Sunday, December 10, 2006

Great Irish Women part 2, Lady Mary Heath

Lady Icarus - Lady Sophie Mary Heath (1896-1939)

Considering United Irelander’s (asinine) comments on the last post I feel the next paragraph or two I am going to write would be blatantly obvious to most of us, but apparently it needs explaining to others. In many cases women’s achievements have been passed over because a male-dominated society has not deemed them as important as male achievements.

We should also ask the question ‘who writes the history books? Who documented events, who were the reporters? Who were the decision makers. What about the fact that women were not allowed to do what many men took for granted. So for those women who did rise above the parapet of a male-dominated society their achievements are all the greater because of the multitude of barriers placed in their path which their strong spirits still shone above. Barriers those great men never had to contemplate.

I am not writing a paper on woman’s struggle to be treated equally because I have done enough arguing over the years with people who do not hold my views to realise that some people are so bound in their ignorance they are not for swaying. Well neither am I in this. To paraphrase and rewrite some of one of United Irelander’s commentators Irishwomen are not rubbish just because a blogger’s straw poll threw up few women.

Consider that even on a basic level some of our great Irishmen have been great because they have had a great Irishwoman behind them whether their lover, wife, sister, mother or daughter.

On another level it is not just about recognition of fabulous feats of some people, in many instances in Irish life and in the not too distant past the fact that mothers were at the very core base of society insuring food was on the table and clothes on people’s backs. Without that strong matriarchal presence many people, men and women, would not have achieved a fraction of what they have.

Right with that out of the way, let me introduce Lady Sophie Mary Heath or Lady Icarus as she was also known.

Lady Sophie Mary Heath arriving Croydon, UK from Capetown, 1928

Born in Knockaderry in County Limerick in 1896, Lady Mary Heath was one of the most famous women in the world in the 1920s. She became the first person, not just the first woman, to fly a small open cockpit plane from Cape Town to London starting in January and finishing in May 1928.


Born Sophie Peirce Evans, her early life had a traumatic beginning after her father murdered her mother.

Her epic trip from Cape Town to London was made with a Bible, a shotgun, a couple of tennis rackets, six teagowns and a fur coat, in a time when men flew with boiled eggs and ham sandwiches. She was the first woman to make a parachute jump, and was the holder of two altitude records for light airplanes.

She cut her aviation wings during the First World War when she spent two years as a dispatch rider in England and France where Sir John Lavery painted her portrait where she was dressed in the uniform of an air force driver.

A graduate of Science from the University of Dublin she moved to London in 1922 but before she did she took up athletics and had competed in events all over Ireland and even set an unverified world record in the High Jump in Galway.

When she moved to London she was a founding member of the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association and was a delegate to the International Olympic Council in 1925. She won the first ever British javelin title and travelled with British teams to Sweden and France several times helping to introduce women’s track and field to the Olympics.

However it is her pioneering interest and passion for aviation that she is better known having qualified for a private or ‘A’ license but a woman’s right to earn a commercial license to earn a commercial or ‘B’ license was revoked by the International Commission for Air Navagation in 1924.

Lady Heath fought this ban and the commission ruled that if she attended flight school and passed she would be granted a commercial license. She did and the ban was revoked.

A regular visitor to her aunt she is said to have landed her plane on every flat field in Ireland and is said to have taken many locals from Ballybunion for short trips in her plane for a small fee.

She was badly injured in a crash just before the Cleveland, Ohio, National Air Races in 1929 and returned to Dublin with her third husband in the 1930s. She died destitute in 1939 in London after falling from a tram car.

On flying she said: “a woman can fly across Africa wearing a Parision frock and keeping her nose powdered all the way”. My kind of woman.

A biography of her life is available written by Lindie Naughton, you can read Lindie’s blog here. Other sources from this post come from here, here and here.

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Damian O'Broin said...

Lovely series of posts Redmum. And fascinating stories about two Irish women I hadn't heard of before. Looking forward to the rest.

Anonymous said...

You probally already know all the names I listed at the bottom of sineads threed. But here they are again anyway.

Mary Gilmartin

The Great Wee Azoo said...

As my mother would say, "It's well for her." Although her achievements were great, she was obviously not short of money. Where did her funding come from? She was an aristocrat and comfortably off. She wore fur. It's ironic she died poor. There were many great Irish women who didn't come from the aristocracy. Let's see some of them. What about covering my favourite, famous Irish woman - Bernadette McAliskey - a true radical and, at the time, the youngest sitting MP. Also, check out Kathleen Lynn, Anne Devlin, Mary Ann McCracken and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington.

Red Mum said...

Thanks Damian and Mary. Some of the women you posted Mary on Sinead's blog including the Ladies of Llangollen are on my list. Thanks a million for the suggestions I'll be checking them all out.

Red Mum said...

Thanks Theweeazoo, I suppose it shows that money can help overcome some barriers, still her achievements were great. But I will be looking at lots of women and thanks for the suggestions. Oh and by the way Tawdrey said you better get posting again.

Alex Klemm said...

Good series. You'e probably overwhelmed with suggestions for great Irish women, but what about taking a look at Delia Larkin:

Boliath said...

Ah finally I can comment!

Great series Redmum.

Looking forward to reading more.