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In the annals of art theft, no case has matched—for sheer criminal panache—the heist at Ireland’s Russborough House in 1986.
The Irish police knew right away that the mastermind was a Dublin gangster named Martin Cahill. Yet the great plunder —including a Gainsborough, a Goya, two Rubenses, and a Vermeer— remained at large for years. Cahill taunted the police with a string of other crimes, but in the end it was the paintings that brought him ...
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In the annals of art theft, no case has matched—for sheer criminal panache—the heist at Ireland’s Russborough House in 1986.
The Irish police knew right away that the mastermind was a Dublin gangster named Martin Cahill. Yet the great plunder —including a Gainsborough, a Goya, two Rubenses, and a Vermeer— remained at large for years. Cahill taunted the police with a string of other crimes, but in the end it was the paintings that brought him low. The challenge of disposing of such famous works forced him to reach outside his familiar world into the international arena, and when he did, his pursuers were waiting.
The movie-perfect sting that broke Cahill uncovered an astonishing maze of banking and drug-dealing connections that redefined the way police view art theft. As if that were not enough, the recovery of the Vermeer—by then worth $200 million—led to a remarkable discovery about the way Vermeer achieved his photographic perspective.
The Irish Game places the great theft in Ireland’s long sad history of violence and follows the thread that led, as a direct result of Cahill’s desperate adventures with the Russborough art, to his assassination by the IRA. With the storytelling skill of a novelist and the instincts of a detective, Matthew Hart follows the twists and turns of this celebrated case, linking it with two other world-famous thefts—of Vermeer’s “The Concert” and other famous paintings at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” at the National Gallery of Norway in Oslo. Sharply observed, fully explored,The Irish Game is a masterpiece in the literature of true crime.
In Ireland lies a gray stone palace, in a valley by the Wicklow Mountains. The mountains themselves are dry and desolate, and an unfriendly wind picks its way across the heath. Little roads wind here and there in the hills, and criminals drive out from Dublin to make the place their haunt. It is a wonder that the house lay unmolested for so long in its park below the hills, tethered against the drenched green sward of Ireland.
The palace of Russborough House comes into view quite suddenly. At a bend in the N81 from Blessington, a high wall crumbles away, and there, a quarter mile up the pasture, spreads Russborough's long facade. From end to end it runs for seven hundred feet. Sometimes the sun strikes the house, and the stone glows with a silvery light, and a kind of trumpet music seems to float in the air, proclaiming a world impossibly rapturous and remote.
The Leesons built Russborough. Their ancestor came from England as a sergeant in the army of the prince of Orange, who laid waste the Catholic armies of James Stuart in 1690 at a battle on the River Boyne. This defeat completed the destruction of Catholic power in Ireland. After the Battle of the Boyne a long period of minority rule ensued, known as the Protestant Ascendancy. The Leesons were part of this empowered group. They became brewers and Dublin property speculators, and prospered rapidly. They married well, applied for a patent of nobility, and after that passed promptly upward from the baronetage into the peerage, becoming earls of Milltown. All they needed was a decent house, and in 1741 they commissioned the foremost architect in Ireland, Richard Castle, to build it.
An army of laborers poured out of Dublin into County Wicklow and attacked the site. From the quarry at Golden Hill came ton upon ton of granite blocks, in carts that crept down the steep tracks and into the valley and along the muddy, rutted road. The stone was rich in mica, and it sparkled in the light. To the north of the rising house a horde of men slaved with shovels, carving the hillside into terraces. Even at a wage of a penny an hour, the years of spadework behind the mansion cost the Leesons thirty thousand pounds.
Russborough took eight years to build. One day, near its completion, the earl rode up and cast his eye around and ordered forty thousand trees. "About two miles from Ballymore Eustace," wrote a visitor, "we came to a beautiful situation, where we found a noble mansion forming into perfection." At last the Leesons moved in, and their aristocratic friends paraded out in droves. "I told you I was to see Russborough," the Countess of Kildare scribbled to a friend. "The house is really fine, and the furniture magnificent; but a frightful place."
Lady Kildare meant the view, the saturnine hills that scowled at Russborough from across the valley. It struck the Leesons' contemporaries as a bleak and empty setting for so princely a house.
The mansion was a masterpiece of the Palladian style and established the Leesons among the highest families of the land. The architect Castle had also built Carton, the Kildares' country seat, and Leinster House, the Dublin residence of the dukes of Leinster, where the Irish parliament now sits.
Russborough became a great house of the Protestant Ascendancy. The estates of the Lesson's friends spread across that country as across the whole of ireland. The earl paved his floors with marble and had his ceilings stuccoed by the Italian masters the Lafrancini brothers. The River Liffey was drawn from its course and made to drowse in fountains in view of the house before being released to resume its journey down to Dublin. Beyond the fountains rose the gloomy, swollen masses of the Wicklow hills, with dark clouds pouring over.
