Famous Irish Women

Today, March the 8th is a day known as International Women’s Day. It is a day to celebrate the achievements of women, both past and present, and a time to highlight the injustices faced by women across many parts of the planet. We in GeoDirectory would like to pay homage to some of those amazing women, who hailed from the island of Ireland.

Mother Jones

mother jonesRecognised all over the world over as one of the fiercest, most determined Trade Union activists to have lived, Mother Jones was quite the trailblazer across the U.S.A., where she emigrated to from Co. Cork. Mary Harris Jones was born in Co. Cork in 1837 and at the age of five travelled to Canada with the rest of her family. After working firstly as a teacher in Michigan and then as a seamstress in Chicago, she moved to Memphis for another teaching job and in 1861 married George Jones, an active member of the Iron Moulders Union.

In 1867, tragedy struck her entire family when every member, bar Mary herself, died during a Yellow Fever epidemic. Jones moved back to Chicago and resumed working in the sowing business. Sadly in 1871, her business went up in flames in the Great Chicago Fire that occurred that year. Mother Jones then became involved in the militant ‘Knights of Labor’ organisation and found herself centrally involved in strikes across various parts of the US. These included The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and the industrial action that led to the Haymarket riot of 1886 in Chicago.

In 1913, after participating in a particularly violent strike in West Virginia, Mary found herself hauled before the courts on a charge of conspiracy to commit murder. A judge sentenced her to 21 years in jail, but such as the uproar across the country, against the decision she was soon pardoned by the State Governor and freed from jail. This fiery Cork woman would continue her activism till her death on November 30th 1830, aged 93 years.

Lady Mary Heath

Lady-Mary-heath-(1).jpgDid you know that the first person ever - male or female – to fly solo from South Africa to London was a Limerick born Irishwoman? Lady Mary Heath was born Sophie Pierce Evans in 1896 and when she was barely a year old she observed her drunken father horrifically beat her mother to death. Her father was placed into an asylum while she was reared by her grandparents in Dublin. She excelled in education and went onto study in the Royal College of Surgeons. Around this time she was also very involved in athletics and an effort in the long jump was declared at the time to be a world record.

In 1925, she undertook her first long distance flight, flying to Prague to argue the case of women’s inclusion in all disciplines in the Olympics that was taking place in the Czech City before the Olympics Congress. At that point in time women were only allowed participate in low intensity sports, such as archery. It is also hard to believe that back then, The International Committee for Aviation, while allowing women to fly solo, banned them from picking up passengers or earning a living from flying. As crazy as it seems now, the reason given by the ICA for this decision was due to the fact that women menstruate!

In January 1928 she began what would become her world famous journey when she set off from Cape Town in South Africa to her final planned destination, London. On her voyage, she made stops in countries such as Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Libya, spending days on Safari trips and other sightseeing journeys as she waited for any damage to her plane to be repaired and for it to be fully refuelled. Eventually Mary had reached Europe and after some further fuel stops this pioneering aviator finally ended up in London, landing in Croydon Airport in May, 5 months after she first set off.   

Spotting another glass ceiling that needed smashing, Mary managed to get a place on a training course to gain a pilot’s licence. Despite being forced to undergo the training while going through her menstrual cycle, she duly obtained her licence with flying colours and a few years later managed to get a job flying with KLM.

Sadly the airline cancelled her contract of employment after they received numerous complaints from men who were horrified at the thought of being up in the skies with a woman in the cockpit. The fact that she was regularly beating male aviators in flying competitions further underlined the absurdity of the International Committee for Aviation and her actions were a catalyst - along with those of women like Amelia Earhart – which brought about changes that made women equal to men in the aviation industry.

Granuaile -The Pirate Queen

grace-o-malley-priate-queen-(1).jpgWhen it comes to fiery and fearsome Irish women, Grace O’ Malley (a.k.a Granuaile) would top many people’s lists. She was born in 1530, the daughter of the famous chief O’Malley clan which controlled a large tract of land in what is now Connacht.

