On a recent visit to the Volvo Regatta, held at the prestigious Royal St George Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire, Vi and I were delighted to be able to fit in an extra day to explore one of Ireland’s great historic houses. We are fortunate to have a very good friend who lives near the yacht club, and it was through her invitation that we enjoyed a very entertaining afternoon at the regatta, as well as recalling the many happy days spent there.
However, it was the unexpected prospect of visiting Russborough House that was uppermost in my mind. The house had suffered four notorious art thefts over a period of nearly thirty years, creating headlines around the world, and I was more than curious to see the scene of the crimes.
It was a glorious, sun-soaked weekend, ideal for travelling through Co. Wicklow’s beautiful countryside, when we arrived at the great house with its stunning views of the Blessington Lakes and the Wicklow Mountains. It was once the home of the late Sir Alfred Beit, a member of the de Beers diamond family, and his wife.
Here in 1974, the first robbery took place when Dr Rose Dugdale, a British heiress, with an IRA gang, stormed into the house and stole nineteen priceless paintings, including a Goya, a Gainsborough and a Vermeer. Sir Alfred and his wife were tied and gagged while the gang made their escape. The paintings were later recovered in Co. Cork, and the gang caught and jailed.
Again, in 1986, the house was robbed by a Dublin criminal gang led by Martin Cahill, known in the tabloids as ‘The General’. This time eighteen works of art were stolen, including paintings by Gainsborough, Rubens, Vermeer and Goya. Over the years, most of the works were recovered in police operations across Europe, after unsuccessful attempts to sell them.
In 2001, two Old Masters, a Bellotto and a Gainsborough, were stolen, but both were recovered in 2002.
And finally, in 2002, another robbery took place. Raiders used a jeep to smash their way into the house and in a few minutes had stolen a haul of art treasures, including paintings by Rubens.
After this unfortunate series of robberies, and perhaps to avoid another attempt, the main part of the art collection – probably with a value in excess of £100 million – was donated by Sir Alfred Beit (d.1994) and his wife, Lady Beit (d. 2005) to the National Art Gallery in 1987. In 1993 the government paid tribute to this act of generosity by granting Irish citizenship to the couple. It was the first time that Irish citizenship was awarded to British subjects.
This was a visit I’d wanted to make for a long time, and I have to say I wasn’t disappointed. It certainly satisfied my curiosity about the art collection, and on my next visit to Dublin, the National Art Gallery will be on my list.
But Russborough is much more than the art thefts. It’s an 18th century stately home, reputed to the longest in Ireland, with a lot to offer, including magnificent parklands and a range of outdoor activities to suit most tastes.
Well worth a visit, if you’re in this part of the world.