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Five daring women from Irish history


Debbie Blake explores the lives of five of the most daring women in Irish history, women who were ahead of their time, paving the way for future generations to follow.

1. Dr. James Barry (1799? – 1865)

To enter university and pursue a career as a medical doctor in the British army, Mary Ann Bulkley changed her name to James Miranda Barry, donned men’s clothes and adopted a whole new masculine persona, a masquerade that she would carry throughout her life.

Qualifying as a surgeon and becoming the first female British medical doctor, (although it wasn’t known at the time), James enlisted in the British Army and was posted to Cape Town, where she became Inspector General of Military Hospitals. She vigorously campaigned for human rights and radical reforms in the prisons and hospitals. In 1826, she performed the first recorded successful caesarean section in which both mother and baby survived.

When her true gender was discovered after her death in 1865, the British Army, to avoid a major scandal, concealed her records for 100 years.

2. Nellie Cashman (1845 – 1925)

An intrepid, pioneering prospector, entrepreneur and philanthropist, she was a true trailblazer in every sense of the word. Fleeing the dreadful plight of the Great Famine, she left Ireland for America, where she settled for a while before getting caught up in the ‘Gold Fever’ of the late 1800s, and moved on to the frontier mining camps of Arizona and Alaska.

Known as a ‘fearless little woman’ and often the only female to join the stampede, Nellie would bravely trudge for miles though deep snow and treacherous ice, enduring freezing temperatures, to various mining camps in search of gold.

Although her success as a prospector earned her the reputation of ‘a mining expert’ throughout the mining towns of Arizona, where the most experienced miners would seek her advice, she was often poor as she would spend her fortune back into the communities on boarding houses, schools, and hospitals for the miners.

3. Aleen Cust (1868 – 1937)

Aleen started training as a nurse at the London Hospital, but feeling more empathy towards animals, she left nursing to pursue a career as a veterinary surgeon.

Despite having passed the curriculum with distinction at the New Veterinary College, Aleen was unable to sit her professional exams because she was a woman. She gained experience at a veterinary practice in Ireland and at the onset of World War I, drove her own car all the way to Abbeville, Northern France, to work in the horse hospitals.

As she was still unqualified on paper she was unable to work with the army, so she volunteered with the YMCA and worked unofficially in the field veterinary hospital for the duration of the war. It wasn’t until the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in 1919, that Aleen finally received her diploma, 22 years after completing her training.

4. Lilian Bland (1878 – 1971)

Lilian Bland not only flew Ireland’s first powered biplane, but she was the first woman in the world to design, build and fly an aeroplane. Her American counterpart, Amelia Earhart was just twelve years old at the time.

Inspired by Louis Blériot’s pioneering cross channel flight in 1909 and after receiving a postcard showing his monoplane’s dimensions, Lilian constructed a biplane glider in a workshop on her family’s estate, that she aptly named the Mayfly. She added a 20hp two-stroke engine and after several attempts she flew to an altitude of 30 feet for a quarter of a mile.

Lilian continued improving the Mayfly and experimented with further flights, but her father who was worried about her precarious exploits bought her a Model T Ford motor car and she agreed to abandon flying. She taught herself to drive and became Ford’s first agent in Northern Ireland.

5. Lady Mary Heath (1897 – 1939)

During the 1920s, Lady Heath made worldwide headline news as the first pilot ever to fly solo in a small open-cockpit plane from Cape Town to London.

Despite suffering from sunstroke, rheumatic fever, enduring torrential rain, blistering heat of 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and being shot at over the North Africa coast, Lady Heath landed in Croydon and stepped out of the plane wearing a silk dress, fur coat and silk stockings, having put them on in mid-flight.

Prior to this tremendous feat, she had become Britain’s first female commercial pilot, the first female to fly loop the loop and the first to parachute jump from a plane, where unfazed, she compared the height of 1,500 feet, to jumping from ‘a six-foot wall.’

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