In a few generations the Lessons declined, until in 1902 the last of them to live at Russborough, the dowager Countess Geraldine, crated up most of the furnishings and silver, the pictures and the books, and sent them down to Dublin to the National Gallery of Ireland. When the countess died, Russborough passed to the family's heirs in England, who offered it to the Irish state, which declined the offer. The house sat empty until 1929, when Captain Denis Daly, a squire from Galway, bought it. Daly was a Catholic, and this affiliation soon brought the old, Protestant mansion to the attention of the world from which it had stood apart.
At the front of Russborough a pair of colonnades join the main house to the wings. The colonnades are set with niches, and the earls of Milltown had filled them with Italian marbles. Carved for a different time and place than rural, Catholic Ireland, the white statues gazed in naked nonchalance down across the pastures to the Liffey ponds. For two hundred years no one had thought to remark on this garmentless condition, or anyway, not to the Leesons; by 1930, things had changed. To protect its young republic from "noxious and corrupting influences" the Irish government established a board of censors. Heartened by this, the priest at Ballymore Eustace, whose parish included Russborough, waited until he had the miscreant Daly in the pews, then climbed into his pulpit and thundered against the statues. "The grass would grown in the door" of Russborough if the statues were not removed, Bernard Teevans, a gardener on the estate, remembered the priest telling Daly as the landowner sat in the congregation. In those days, Teevans added, the people of Ireland were "never up off their knees, praying day and night." Of Daly, Teevans said: "He was a very religious man, considering going for the priesthood. He came home from Mass and told some of the workmen to 'get those things out of here.'" Teevans recalled the wrecking party: "I had great fun knocking the heads, legs and arms off [the statues]. It was the best day's sport I had for a long time." They dumped the pieces in a shed.
Happily, the lavish interiors of Russborough escaped the censure of the parish, and it was these interiors that attracted Sir Alfred Beit, baronet, heir to a nineteenth-century South African diamond fortune. Sir Alfred had been leafing through Country Life looking for ways to decorate his London house, an enormous place in Kensington Palace Gardens, a stone's throw from Kensington Palace. He came across a picture of one of Russborough's fireplaces and commision a copy. Then, in 1952, while scouting around for suitable home for their art collection, Sir Alfred and Lady Beit discovered that Russborough itself was up for sale, and bought it.
It would be hard to overstate the value and importance of the art collection that was now destined to move to Ireland. Sir Alfred's uncle and namesake had been a partner in Wernher, Beit & Company, diamond financiers. It was Julius Wernher and the first Alfred Beit who bankrolled the young Ernest Oppenheimer, the man who ended up with control of De Beers Consolidated Mines, and through it, the entire diamond world. Wernher and Beit took for themselves huge stock positions in De Beers.
The two financiers began collecting paintings at the same time, matching each other Rembrandt for Rembrandt, Goya for Goya, Rubens for Rubens. They demanded the best and hired as their adviser the director of the German national gallery in Berlin. The Wernher collection passed down through the female line into the Phillips family, whose daughters married, respectively, the dukes of Westminster, Abercorn, and Roxburghe. In London the duchesses all kept house in the same mansion in Eton Square, stacked companionably one above the other in three enormous flats. The Wernher collection eventually went to their brother, who sold it. The Beit collection passed from Alfred to his brother Sir Otto, and from Sir Otto to Sir Alfred, who crated it up and shipped it across the Irish Sea.
Along with it went a treasure in silver, bronze sculpture, and antique furniture. This lode arrived in Ireland, was wedged into fleets of trucks, passed through Dublin, and threaded its way out into the lanes of Wicklow until it came to Russborough. There the Beits unpacked it all, moved in, and settled down. In terms of today's money, the treasure was worth more than two hundred million dollars, and there it was, in a drafty old house in the country. Not only that, the Beits were English-historically, reviled by the Irish as oppressors. One would have thought thieves would be parked along the road with their engines running. Yet Sir Alfred and Lady Beit lived peacefully at Russborough for twenty-two years before people started robbing them.
On a warm spring night in 1974, a silver-gray Ford Cortina station wagon drove out of County Kildare into neighboring Wicklow and took the road for Blessington. There were four people in the car: three Irishmen and a thirty-three-year-old British heiress named Bridget Rose Dugdale. Pictures of her then show an intense woman with flyaway hair and a tentative smile. A passionate nature drove everything she did, and to review her turbulent life is to see, in the end, a straight line that led her from her father's house to that spring night in County Wicklow.
