When just 1 year old, she sat on her kitchen floor in a pool of blood, beside a mother who would never move again.
This is not the opening scene of a modern crime tv show, but the start of life in 1890’s rural Ireland for one of the world’s most daring and trailblazing aviators, who became known in later life as Lady Mary Heath.
The story begins with her mother, an attractive tall brunette named Kate Theresa Doolin, who started her life in a respected farming family (though a few of them were known to have a fondness for the drink, but sure who didn’t in Ireland back then?) with land at Causeway, near Tralee in County Kerry. When working in a nearby town, young Ms. Doolin met a handsome, wild and often charming man called Jackie Pierce (John Pierce-Evans). She took a job as housekeeper for his uncle in Knockaderry, near Newcastle West in County Limerick, and later married Jackie in a ceremony in Dublin City.
Their daughter, Sophie Catherine Theresa Mary Peirce-Evans, was born on the 10th November, 1896. Just a year later, she was being gathered up from her kitchen floor by distraught neighbours, taken from beside the cooling body of her mother, who had been bludgeoned to death with a stout stick earlier that day, by Sophie’s own father Jackie.
John Pierce-Evans was found guilty (but insane) at the murder trial, and locked up, while his daughter was brought to live with her Grandfather in Newcastle West, and raised in a rather restrictive fashion by her two maiden aunts there. Though she showed an early talent and passion for sports, her female relatives discouraged and even outright forbid this ‘unladylike’ interest. Sophie’s schooling brought her to County Cork, County Armagh, and finally to Dublin, where she could play hockey and tennis and excel at both. Third level education took her to the Royal College of Science in Ireland, as one of very few women there, but the country needed educated farmers and so she was allowed in. Sophie gained a top-class degree in science, specialising in agriculture, and played for the college hockey team.
World War 1 brought her to England and France, serving as a dispatch rider for 2 years, and by the time she moved from Ireland to Scotland, her reputation for being an “unsuitable” influence on women preceded her. Just after the war, Sophie received a University placement in Aberdeen, and as she had married her first husband, started life in the UK as Sophie Mary Eliott-Lynn. Her Irish aunts were aghast at the thought of the bad impression she might make on her young cousins, writing to their mother with the admonition “For Mercy’s sake, Lily, don’t let Sophie get hold of the girls.”
Moving from Scotland to London in 1922, it was clear sports had a firm hold of her. She helped found a Women’s Association which became the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association in 1926, and she served as the joint secretary while continuously campaigning for the inclusion of a full women’s programme at the Olympics. She set a world record for the High Jump, and became the first women’s javelin champion in Britain. In 1925 she had travelled as a delegate to the International Olympic Council, and it was there she first took flying lessons. Her book (the first of its kind), entitled ‘Athletics for Women and Girls’, was published the same year. By 1926 she was representing the UK at javelin at the Women’s International Games in Gothenburg, and came 4th, throwing 44.63 metres. Her Irish records for the shot and discus were not bettered until the 1960’s.
From 1925 through to 1929, Sophie was probably the most famous Irish woman on the planet. Those first few flying lessons turned into a burning passion for aviation, and she shifted her pioneering spirit to the skies. Though Amelia Earhart had been firing imaginations and setting records since 1922, Britain was not ready to embrace female liberation, and Sophie fought prejudice and ignorance to become the first woman in Britain or Ireland to get her commercial pilot’s license. Her test included proving to a panel of men that she could control an aircraft… at all times of the month.
Her first marriage had not been a happy one, and she was estranged from her husband, Major William Elliot Lynn, when he died in early 1927. Immediately she sought a new husband, preferably one who could finance her flying until she could make a living from it, and made a list of the wealthiest British bachelors. On selecting and marrying Sir James Heath – who was 45 years her senior – on 11 October 1927, she became Lady Heath (though she is often referred to as ‘Lady Mary Heath’). By then she had already set a number of altitude records for small aircraft, and also for a heavy Shorts seaplane. Lady Heath landed quite spectacularly in the middle of a football match after becoming the first woman to parachute from a plane, and in 1927, was the first female pilot to win an open race.
American newspapers loved her, calling her “Britain’s Lady Lindy” (after Charles Lindberg), but her exploits also made the front pages in Ireland, Britain, South Africa, France and the Netherlands. She planned to fly home from Lecturing in South Africa to become the first pilot, male or female, to fly a small open-cockpit aircraft from Cape Town to London, landing at Croydon Aerodrome. Taking off in January 1928, it took her 3 months rather than her planned weeks, but on the 17th May her Avro Avian biplane made a successful if bumpy landing in England. Despite having piloted and maintained the plane through 9,000 miles, then 32-year-old stepped to greet the swarming crowd looking fabulous in heeled shoes, silk stockings, pleated skirt, fur coat and a cloche hat.