At a young age, she was already displaying a fearless endeavour while out at sea and surprised her father at how quickly she mastered many aspects of seafaring. One particularly astonishing legend told about Granuaile involves a duel with enemy pirates. Barely an hour after she had given birth to a child below deck, she suddenly heard great commotion and ran up, with baby in arms, to see what was going on. A group of North African pirates had arrived and sought to rob and pillage her vessel. The famous pirate queen quickly swung into action ordering her men to take various actions, which in the end not only repelled the African pirates, her army troop also ended up capturing the enemy ship in the process!

Over the years, Grace repelled many attempts by English invaders to try and capture her freedom, but she was becoming concerned at messengers passing on news that lies were being told about her in London. Once again proving how courageous and fearless she was, the pirate queen set sail from Clew Bay and arrived in London where she presented herself to Queen Elizabeth I. So enamoured was the English Monarch to this feisty woman from Ireland, Elizabeth decreed that any threats over the O’Malley’s be lifted and no one was to go near her territory from that day on. Granuaille lived until 1603, but her legacy still burns brightly to this day.

To learn more about where the O'Malley clan originated from, please click here.

Dr. James Barry

dr-james-barry-(1).jpgDid you ever hear about the famous male surgeon, who in fact was a woman? Born Margaret Anne Bulky around 1780, this Corkonian moved to London with her mother, where they reunited with her uncle James Barry, a Painter and a member of the prestigious Royal Academy. He passed away in 1806 and left Margaret and her mother a handsome sum in his will.

Many who came to know Margaret regarded her to be highly intelligent and she really underlined this with an audacious move that ultimately proved successful beyond her wildest dreams. Dressed in a large overcoat and hat, she changed her name to James and headed for Edinburgh, where she enrolled in Medical School. At this time, only men could enter such colleges; but with her disguises and distorted voice, she managed to fool the authorities into thinking that she was indeed a man.

At the very young age of 22, she gained her degree in medicine and got herself a job in the Army Medical Corps. "James" spent 10 years in Cape Town South Africa before going to Mauritius and other parts of the world. Her skills in the operating theatre were unparalleled and in 1857, Barry was appointed to the prestigious position of Inspector General in charge of Military Hospitals. It was only after this trailblazing Cork woman passed away due to dysentery in 1865 and an autopsy was being carried out, that they found out the truth – this prestigious male doctor, was actually female. This trailblazing Irish woman played a seismic role in the eventual lifting of barriers to women entering the medical profession.

Kathleen McNulty Mauchley Antonelli

dorothy-stepford-price-(1).jpgThis pioneering Computer Programmer was born in Co. Donegal in 1921 but headed to the US with her family 2 years later. Despite not knowing a word of English when starting school (the family spoke in Irish), she soon took to learning mathematics, where her profligacy in this area earned her a scholarship to the prestigious Chestnut Hill College.

Kathleen firmly grabbed the opportunity with both hands and spent every waking hour studying, taking in as many classes as she could. In 1942, she was one of only three pupils to have graduated from a class of 100 in the area of mathematics and was hired to work on the top Secret US government ENIAC (Electrical Numerical integrator and Computer) Project. This was an effort to enable the U.S. to draw up complex wartime ballistics tables in a much speedier fashion, than was previously the case.

While Antonelli officially quit from the project in 1948 to raise her family, unofficially behind the scenes, she continued to help her husband John Mauchly with his computations that led to the creation of even better computer systems. Kathleen passed away in 2006 and her legacy has very much lived on with the National University of Ireland’s Centre for High End Computing, naming it’s super computer Kay, in her honour.

Dorothy Stepford Price

ezgif-com-gif-maker-(46).jpgIn Ireland up until the 1950’s, the country was ravaged by the scourge of Tuberculosis (TB), with many families witnessing more than one child/parent passing away after contracting this dreaded illness. In 1942, for example, 4,000 people sadly passed away from TB in Ireland.

In that same year, a group of renowned doctors decided enough was enough and began a campaign group that sought to rid the country of the scourge of Tuberculosis. The founder of the group was paediatrician and expert of TB, Dorothy Stepford Price. So profound was the groups’ work that it was a rare example of the Catholic Hierarchy supporting an organisation with a protestant at the helm. For the first few years, the group’s concerns were not taken as seriously as they needed to be by the government, but this all changed in 1948. It was in this year Noel Browne was appointed minister for Health, he had seen with his own eyes how TB had ravaged and killed, with both his parents and 4 of his 5 siblings sadly passing away due to the disease.

