Pierce, Sophie

Sophie Pierce’s (1896 – 1939) life was unconventional life from start to finish. It began in Newcastle West in County Limerick in November of 1896, when Catherine Sophie was born to Jack Pierce, the eldest son of a local doctor, and Kate Doolin. Family tragedy early in Sophie’s life dictated that she was brought up by her paternal grandparents. She was educated at St. Margaret’s Hall, a Dublin school for young Protestant ladies and her early ambition was to follow her father and grandfather into the field of medicine.

The outbreak of World War 1 changed all that. The freedom, adventure and economic independence which enlistment could bring led Sophie to volunteer for the war effort as a dispatch rider attached to the Royal Flying Corps. This experience gave Sophie a sense of freedom and also introduced her to flying. However, the end of the war meant a return to Ireland in 1919 in search of employment.

That same year, she met Major William Davies Eliot-Lynn, an officer in the Royal Engineers who owned a coffee farm in Kenya and they agreed to marry. She completed studies at UCD in Agricultural Science and commencing a postgraduate course at the University of Aberdeen, she became interested in athletics, participating in competitions in Britain and elsewhere. She was also key in setting up the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association.  She broke the world high-jump record in 1923. However, convention demanded that she join her husband in Africa. They later divorced and she returned to England in 1925.

Sophie soon realised that the growing field of civil aviation was an ideal career opportunity where women could assert their equality. She joined the Light Aeroplane Club in London and by late 1925 was a qualified pilot. However, employment law at the time ruled that women be excluded from employment in the operation of aircraft engaged in public transport. She would have none of it and, with the backing of the then first female MP Lady Astor, she campaigned successfully to have this ban lifted in 1926. With fellow aviatrix Lady Bailey as passenger, she broke the world altitude record for British light aircraft in 1927. At this stage, she was a celebrated pilot and lecturer on aviation, which many of her talks published in The Times.

She never lost touch with Ireland, corresponding regularly and making several trips home, promoting The Irish Flying Club and on one occasion even flying low over Newcastle West to drop messages to relatives and friends. In 1927, she married wealthy industrialist Sir James Heath and became Lady Heath. In 1929, she became a pilot with KLM.

She married her third husband, fellow aviator George Williams and returned home to Ireland in the 1930s. She became the first female instructor at Kildonan Aerodrome in the Finglas area of Dublin (later to become the home of Iona National Airways, a precursor of Aer Lingus). She died in May 1939 aged 43 from injuries sustained in a tram-car accident. Her ashes were scattered over her home town of Newcastle West.

(excerpt from a contribution by Mary Scanlan to ‘Stars, Shells and Bluebells – Women Scientist and Pioneers’ published by WITS in 1997)

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