Lady Heath was determined to earn her way as a pilot. She would give joyrides at air shows, and she often flew back to Ireland, where thousands would gather on her arrival to see the airplane and pay her to go up in it, if they could afford it. She’s remembered in Ballybunion, County Kerry, where she’d go to visit her aunt Cis, by local lads who still say “she was good at the sales talk”; there’d always be more ready to go up with her once the last lot had shakily departed her plane. She turned that silver tongue to lobbying for a job as a commercial pilot, and eventually succeeded with the Dutch airline KLM. Though it didn’t last – the Dutch and British Press turned on her quite viciously and she was losing her public standing very rapidly – for a time she flew as first officer on European routes. Another record was achieved – she was the first woman to fly a commercial aircraft.
Surprised and hurt by the European backlash she had received, Lady Heath took up an invitation to lecture and promote flying in the USA. She had met Amelia Earhart when the American crossed the Atlantic and landed in London, and invited her to fly in the Avro Avian. Earhart had been so impressed she had promptly bought the biplane and took it back to America with her. Following across the Atlantic made sense, and by then the proper training of pilots and ensuring reliable equipment had started to feature strongly for Lady Heath.
In July 1929, she wrote an article for Scientific American magazine, entitled ‘Is Flying Safe?’ Worldwide, flying had become very popular, and in Britain by then graduating pilots had to have at least 10 hours of instruction before they were let go up, with hundreds of men and women becoming pilots each year. Lady Heath believed that well-trained pilots, and construction standards, were the most important factors of airline safety. In Britain, in early 1928, 45,000 flights had been made with no accidents reported. She could see that America had the fastest growing commercial airline industry, with Stout Air Services in business since 1925, and passenger safety was a big concern.
Only a month after her article appeared, on 29 August 1929, Lady Heath crashed her plane into a roof while practising a dead-stick landing at the National Air Races in Cleveland. She sustained a fractured skull, broken nose and internal injuries, with newspapers reporting that her recovery was unlikely. She did survive, but the accident ended her piloting career. Her second marriage ended too; she divorced Lord Heath in 1930.
After remarrying (an English airman G.A.R. Williams in 1931), and moving back to Dublin, she founded her own private aviation company. She also founded the Irish Junior Aero Club, teaching young pilots to fly, and forming the bedrock for the national Aer Lingus airline which followed.
Sophie Catherine Theresa Mary Peirce-Evans, the great Lady Mary Heath, died of head injury following a fall while on a tramcar in 1939 – the fall was thought to have been caused by an old blood clot – at the age of 42.
I went down to this little child, because she was a child… I got down on my knees in the aisle, and I asked her was she ok? She said, “No”. She was upset, and she said, she had had an abortion that afternoon in London. Now if you know anything about flying, you don’t fly after having a tooth out, for fear of haemorrhaging. Now she’s sitting in her seat… there was nobody with her, she was on her own… because of the severity of the matter, we had no choice, we couldn’t wait to get back to Dublin. That plane was diverted into Liverpool. And my memory… was of that girl – the ambulance men came on, they very discretely looked after everything, and nobody knew anything, they took her off – and she SCREAMED, all the way down on that stretcher, for us not to tell her parents back in Ireland.
That was an experience from the 1980’s, told by Derry-Ann Morgan, a former employee of Ireland’s national airline, to the crowd of activists, protestors and passers-by attending a Pro-Choice Rally on a very cold Saturday in May 2013, in Ireland’s capital city. That a girl of 15 years old would be subjected to such trauma, on finding herself pregnant in circumstances that simply did not allow for her to birth and raise a child, is unthinkable. But sure, that was 30 years ago. So much has changed in Ireland since then!
Highlights from the 80’s here on the island include an amendment to the Irish constitution, just to be sure to be sure than none of our poor wee Irish babbies might get killed unnecessarily. Driven by fear of abortion in other countries, the 8thAmendment in 1983 made it illegal for a woman to travel for an abortion, and illegal to even provide information, or speak to a pregnant woman in Ireland about how or where she could travel for abortion to another country. That same year, it was reported that an Irish mother of two named Sheila Hodgers was refused treatment for her progressive cancer, even down to not being allowed tramadol pain medication, due to the risk it posed to the foetus she was carrying at the time. Her husband repeatedly requested an abortion, but was refused. The hospital had to abide by a code of ethics drawn up with the Catholic Church, which would not even allow for a Caesarean section, as there was a chance of damage to the foetus. Following a premature labour, the baby died a few hours after birth, and Ms. Hodgers lasted only two days longer.
It’s a good thing the Government of Ireland has managed to wriggle out from under the thumb of the Church in 2017, so a travesty like that couldn’t possibly happen again, isn’t it?
Oh no, wait, they haven’t yet.
When the death of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian dentist residing in Ireland, hit the news, the nation, and the world, was shocked. Ms. Halappanavar died in October 2012, after she had sought help at the University Hospital in Galway as she was suffering a foetal miscarriage at 17 weeks. On being told the foetus was not viable, Savita requested an abortion, but was then informed the hospital could not perform an abortion under Irish Law as the foetus’s heart was still beating. A few days after, Ms. Halappanavar was diagnosed with septicaemia, leading to multiple organ failure, and death of both mother and foetus.
