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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Sophie Mary Peirce-Evans, Irish Aviator

lady-heathSophie Mary Peirce-Evans, Lady Heath, Irish aviator, is born on November 10, 1896 in Knockaderry, County Limerick, near the town of Newcastle West. She is one of the best known women in the world for a five-year period from the mid-1920s.

When Peirce-Evans is one year old, her father, John Peirce-Evans, bludgeons her mother, Kate Theresa Dooling, to death with a heavy stick. He is found guilty of murder and declared insane. She is taken to the home of her grandfather in Newcastle West where she is brought up by two maiden aunts, who discourage her passion for sports.

After schooldays in Rochelle School in Cork, Princess Garden Belfast and St. Margaret’s Hall on Mespil Road in Dublin, where she plays hockey and tennis, Peirce-Evans enrolls in the Royal College of Science for Ireland. The college is designed to produce the educated farmers which the country then needs. One of the few women in the college, she duly takes a top-class degree in science, specialising in agriculture. She also plays with the college hockey team and contributes to a student magazine, copies of which are held in the National Library of Ireland.

Before becoming a pilot, Peirce-Evans has already made her mark. She spends two years as a dispatch rider during World War I, based in England and later France. By that time, she has married the first of her three husbands, Major William Elliot Lynn, and, as Sophie Mary Eliott-Lynn, is one of the founders of the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association after her move to London in 1922. She is Britain’s first women’s javelin champion and sets a disputed world record for the high jump. Alleging cruelty, her marriage to Elliot Lynn ends in divorce.

In 1925, Elliot-Lynn takes her first flying lessons and two years later becomes the first woman to hold a commercial flying licence in Britain. Along the way, she set records for altitude in a small plane and later a Shorts seaplane and is the first woman to parachute from an aeroplane.

In an era when the world has gone aviation-mad due to the exploits of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, Elliot-Lynn is more than able to hold her own. “Britain’s Lady Lindy,” as she is known in the United States, makes front-page news as the first pilot, male or female, to fly a small open-cockpit aircraft from Cape Town to London. A scale model of the plane is on display at The Little Museum of Dublin. She writes about the experience later in the book Woman and Flying, which she co-authors with Stella Wolfe Murray. After her great flight from the Cape, she takes a mechanic’s qualification in the United States, the first woman to do so.

On October 11, 1927, Peirce-Evans marries Sir James Heath at Christ Church in Mayfair, London, and assumes the title Lady Heath. In July 1928, she spends a few weeks volunteering as a co-pilot with a civil airline, KLM. She is hoping to be appointed to the newly created Batavia route, which would make her the first female pilot with a commercial airline. The world is not ready for female pilots and her hope is not fulfilled.

In 1929, just when her fame is at its height, with her life a constant whirl of lectures, races and long-distance flights, Lady Heath is badly injured in a crash just before the National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio. Before the accident Lady Heath applies for American citizenship, intending to remain in the United States where she has made a good living on the lecture circuit and as an agent for Cirrus engines. She is never the same after her accident.

Lady Heath divorces Sir James Heath in Reno, Nevada in January 1930. On 12 November 12, 1931 in Lexington, Kentucky, she marries G.A.R Williams, a horseman and pilot of Caribbean origin. They return to Ireland and she becomes involved in private aviation, briefly running her own company at Kildonan, near Dublin in the mid-1930s, and helping produce the generation of pilots that would help establish the national airline Aer Lingus.

Lady Heath dies in St Leonard’s Hospital, Shoreditch, London on May 9, 1939, following a fall inside a double-decker tram. Although alcoholism had been a problem in previous years, a pathologist finds no evidence of alcohol but detailed evidence of an old blood clot which might have caused the fall. On May 15, 1939, according to newspaper reports, her ashes are scattered over Surrey from an aircraft flown by her estranged husband although legend has it that her ashes are returned to Ireland where they are scattered over her native Newcastle West.


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The Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits

The Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits takes place in County Fermanagh on August 7, 1594 when a force of English Army soldiers led by Sir Henry Duke is ambushed and defeated by an Irish force under Hugh Maguire and Cormac MacBaron O’Neill in the region of the fords of the Arney River on the approaches to Enniskillen.

The battle acquires its distinctive name due to the supplies of the Crown forces, largely hard biscuits, which are scattered and left floating in the river. The battle is an early exchange in the Nine Years’ War, and exposes the vulnerability of Crown forces to ambushes in the wilder parts of Ulster with its thick woods and bogs.

The relief force is under the joint command of Sir Henry Duke and Sir Edward Herbert, who have 600 infantrymen and 40 horses. Duke and Herbert believe this to be insufficient, and write to the Lord Deputy that “to go without a thousand men at the least or otherwise we shall dearly repent our going.” No reinforcements are forthcoming therefore the column sets north from Cavan on August 4. Burdened with supplies, the army is expected to take four days to march 29 miles north to Enniskillen. The night before the battle the English camp is pestered by Irish gunfire and incessant skirmishing which causes the English troops to be poorly rested when the set out on August 7 to relieve the beleaguered garrison. As the thin column starts to snake its way north, almost immediately it comes under attack on both flanks as Irish skirmishes hurl javelins, but this is not the main attack.

As the relief expedition approaches Enniskillen from the south, Maguire and Cormac MacBaron lay in wait for them on the Arney River. The Army’s cavalry scouts fail to detect the Irish laying in wait for them. The ground is boggy near the Arney ford, therefore they are forced to dismount. Consequently the infantry escorting the supply wagons for Enniskillen run straight into the ambush. Around eleven o’clock the head of the column approaches the ford. Without warning intense Irish gunfire tears into the lead English elements from concealed positions on the opposite bank. With the advance stalled, Maguire and MacBaron assail the rear of the column with the bulk of their forces. Wings of English shot deploy to skirmish with the Irish, but withering Irish fire pushes them back to their pike stands in the column.

The English rear falls into disorder causing the Irish pike and Scots mercenaries to charge, forcing them to flee pell mell onto the centre of the column. The English collapse continues as the column concertinaed towards the head of the army stalled at the ford. Fortunately the leading English pike has forced the crossing, pushing back the Irish shot, giving the English some room to reorder and regroup north of the river.

The English are engaged by Irish shot from the surrounding hills, but a counter-attack is stillborn when its leader, Captain Fuller, is killed. With most of the supplies abandoned at the river, Duke and Herbert decide their only option is to retreat. However, their retreat to the ford is met with renewed gunfire and the disintegrating army is compelled to cross on another ford an “arrow shot” upstream.

Luckily for Duke and Herbert’s men they are not pursued as most of the Irish have fallen to looting the baggage train which gives the battle its name, Béal-Átha-na-mBriosgadh or The Ford of the Biscuits.

The badly-mauled Crown forces retreat to Cavan. News of the defeats causes some alarm due to the small size of the peacetime Royal Irish Army, which is scattered in garrisons across the island. Although this can be supplemented by forces of loyal Gaelic chiefs, fresh troops need to be raised in England and sent across the Irish Sea to contain the developing northern rebellion. In addition a force of soldiers who have been serving in Brittany is brought to Ireland.

A second relief expedition, this time led by the Lord Deputy of Ireland William Russell, 1st Baron Russell of Thornhaugh, manages to reach Enniskillen and re-supply it. However Enniskillen does fall to the rebels in May of the following year and the garrison is massacred, despite having been promised their lives when they surrendered.

(Photo with permission by Dr.James O’Neill (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)