Girl power of aviator Lilian Bland celebrated in Science Festival concert

It's not widely known that one of the aviations most daring pioneers was a woman – and an Antrim woman at that. Joanne Sweeney finds out how a 200-strong choir of women and girls will be celebrating her life and achievements this week

Lilian Brand is thought to be the first woman to have built and flown an airplane in 1910
Joanne Sweeney

YOU'VE heard about the magnificent men in their flying machines but did you know about the genteel Co Antrim woman thought to be the first woman to design, build and fly an aeroplane?

Meet the intrepid Lilian Bland from Carnmoney who refused to conform to what society expected of her as a well-brought-up young lady living in the early 20th century.

Her groundbreaking life will be honoured in word and song at a special concert this week, starting off this year's Northern Ireland Science Festival. A 200-strong choir of women and girls will join the Ulster Orchestra to stage two performances of Anything But Bland at the Ulster Hall, Belfast, on Wednesday.

Written by lyricist John McIlduff from Holywood and composer Brian Irvine from Bangor, the hour-long oratory tells the high points of Lilian's life as she strove to get a small glider into the air above Carnmoney Hill in 1910.

She and her father arrived from England in the late 1890s to live with an aunt in Carnmoney. Perhaps due to her experiences of having lived in different countries, Lilian was not like other young girls. Shockingly for those times, she dressed in trousers, smoked, drank and taught martial arts, including Ju-Jitsu, and tried to do just about everything that interested her.

She was also a talented sports journalist and photographer and a crack shot with a gun. She obtained her jockey’s license and continually applied to race in the Grand National, but was rejected on the basis of being female.

“In early 1910 Lilian spent most of her time in a shed in Carnmoney, constructing a glider, naming it Mayfly, saying philosophically, 'It may fly, it may not fly,' McIlduff explained.

"Along with the garden boy Brian Russell, she cobbled together spruce, bamboo and other materials to build the glider. The controls were formed from recycled bicycle handlebars. In spite of success with the glider and true to her ambitious streak, she wanted to give it some more oomph and realised that an engine would be the answer.

“So after ordering a two-stroke engine which arrived without a fuel tank, Lilian, resourceful as ever, used an empty whiskey bottle, decanting the petrol into it through her deaf aunt’s ear trumpet. Unsurprisingly, the aircraft failed to take flight that day.

"However, equipped with a real fuel tank and piloted by Lilian Bland on August 31, Mayfly flew approximately 30 feet at a new test field at the Deerpark Estate in Randalstown. Her diary records that a temperamental free-roaming bull on the estate, named Ferdinand, provided some extra motivation to help get Mayfly airborne."

While she later succumbed to convention and married, she called her only daughter Patrick, as she had wanted a son. True to form, she went on to live to the grand age of 92.

McIlduff and Irvine discovered Lilian's story when they were working on a musical project about finding the oldest woman in Limerick nearly two years ago and knew that it was a story which was perfect for the Science Festival.

He adds: "The actress Aoife Duffin will be narrating the story of Lilian very much from the perspective of how did a woman in Co Antrim manage to build a plane and to consider just how difficult it still is for women to get into science and aviation.

"It starts off at the beginning with the song It's 1910, It's All About Men and the next song is called Anything But Bland because Lilian never wanted to be bland."

The choirs involved are The Open Choir; Open Arts Community Choir, Belfast; Codetta, Derry; St Kieran’s Primary School, Belfast and the group The Swing Gals who will perform a lively version of McIlduff and Irvine's title song.

Choir member Joanna Donaldson said ahead of the concert: "Put Lilian in the historical and social context of 1910 and her achievements are even more wonderful. She was clearly a great character and I'm very happy to be involved in celebrating her.

Esther Haller-Clarke added: "It’s been wonderful to see the women I am singing with grow in confidence as they take on the words of the songs and embrace the notion that we can achieve whatever we want and that we do not have to conform to social stereotypes."

:: Anything but Bland will open the Northern Ireland Science Festival on February 15, at the Ulster Hall, performances at 6.30pm and 8.30pm Tickets are £12 for adults and £8 for children through the Ulster Hall.


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