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'From footballers to computer programmers - I'm blazing a trail for Ireland's hidden women'

Ever heard of aviator Lilian Bland from Antrim, or professional international footballer Anne O’Brien from Inchicore? Author Sarah Webb on why they were forgotten about, despite their achievements.

YOU MAY THINK that many of the women in my book Blazing a Trail: Irish Women Who Changed the World, like Mary Robinson or Eileen Gray are well known, but you’d be wrong.

Adults know them, but children don’t. Every time I visit a school in Ireland – and I visit over 50 schools a year – I say: “Hands up who knows who Mary Robinson is.” In a class of around 25 only two or three put up their hands.

They know the counties, rivers and mountains of Ireland backwards, but they cannot list Ireland’s presidents. It’s one of the reasons I wrote the book in the first place, to tell children about Mary’s remarkable life and career. The book has now been nominated in the Best Irish Published Book category in this year’s An Post Irish Book Awards.

Eileen Gray was the first female Modernist architect in the world. Her E-1027 building is admired to this day and her iconic furniture is still produced. But she was forgotten for many years and is only now becoming known as one of the most important and influential Modernist designers.

Flying and football


But there are other women who are also unknown by adults, women who made a huge mark but never made the history books. Lilian Bland from Antrim was the first woman in the world to design, build and fly her own biplane. She did this in 1909, only a few years after the Wright brothers’ first powered flight in 1903.

In 2011 a park in Glengormley, Belfast was re-named after her and a sculpture was placed in the grounds to commemorate her aviation work but it’s taken a long time for her achievement to be recognised.

Professional international footballer Anne O’Brien from Inchicore, Dublin is another woman who has been largely ignored in her own country. Anne was one of the most incredible sports women this country has ever produced.

During her hugely successful 18-year career she won 11 league titles in Italy (playing for teams like Lazio and Napoli) and also the league and cup in France with Stade de Reims. After retiring she went on to coach women’s teams and youth teams, including the Italian under 17s. And yet before researching this book I had never heard of her.

Mary Hannigan from The Irish Times told me about Anne and I’ve since met many of her brothers and sisters and found out even more about her remarkable life.

Vet Aleen Cust, Dr Kathleen Lynn, aviator Lady Heath, artist and business woman Sarah Purser, computer programmer Kay McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, suffragette Hanna Sheehy Skeffington – all these women from Blazing a Trail deserve to be in our history books.

Why have these women been largely forgotten? Why are they not in our history books or sports books? Their contribution was ignored because they were female.

Anne’s sporting prowess didn’t count because she was playing women’s football. Lilian’s record breaking achievement didn’t count because she was a female aviator or ‘aviatrix’.

Blazing a Trail seeks to redress this balance. I hope in three or five years’ time books that highlight women’s achievements won’t be necessary. I hope these pioneers will be in the new, modern history books and school books. And I hope every child will find out who the magnificent Mary Robinson is.

Blazing a Trail: Irish Women Who Changed the World by Sarah Webb, illustrated by Lauren O’Neill is out now, published by The O’Brien Press. It has been shortlisted for two awards at the An Post Irish Book Awards, is a bestseller, and is already being reprinted. To vote for your favourites of the nominees, visit the An Post Irish Book Awards website.

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