Glid­ing through a fog of un­cer­tain­ties

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - TELEVISION - Ed Power

Her­story de­clines to swoop down to take in more de­tail; it’s all about the god­damn money in The Right­eous Gem­stones; and the truth does mat­ter in C4’s doc about Michael Bar­ry­more

The first episode of RTÉ’s new se­ries Her­story: Ire­land’s Epic Women (RTÉ One 8.30pm), sets out to res­cue from ob­scu­rity the pi­o­neer­ing air­woman Lady Mary Heath. This it achieves, but with­out quite tak­ing flight. In the end Lady Mary ex­its much like she ar­rived: a mys­tery glid­ing high over­head.

The prob­lem is that the doc­u­men­tary doesn’t pro­vide suf­fi­cient so­cial con­text for us to fully take stock of Heath as a fig­ure in Irish 20th-cen­tury his­tory. We’re told she was born So­phie Peirce in New­cas­tle West, Co Limerick in 1896 and grew up in “com­fort­able” sur­round­ings.

But what does “com­fort­able” mean? Was she a mem­ber of the An­glo-Irish as­cen­dancy? If not, where did the fam­ily wealth come from? And who were the aunts who raised her af­ter her fa­ther beat her mother to death? Come to that, what hap­pened to her fa­ther?

The hazi­ness con­tin­ues into her adult years. The doc­u­men­tary, which fol­lows the tra­di­tional route of blend­ing voiceover and talk­ing heads, in­forms us that her first hus­band, Ma­jor Wil­liam El­liot Lynn, was much older than she. Well al­right, but how much older? It is also jar­ring to see her jour­ney into wom­an­hood con­jured with im­ages of care­free young things in their Gatsby-es­que splen­dour, ac­com­pa­nied by a jazz sound­track. Was there much Gatsby-es­que splen­dour in New­cas­tle West in the 1900s?

Her­story is on surer ground as Peirce’s ca­reer as an avi­a­tor – the nar­ra­tion in­sisted on the anachro­nis­tic term “avi­a­trix” – takes flight. She was the first woman to fly solo in an open cock­pit from Cape Town to London. Later, un­able to find work as a com­mer­cial pi­lot in London she had suc­cess as a stunt flyer in the United States. Re­search in­forms me she was com­pared to Charles Lind­bergh (in that she was a fly­ing ace rather than a proto­fas­cist) and dubbed “Bri­tain’s Lady Lindy” (yes, I’m trig­gered too).

With less than half an hour to tell her story, there is a sense of dash­ing from

A to B, with lit­tle op­por­tu­nity to tarry on es­sen­tial de­tails. She re­turned to Ire­land and opened a fly­ing school near Fin­glas. Alas, with a metal plate in her head and in the throes of al­co­holism, she grew in­creas­ingly ec­cen­tric. Was there a con­nec­tion be­tween her ab­nor­mal

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