Dugdale was born into sunlit circumstances at Yarty Farm, near Axminster, Devon. Her father, Lieutenant Colonel James Dugdale, was a millionaire entrepreneur, insurance broker, and landowner. He sent his daughter to private schools in France and Germany as well as England. She was a clever girl, breezed through her undergraduate degree at Oxford, and lectured at Bedford College. She took a Ph.D. in economics, became a feminist and left-wing advocate, worked briefly for the United Nations, and finally settled down to stir up hell with a rake named Walter Heaton, a north London union steward and former guardsman.
Dugdale, by Heaton's account, was brimming with vivacity. Heaton himself was a luckless sinner who seems to have cut something of a figure. Whatever figure he cut when she met him quickly improved, because Dugdale had money and the habit of generosity. Heaton began to dress more smartly. He got his hands on a Mercedes-Benz. "She was a soft touch," a friend of Dugdale's confided. "She was robbed by everyone."
Free with her money, she spent little on herself. She affected battle dress and displayed a bravura fondness for dishevelment. Her demeanor was severe. People called her cold, an acquaintance said. "She wasn't cold. She may not have been able to iron a shirt or boil an egg, but she was very idealistic." Dugdale rooted around in the issues of the day like someone picking through a bin for a hat that would fit. She found Ireland.
To someone with an ardent nature, the pitiful chronicle of Irish history offered much. Its pages had been soaked in outrage from that day in 1169 when Norman conquerors from Britain came ashore at Baginburn in present-day County Wexford, an event that produced the later couplet: "At the creek of Baginburn, Ireland was lost and won." The winners were the Norman earls, who took less than one hundred years to subdue three-quarters of the island. The losers were the native Gaels; in the coming centuries they saw their customs and language extinguished, their religion persecuted, and their despoilers set above them by treachery, statute, and the sword.
The last pages in this eventful tale opened after World War I, when, in the British general election, Irish voters elected seventy-three members of the Sinn Féin Party. Instead of going to London to take their seats, the Sinn Féin members constituted themselves as the Dail Éirann-the Irish parliament. They sat in Dublin on January 21, 1919, an act rightly construed by London as open rebellion. The Anglo-Irish war began.
Opposing British forces were the Irish Volunteers, who became the Irish Republican Army, or IRA. In the midst of this sporadic, vicious war, the British partitioned Ireland, granting home rule to the only Irishmen who did not want it: the six, largely Protestant counties of Ulster. This act imprisoned in a hostile state-Northern Ireland-a large minority of Catholics, some 40 percent of the population.
In the south the war raged on. Not even the treaty negotiated in 1921 brought peace: Under its terms, the British granted Ireland self-government but not a republic, and opposition to this arrangement flamed into a civil war, with elements of the IRA battling the new Irish state.
The pro-treaty forces won. Within a few decades Ireland was a republic anyway. But within it, unreconciled to Dublin's practical acceptance of the fact of Northern Ireland, lay well-armed units of the IRA. Officially outlawed, and feared and shunned by the mass of Irishmen, the IRA nonetheless encapsulated the beau ideal of a united Ireland. The Irish government in Dublin attacked and tolerated it by turn, and would not extradite to Britain Irishmen wanted for political crimes, including assaulting British soldiers and Northern Ireland's police. Into this ancient, blood-soaked saga Rose Dugdale flung herself.
In 1971, the British government began its policy of internment of IRA terrorists in Northern Ireland. The Anti-Internment League immediately sprang up in London, and Dugdale and Heaton embraced it. In 1972 they blockaded a street beside London's Pentonville Prison, declaring it a "no go" area to the police. They repeated the stunt in Londonderry, and afloat on this modest notoriety, the pair began to shuttle between London and Belfast-fresh adherents to the cause of Irish unity.
When the cost of standing everybody drinks wore out her fortune, Dugdale and Heaton decided to replenish it from the original source, and on the night of June 6, 1973, while her parents were away, Dugdale led three men, including Heaton, across the fields of her family's estate, through a pantry window, and into the sprawling west country house. They left with eighty-two thousand pounds' worth of paintings, silver, and porcelain. Dugdale fled with the hoard to Oxford, where she hid it in a friend's basement. It didn't stay there long; an associate betrayed them, and exactly four months later father confronted daughter in Exeter Crown Court.
The symbols of the wealth that was Dugdale's birthright glittered in the courtroom, placed there as Crown exhibits. There were eight oil paintings in their frames, rare Miessen figurines, and a treasure of silver. It was an eloquent display of the riches that Dugdale now despised. Her father told the court that in that year alone his daughter had come into an inheritance of ninety thousand pounds, and that forty-two thousand pounds of it had gone to her by check five days before the burglary. Dugdale burst out: "You love me and yet you hate me for what I do and what I stand for and what I gave your money and your mother's away for. You were concerned that I was squandering your wealth. You have been extremely generous.
Excerpted from The Irish Game by MATTHEW HART Copyright © 2004 by Matthew Hart. Excerpted by permission.
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