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Rise and fall of our high-flying Lady Mary

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To celebrate of the colourful life of Lady Mary Heath, who became one of the best known women of her time through her flying exploits in the 1920s and 1930s, her image was projected onto the main building at Collins Barracks, Dublin, in conjunction with Herstory series. Photo: Arthur Carron

To celebrate of the colourful life of Lady Mary Heath, who became one of the best known women of her time through her flying exploits in the 1920s and 1930s, her image was projected onto the main building at Collins Barracks, Dublin, in conjunction with Herstory series. Photo: Arthur Carron

To celebrate of the colourful life of Lady Mary Heath, who became one of the best known women of her time through her flying exploits in the 1920s and 1930s, her image was projected onto the main building at Collins Barracks, Dublin, in conjunction with Herstory series. Photo: Arthur Carron

The life of Ireland's very own Lady Mary - the first person to fly solo in an open cockpit plane from Cape Town to London - is set to be chronicled on the small screen.

Aviation pioneer Lady Mary Heath became the first woman to parachute from a plane when she climbed out on a wing at 1,700ft before landing in the middle of a football match in the late 1920s.

In 1928, the glamorous Limerick aristocrat - who would later train some of the first Aer Lingus pilots - made her pioneering solo flight from Cape Town to London. The record-setting pilot, who was famous for wearing a real leopard skin coat, was also the first woman to take a mechanic's qualification in the USA - and won an Olympic silver medal in the long jump.

The RTE documentary series Herstory tracks a story more colourful than any movie script - but bookended by tragedy.

Born in 1896 as Sophie Pierce, she became Lady Mary Heath when she tied the knot with Lord Heath in London in 1927.

Yet her early life was marked by an horrific event at her home Knockaderry House in Newcastlewest in Limerick.

"A year after her birth she was found sitting in the room beside her dead mother," said Lindie Naughton, the author of her biography Lady Icarus. "She had been beaten so badly a bone was sticking out of her leg." Local historian John Cussen revealed her father, John Pierce, had murdered her mother, Kate Theresa Dooling.

Raised by loving aunts, the sports-mad child first showed her daredevil streak as an ambulance driver in London during the war before taking flying lessons. Shortly after becoming the first women in Britain and Ireland to hold a pilot's licence, she performed her pioneering parachute jump.

"These were planes made of wood and canvas. Up she went and she got out of the plane stood on the wing and jumped," said aviation historian Myra Gleeson.

When she was 32, the fearless pilot made her solo flight from Cape Town to London.

Lindie Naughton described how she packed extra supplies in the open cockpit plane: "She had extra fuel tanks, she also packed a party dress, a tennis racket, a couple of books and chocolates, and strychnine, in case things got really bad, and she had to poison herself."

The documentary describes how she blacked out from dehydration off the east coast of Africa and crash landed. Days later, she climbed back into her plane.

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After her three-month flight, the glamorous pilot received a hero's welcome on arrival back in London and made headlines around the globe. After divorcing, she travelled to America where she was the star attraction of an acrobatic aviation troupe carrying out daredevil stunts.

On moving back to Ireland in 1932, she set up a flying school with her third husband.

But in the late 1930s her marriage broke down as she began to drink heavily and she drifted back to London where she died alone and unknown on May 9, 1939 at the age of 42.

"Things really went horribly wrong and eventually she was upstairs in a bus in London and fell down the stairs and died," said historian John Cussen.

'Herstory: Ireland's Epic Women', RTE One, tomorrow, 8.30pm

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