May Blood (1938 - )
May Blood was born on 26 May 1938, in Magnetic Street, just off Belfast’s Grosvenor Road. Her father worked in the shipyard and her mother was a cook in Mackies foundry. She attended Donegall Road Methodist Church Primary and then Linfield Secondary in Blythe Street, Sandy Row. Although passing the 11-plus she left school at 14, immediately going to work in the cutting room of Blackstaff Linen Mill. Just as working-class housing conditions were poor - no bathrooms or hot water - so too were the conditions in Belfast’s mills, with long hours, low wages and little attention paid to issues of health and safety. Nonetheless, May’s reminiscences reflect those of many of her contemporaries, that there was fun, camaraderie and loyalty amongst the women of the mill-working community, extending even through the tensions and fears of ‘The Troubles’.
Despite the efforts of a few pioneering women, female trade unionism was still regarded as anathema to most of the male workforce; certainly May’s father, himself a strong trade unionist, strongly disapproved when his daughter joined the Transport and General Workers Union and was even more outraged when she further defied convention by taking over as shop steward in 1968. During her 38 years in the mill, she worked her way through to senior shop steward and then convenor. As she progressed through the Union, May benefitted greatly from the different educational and training courses on offer, learning about employment law, how to negotiate wages, health and safety, how to look at compensation claims for members. These skills would serve her well in her voluntary activities in the wider community. During the 1970s campaigns for greater equality in the workplace, she was involved in the Equal Pay Act of 1976, in winning a minimum wage for the females working in the mill offices, reducing working hours, and in negotiating holiday pay and Saturday overtime rates.
Following the closure of the Mill, May ran a training project for long-term unemployed men on the Shankill and from 1993 to 1999 worked for the Greater Shankill Partnership. One of the great successes of this strategy was the setting up of the Early Years project. Aided by funding from Europe, three centres were set up, employing 90 people and working with around 1,300 families. Providing inter-generational broad-based support and wide-ranging learning opportunities for parents and children in an area of poverty and deprivation, this initiative continues as a source of optimism and an example of community strength.
May became more centrally involved in Northern Ireland’s mainstream politics as a founding member of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, formed in 1996 to bring women’s voices to the negotiating table during vital constitutional talks. With two of their number elected, the NIWC successfully introduced amendments on mixed housing, the inclusion of women in public life, special initiatives for young people affected by the conflict, recognition of the links between reconciliation and mixed housing and integrated education, the promotion of a culture of tolerance and successfully advocated the creation of a Civic Forum for Northern Ireland. Two seats were secured in the inaugural NI Assembly in 1998, but both were lost by 2003, and the Coalition wound up in 2006, having highlighted the need for female members of all political parties.
May was awarded an MBE in the 1995 Birthday Honours and holds Honorary Doctorates from Ulster University, the Open University and Queen’s University Belfast. In July 1999 she became the first woman from Northern Ireland to be given a life peerage, and as a Labour peer, Baroness Blood of Blackwatertown in the County of Armagh continues to speak out for equality and fairness in issues of education and health. Integration in education is a particular concern, and in 2000, she joined the Integrated Education Fund Northern Ireland Team as a volunteer fundraiser, becoming Chair of the Fund’s Campaign Council in 2002.
May Blood, Watch my Lips, I'm Speaking, (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 2007)
Mariion Green: Mill to Millennium (Springfield Inter-Community Development Project)