Amazing journey for new Corrie actress Amy De Bhrun’s labour of love to tell the tale of one pioneering woman from Limerick
SHE was the first woman in Britain to hold a commercial flying licence, the first woman to parachute out of a plane, the first to train as an aircraft mechanic and, in 1928, she became the first pilot to fly a tiny opencockpit plane from Capetown to London — and these were just Limerick woman Lady Mary Heath’s feats in aviation.
She was also Britain’s first javelin champion, held world high-jump records and returned from the 1923 Women’s Olympiad in Monte Carlo with medals in high jump, pentathlon and long jump.
During the First World War, she took a most unladylike job as a dispatch rider, carrying messages between Britain and France.
Yet here in Ireland — the homeplace of this trailblazing pioneer, dubbed Lady Lindy by the Yanks — Lady Mary Heath has faded into the mists of history.
But now her spirit is being revived in I See You, a powerful new play by Amy De Bhrún — soon to be known to Coronation Street fans as Adele — a call to arms exploring the dangerous cyclical nature of female oppression and the devastating consequences of allowing women’s voices to go unheard.
‘She was this incredible trailblazer,’ says Amy, who was introduced to the story of Lady Mary Heath by a friend. ‘She was the first person to parachute out of a plane, she had three marriages, she won all these awards for athletics, she came from an abusive home, where her father bludgeoned her mother to death. He was found guilty of murder but declared insane.
‘My great aunt and grandad were from Newcastle in Limerick and my great aunt remembered hearing about her but nowadays it seems not many people have.’
Certainly, in a just and fair world, we’d be shouting from the rafters about the extraordinary life and times of this woman, born Sophie Peirce-Evans in Knockaderry, Co. Limerick, in 1896.
MOVIE directors and producers would be clamouring to immortalise her magnificent feats in feature films and documentaries, writers would be inspired to write tomes about her remarkable life and no child would leave school without learning about this incredible woman.
Yet aside from the book, Lady Icarus by Lindie Naughton, and a documentary, very little has been told about Lady Mary Heath.
That one woman living more than a century ago could live such a ground-breaking and epic life and fall under the radar is simply mind-boggling. Even by today’s standards, she would be a hero — and rightly so.
‘Lady Mary was living 100 years ago, yet we still don’t celebrate these amazing role models,’ says Amy. ‘After reading about her, I started developing a show with this woman paralleling with a modern-day woman called Mary and linking the two.’
In her play, Amy — who plays Lady Mary Heath — weaves her story with that of Modern Mary, a fictional middle-class Dublin woman trapped in an abusive relationship she hasn’t got the strength to leave.
Amy explains: ‘Lady Mary is stuck in the walls of history and Modern Mary is stuck in this abusive relationship. There are parallels there: Lady Mary’s parents’ relationship was abusive and she left her own abusive second marriage. Modern Mary doesn’t feel she has the strength to leave until she hears Lady Mary’s voice in an abstract way and thanks to her, she reclaims her power.
‘Then Lady Mary can die with meaning, knowing her story has meant something.’
Did Amy feel daunted trying to build a character of such weight and complexity, about whom she knew so little?
‘It was intimidating,’ she admits. ‘I only really had the one book and I had to find her character first — who she was, what made her tick. She was eccentric. She was kookie and funny, and as a woman, she gives a lot of light with her zany personality — finding that was a huge key into her character.’ With huge strides being made in Irish arts thanks to the Waking The Feminists movement, growing awareness around the Me Too movement and women’s rights very much on people’s minds as the Repeal referendum looms near, the timing for such a play could not have been better. Amy, who plays Jarl Hrolf in Vikings, has a wealth of films behind her, including Jason Bourne and Penny Dreadful, as well as TV work. But between roles, rather than waiting for the phone to ring, she makes her own work and has starred in six self-penned, one-woman shows that she has performed to critical acclaim across Ireland, Britain and the US. ‘When I came into the industry, I was auditioning for a lot of men — men who’ve since been called out in the Me Too movement and it was a different time for women — Waking the Feminists hadn’t happened. It felt like there were lots of limitations,’ she says.
‘But now is a really good time for women, things are changing and it’s up to me to not just call for equal representation but to put my money where my mouth is and put good work out for women.’
When casting Modern Mary she went straight to Roxanna Nic Liam, an Abbey and UK National Theatre veteran, who was in Love/ Hate and a number of movies.
Hillary Dziminski, creative producer with The Corps Ensemble, tells how she was blown away by the play.
‘As soon as I read it I knew I had to be involved and it just needed to be made — it’s so timely and relevant and meaningful,’ says Hillary, an American who came to Ireland to do her Masters in theatre at UCD three years ago and never went home.
‘I’m not Irish and I can’t vote so I’ve no voice other than giving voices to other people’s stories. With everything that’s happening right now it gives a perspective and tells a story in a relatable way. Arts are inherently political and controversial but it’s so good to come to a play that makes you question your life but also elevates you and makes you want to discuss these issues.
‘In the three years I’ve been in Ireland, I can see the theatre scene is evolving to be more interrogative. You can walk out of a play feeling frustrated but that opens discussion and that’s how change happens, with people looking for answers.’
Amy agrees: ‘It’s a powerful play that feels relevant and it’s stirring up a lot of emotion for us as women. We’re proud to be naming this woman — it’s not pro-woman and anti-man, it’s pro-human and an amazing story that men can get behind too.
‘We’d like people to go away form the theatre feeling excited and exhilarated with a hunger for change.’
O I See You runs at the Theatre Upstairs until May 26. Tickets are priced at €12.50/€10. For information see theatreupstairs.ie