In the 1920s, Lady Mary Heath, originally Sophie Peirce from Knockaderry, Co Limerick, was one of the best known women in Britain and the USA.
She had made her mark first as an athlete, prominent in the fight to bring track and field to the Olympics, and then become one of the best known pilots of the day, willing and capable of taking on the men at her own game.
In 1928, she made the first solo flight in a small plane from Cape Town to London, with her achievement gaining her world-wide renown. All the Irish newspapers covered her every move and she even made it on to the front pages of the New York Times.
Yet by the time of her untimely death in 1939, Lady Mary’s name had faded into obscurity.
Condensing her packed and varied life into one article is an almost impossible task, but suffice it to say that Lady Mary effortlessly makes into the small list of truly world renowned Irish women. Yet how many people today have ever heard of her?
There are a number of possible reasons for this. For a start, she flourished at a time when the fledgling Irish Free State was making its first faltering steps. Those from a Protestant background, such as Lady Mary, tended to identify with Britain and the Empire, although her own beloved aunt Cis spent her entire life between Newcastle West and Ballybunion. If she could be bothered, she could trace her family roots in Ireland back at least 400 years and would have been amazed that anyone thought of her as anything but Irish.
Yet those from such a background, often described as “Anglo-Irish”, were excised from the history of the Free State. Ernest Shackleton has only recently been welcomed back into the list of great Irish men, as has Tom Crean, the Kerry Catholic, who was part of Shackleton’s ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic, and took the King’s shilling when he joined the British navy.
Only in the past decade or so have the men and women who joined the British armed forces during the two World Wars been recognised for their bravery.
There was also the fact that Lady Mary was a woman. During World War 1, women learned to drive, earned their own money and starting socialising without men. As soon as the war ended, they were expected to go back to being housewives and mothers. Those who were reluctant to do so, like Lady Mary, were regarded with some suspicion by the male establishment.
When Lady Mary asked for a grant to complete her science degree after the war, it was turned down on the grounds that she was a married woman with a husband to keep her and so had no need for further skills.
By then, she had become involved in athletics and as a founding member of the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association, lobbied the International Olympic Committee to include women’s track and field in the Olympic programme.
Again the women got little support from the men, who felt women’s athletics was “unladylike”. By then, Lady Mary had married her first husband William Davies Eliott Lynn and was known as “Lady Hell-Of-Din”, a play on her married name, for her assertive personality. She spent little time with her husband, who was in Africa, and was determined to earn her own living, again at odds with the social norms of the time. On top of it all, she was Irish and London high society at best tolerated their hick cousins from across the water.
Lady Mary by now had discovered the joys of flying. Here was a way a woman like herself could get noticed and earn a decent living. Britain had gone air mad, with air shows attracting thousands at venues all over the country. Once Lady Mary had her private licence, she spent every weekend competing in air races, often winning them. She also made attempts at altitude records, and was the first woman to take a parachute jump from a plane, landing in the middle of a football pitch while a match was in progress.
But although women were a great attraction as these air shows, they still could not take up passengers or otherwise earn a living from their skill. Lady Mary announced that she wished to apply for a commercial licence and was told not to bother – even if she had one, the authorities would not let her fly for money.
So began perhaps the most significant battle of her life. She enlisted the help of powerful people such as the MP Lady Astor and argued strenuously that women should be allowed to fly for their living; that the daredevil days of flying were over. She agreed to be physically tested at any time; even during “that time of the month” of which the authorities were so wary.
Her lobbying paid off and in 1926, she became the first women in Britain and Ireland to hold a commercial licence. Following in her slipstream were two other Irish women – Sicele O’Brien from Limerick and Lady Mary Bailey from Co Monaghan.
By 1928, her first husband had died – found drowned in the river Thames - and she was free to marry Sir James Heath, who was over forty years older than her. He agreed to buy his unblushing bride a new plane; London society sniffed and dubbed her a golddigger.
With new husband and plane in tow, Lady Mary headed to South Africa and her life’s great adventure. In three months from January to May 1928, she became the first person to fly a small plane from Cape Town to London. Her brief period of notoriety was about to reach its apex.