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Sunday 21 July 2019

Tales of our forgotten heroines finally command the limelight

Lady Mary Heath
Lady Mary Heath
Lady Mary Heath
Dublin-born actress Amy De Bhrun has written a new play about Lady Mary Heath, an extraordinary aviator and athlete in the 1900s Photo: Brian McEvoy

Claire Mc Cormack

The lost stories of hundreds of extraordinary Irish women from the darkest days of our history right up to the present day are to be told for the first time.

Herstory, a new national and international cultural movement, aims to bring their forgotten tales to life through a series of performances, exhibitions and talks over the next three years.

From artists, aviators, astronomers and athletes to scientists, explorers, warriors and witches, Herstory's objective is to start a global movement where Ireland inspires countries around the world to celebrate their lost heroines.

Melanie Lynch, founder and director of Herstory, said: "We've discovered that the 1916 women were no exception. There are hundreds of women that have been erased from Irish history and we are going to bring them back to life through song, dance, comedy, theatre, fine art, photography and much more.

"I was inspired by pure curiosity, every story led to another, and they were all equally as remarkable and fascinating as Countess Markievicz," she said.

With very few records or photographs available, 22 historians from universities all over Ireland and the UK are working together to build a database.

The project also aims to challenge the impact of celebrity culture, like reality TV stars the Kardashians and controversial performer Miley Cyrus, on young Irish girls who might view them as role models.

Dublin-born actress Amy De Bhrun has written a new play about Lady Mary Heath (1896-1939) which she will perform at the launch of Herstory at the Pillar Room in the Rotunda Hospital this Wednesday at 6.30pm.

Dr Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain, UCD lecturer and TV presenter, will give a keynote speech at the event.

"These women have literally faded from history - they've essentially been erased," said Ms De Bhrun.

"The world is changing very fast and there are role models out there who are famous for the sake of being famous. It's so frustrating that years ago when people like Lady Mary Heath, an incredible aviator and athlete, were around they weren't acknowledged for any of their achievements," she said.

The 32-year-old, who stars as a CIA agent in the upcoming Hollywood blockbuster Jason Bourne, alongside Matt Damon, first heard of Lady Mary Heath just a few months ago.

"If you were writing her story now people would say you are making it up. She was an amazing woman who remained true to her femininity in a man's world. She used to pilot her planes wearing lavish fur coats and dripping in diamonds," she said.

"She was married three times in early 1900s Ireland and her third marriage was to a mixed-race man which lead to her suffering huge racial abuse."

The Limerick native was also a prize-winning athlete competing in, javelin, high jump and discus sports.

"She wasn't seen as a child, her achievements were ignored and history just forgot about her," the actress added.

Ms De Bhrun, who has worked with John Ridley, the Oscar-winning writer of 12 Years a Slave, says she can somewhat identify with the forgotten women.

Despite her international success and promising prospects, the actress says she gets more recognition abroad than at home where she can feel overlooked in favour of the "big names".

"I think people often go with the old reliable, I don't know why. In doing so, you run the risk of settling for mediocrity and not really trying to inspire and embrace new talent," she said.

Dr Jennifer Redmond, president of the Women's History Association of Ireland, said "it's crucial" to acknowledge these women as role models, particularly in a centenary year.

"It's about young people being able to see that women have a past, they've contributed and that can inspire them for the future," she added.

The late Mullingar-born writer Josephine Hart was a big inspiration for Herstory. Organisers say that she was "a mesmerising, genuine role model" who was bulldozed out of history when her childhood home was demolished and turned into a carpark last year.

The Herstory movement is backed by The National Women's Council of Ireland, Waking the Feminists and many other women's advocates.

Sunday Independent

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