This happened despite the 1992 ‘X Case’ in which the Supreme Court decided that a pregnant woman could have an abortion to save her life, including from suicide – which was based on the case of X, a 14 year old girl who had been made pregnant by rape, and wanted the right of an abortion. This led to the 13th, and 14th Amendments of the Constitution, stating that the prohibition on abortion would not limit the freedom of pregnant women to travel out of the state, and that the prohibition of abortion would not limit the right to distribute information about abortion services in foreign countries. Neither of which was of any use to Savita, whose husband reported that a nurse in the hospital told them their repeated requests for abortion had to be denied, because “Ireland is a Catholic country”.
How horrific. How utterly, incomprehensibly tragic all of that is. Janet, who has been a pro-choice activist in Ireland for 24 years, recounts what she views as the best experience for a woman in Ireland today:
At 5 to 7 weeks… they illegally obtain the medical abortion pills online… they order them, risking charges for importing a Class A drug without a license, and with their partner or friend take them over the course of a weekend and have an abortion at home with everything they might need, or booked into a hotel room.
And what, in her experience, is the worst experience for an Irish woman who faces the choice today?
It is not to do with if they have travelled, or how far along they were, or what type of abortion they have had. It is simply the isolation which comes with not having anyone to talk to about the experience… We know that 150,000 women who gave Irish addresses have travelled to the UK, it may be more… That is so many women passing each other each day and not knowing they have that shared experience, and being unable to support each other.
The Pro-Choice Rally in May 2013 was timed to coincide with a 3 day Government committee hearings on proposed new legislation, following publication of the ‘Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013’. Dr. Sinead Kennedy of the ‘Action on X’ group, organisers of the rally, spoke of her feeling with regard to the Bill, and the debate that surrounds it:
We had the spectacle beginning yesterday of politicians debating the merits of allowing women lifesaving abortions. Debating how many years in prison – 5, 10, 15, 20 – vulnerable women in difficult situations will be subjected to, if they try and access abortions here in this country. Listening to politicians who seem to think that they’re bishops back in the 1950’s, who think that women are no more than vessels or incubators.
We need to tell this government that we will not accept legislation that excludes suicide. Women will not be subjected to panels of 3, 4, 7 doctors (to decide if they may have a termination). This is outrageous, it is barbaric. And women must not and will not be criminalised in their own country, for accessing abortion. (This Bill doesn’t provide) access to abortion for women who are victims of rape or incest, it doesn’t provide access for women who have fatal foetal abnormality, it does nothing to address the issue of when a woman’s health is in jeopardy because of her pregnancy – and more than that it doesn’t do ANYTHING to address the 5,000 women who travel abroad every single year to Europe, who are criminalised in their own country, and treated like exiles. And we will not tolerate this anymore.
It is surreal to think that under the proposed legislation, a 14 year old rape victim such as the girl in the X case, who is proven to have taken abortion pills in Ireland, would be subject to a 14 year prison sentence. Her attacker, if convicted, would be likely to face a 7 year jail term, the current average. As reprehensible as the situation is though, Dr. Kennedy is satisfied that things are moving in the right direction. She said that this legislation is the bare minimum we need, and while it is highly restrictive, and insulting that we have to stand out and demand this, it is nevertheless an important defeat for anti-abortionists. This, finally, is a step in the right direction.
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 now defines the circumstances and processes within which abortion in Ireland can be legally performed. It allows for abortion where pregnancy endangers a woman’s life, including through a risk of suicide. It was signed into law on 30 July by Michael D. Higgins, the President of Ireland, and commenced on 1 January 2014. To determine whether the pregnant person is truly at risk, her case is put before a panel of up to 4 doctors and specialists, who must concur on the ruling.
There are no restrictions or checks in place for the religious beliefs of any of those doctors.
In a conversation with Katherine O’Donnell, director of the Women’s Studies Centre at University College, Dublin, she speculated:
Besides women who are ‘out’ about needing terminations for medical reasons, there is no big visible presence of women who have chosen to terminate pregnancies for other reasons, it is left to a few activists and organisations (such as Choice Ireland and Doctors for Choice)… so many thousands of Irish women annually terminate pregnancies, but there is no visible mass movement. We seem to have as many Irish women who are saying they were ‘hurt by abortion’ or that abortion is harmful, as those who are affirming it as a positive choice in their lives. If even a small fraction of Irish women told their abortion stories, I think it might be the way to unlock the long impasse where the argument about abortion goes into arcane abstractions rather than lived lives.
In 2013, it was estimated that 12 women leave Ireland every day to secure an abortion, while countless others are taking pills purchased online. Abortion is the most common gynaecological procedure an Irish woman is likely to have. It is variously estimated that between one in 10 and one in 15 Irish women of reproductive age have had an abortion. An Irish woman is more likely to have had an abortion than appendectomy or tonsillectomy.
It is time for Ireland to accept that the Abortion War will not be won by anything but safety and support for Ireland’s women, and the right – regardless of the situation – of an Irish woman to make the best possible choice she can for her own life.
You can provide support and keep up to date at the Abortion Rights Campaign Ireland Website.
[A version of this article was first published in Ms. Magazine, in the Summer issue of 2013, researched and written by Lora O’Brien.]