting her as a "vulnerable person" taken advantage of by Walter Heaton, her partner in Tottenham, and Gallagher. Though Dugdale famously railed against her father at her 1973 trial — "I love you, but I hate everything you stand for," she said on the stand — and used her resources to fund her revolutionary activities, such portrayals belittle her devotion to the Republican cause.

    They also contradict Dugdale's own testimony: She has long maintained that she developed a distaste for her parents' wealth as a child, and by the time she was forced to "come out" as a debutante, she "really wanted to get out of" the posh world of her upbringing. If anything, her personal connection to wealth only made her more sympathetic to those without it, further fueling her radicalization. As she said in 1974, "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."

    While Dugdale's methods of restoring that balance were illegal and violent, The Heiress and the Heist is far too generous to her victims. Episode 2 sets the stage for the Russborough House robbery with a lengthy historical and architectural tour of the property, then the home of Sir Alfred Beit, 2nd Baronet, and its owners. With its heavy orchestral score and beautiful overhead drone shots, the sequence — itself wholly out of place in the true-crime docuseries — creates the impression that Harvey is fawning over the wealth on display in the palatial country house.

    The talking heads contribute to this unsettling feeling. Author and historian Robert O'Byrne spends a full minute presenting a seating chart that the Beits would have used while at Russborough ("No riffraff," he says with a flourish as he surveys the assembled names), while Virginia Ironside, who attended grammar school with Dugdale in London, fondly remembers her experience as a guest in the Beits' home. "I was on eggshells — the formality of it!" she says, adding that even though the evening included a few "archaic" and "peculiar" customs, she's "so lucky to have experienced that."

    But as this same segment reveals, the Beits were hardly morally unimpeachable. The family's wealth came from the exploitation of Black workers in the South African mining industry: In 1888, Beit's uncle, also named Alfred Beit, formed De Beers with Cecil Rhodes, and the two were instrumental in enacting racist laws that paved the way for the country's apartheid system. Beit's wife, Lady Clementine Beit, has a sordid history of her own. At the invitation of her cousin, British socialite Unity Mitford, Clementine embraced fascism, cozying up to Adolf Hitler in 1937. She seems to have disavowed Nazism after marrying Beit, a German Jew, two years later, but her encounter with Hitler stands as damning evidence of her complicity.

    Still, even with this context in mind — context that played a part in Dugdale's decision to rob Russborough House — the docuseries suggests that the Beits were unfairly targeted and worthy of the utmost respect. Ironside takes specific issue with the way Dugdale and her crew treated the aristocrats, who were tied up and pistol-whipped as other IRA members secured the valuable paintings. "Rose described, apparently, that they gave them a 'clattering,'" she says. "A nasty phrase. They didn't deserve to be 'clattered.'"

    Raymond Keaveney, the former director of The National Gallery of Ireland, goes so far as to say that Dugdale "abus[ed] something that belongs to everybody" by stealing paintings by Vermeer, Goya, and Rubens, among other masterpieces. But that sentiment ignores the obvious fact that the paintings were only accessible to the Beits and their upper-crust guests (even if Keaveney says they had discussed moving their collection to the National Gallery); it wasn't until four years after the heist that Russborough House and its valuable collection were opened to the public. And if someone must be condemned for "robbing the people," there's a strong case to be made that the Beit family did exactly that by amassing their wealth on the backs of African laborers.

    By the final episode, The Heiress and the Heist tips its hand as it implicitly aligns itself with the wealthy, conservative voices in the conflict taking place in Ireland at the time. After recapping the aftermath of the heist, including Dugdale's arrest and Gallagher's subsequent attempt to secure her release by kidnapping Dutch businessman Tiede Herrema, the docuseries turns to the question of Dugdale's legacy. Notably, Harvey allows his British subjects to monopolize the conversation, and their remarks lend credence to the reactionary position that direct action is somehow uncivil or undignified. As Currie says, "To be so casual about human life in the way that she was, in favor of a cause that had different ways of resolving it, more peaceful ways, that suggests quite a warped personality."

    Rose Dugdale was by no means a saint, but her story still deserves to be told in a way that reflects her true motivations. Instead, The Heiress and the Heist adopts a capitalist, anti-republican framing, presenting her experiences from the perspective of the establishment she fought so hard to tear down. The result is a true-crime docuseries that sorely misunderstands its subject, rendering the entire project void.

    The Heiress and the Heist is available to stream on Sundance Now and AMC+.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: The Heiress and the Heist, AMC+, Sundance Now, Rose Dugdale, True Crime