Dr. Browne was a Minister with quite a reforming zeal and he appointed Stepford-Price as head of the newly created “National Consultative Council on Tuberculosis”. Her determined demeanour led to the state buying in the BCG vaccine to inoculate the population against the virus. It also saw the state sell unwanted land and buildings, so the proceeds could be spent on Water Treatment Plants and other facilities, which played a huge part in all but eradicating TB from the country. Dorothy Stepford Price suffered illness in later life and when she passed away in 1954, she left quite a legacy, with the country owing her a huge debt for her pioneering work.

Sonia O’ Sullivan

sonia-o-sullivan-(1).jpgWhen you ask an Irish person about what they know about Cobh in Co. Cork, many will tell you that it was the port the Titanic set sail from and a lot of them will also mention it as being the birthplace of one Sonia O’ Sullivan.

Born in the Co. Cork town in 1969, little did she know as she often ran the half-mile to school to avoid being late, just how effective a runner she would become. O’ Sullivan’s achievements at junior level with her local running club caught the eye of the prestigious Villanova University in the USA who offered her Scholarship in 1987, which she duly took up.

In 1991, Sonia first came to proper worldwide attention when she finished 2nd and won the silver medal in the 300M final at the World University Games, held in Sheffield. After finishing University in the same year, the Cork athlete decided to put the accountancy qualification to one side and take to running full-time. The decision proved entirely justified as she narrowly missed out on a medal at the Barcelona Olympics, finished an agonising but still very impressive 4th, again in the 3,000 Metres. The Irishwoman was to taste medal success once more at the 1993 World Athletics Championships as she claimed the silver medal in the 1,500m final. The 12th of August 1995 is widely regarded as one of the finest hours in Irish athletics history when Sonia claimed top spot and the gold medal in the 3000m final at the World Athletics championships in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Other notable victories were three Gold and two medals in the European Athletics Championships. O’ Sullivan claimed Gold in the 3,000M at the 1994 Games in Helsinki, top spots in the 5,000M and 10,000M at the 1998 games in Budapest and silver in the same two events in the 2002 Euro’s which were held in Munich, Germany.
Sonia O’ Sullivan’s impact on Irish athletics in general is truly amazing. Her feats on the track inspired a huge surge of girls in Ireland joining athletics clubs all across the country and many are starting to turn dreams into reality. Many Irish records in various disciplines have continued to tumble as other female athletes, such as Síofra Cléirigh Buttner and Rashidad Adeleke continue to display the sort of form that could lead to more medal successes for Ireland in the future.

These days Sonia O’ Sullivan continues to be a passionate advocate for women in sport and regularly flies home from her now home in Melbourne Australia to do her bit to raise the profile of events that seek to set young girls and boys on the road to possible future athletics success. Thus it is no surprise that across the highways and byways of the Island, the cry of “Good on ya Sonia!” still rings out as people continue to celebrate the world-beater from Cobh in Co. Cork. 

These are just a handful of the Irish women who have blazed a trail in many areas over the centuries. You can find the locations of where these inspirational Irish women were born on our map here.

So why not visit your local library to learn more about these inspirational women? Find your local library on our free award-winning app GeoFindIT App here.

Image sources:
Dorothy Stopford Pricehttps://womensmuseumofireland.ie/articles/dorothy-stopford-price
Sonia O' Sullivan: https://www.sportskeeda.com/running/former-world-champion-sonia-o-sullivan-not-expect-medals-despite-china-doping-probe
Lady Mary Heath: https://evoke.ie/2020/01/28/extra/meet-lady-mary-heath-the-first-star-of-rtes-new-herstory-series
Mother Jones: https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/mary-harris-jones
Kathleen McNulty: https://womensmuseumofireland.ie/articles/kay-mcnulty
Dr. James Barry: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/nov/10/dr-james-barry-a-woman-ahead-of-her-time-review

Grace O'Malley (The Pirate Queen): https://www.irishpost.com/life-style/irelands-pirate-queen-twelve-fascinating-facts-legendary-grace-omalley-129406
Posted: 04/03/2021 16:16:17

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