Peacemaker / Trade Unionist / Community Worker / Women’s Rights Advocate
May Blood was born on 26 May 1938 and for the first six years of her life she grew up in a mixed area of Belfast with her mother and older sister. She would not have understood at the time, but her family had been separated by World War II due to the evacuation of the older Blood children and the enlistment of her father in the army. Of the experience, Blood said:
‘when the war was over my dad came home, I had never seen my dad and then my brothers and sisters came back. I wondered who all these strange people were. All of a sudden instead of having a bedroom of my own I was squashed up against the wall along with two others. It was quite a learning curve.’
Living in a mixed community meant that Blood grew up with a sense of cooperative spirit where everybody ‘chipped in.’ She ‘wasn’t aware of any discrimination’ at a young age because ‘Catholics, living beside me, lived in the same conditions as I did.’ At the age of fourteen, Blood left school. She entered a local mill with the intention of only staying two weeks but stayed for the next thirty-eight years.
‘It was bringing women with you. Women would have said ‘well I’d like to do that but…’ and you had to get women through that but because if we were ever gonna open that door then women had to come through it naturally, not because someone said here’s an enforced quota we have to have so many women on this committee. It was about women taking their rightful place.’
Within half an hour of being at the mill she was approached and told that everyone was in the Transport and General Worker’s Union, and despite her father having reservations about women joining trade unions, she ‘wasn’t gonna be the different one’ and signed up. Blood was soon made shop steward and attended several training courses through the union, later becoming the senior shop steward where she dealt with long working hours, health and safety and a rise in wages. Eventually, Blood applied for, and got elected to, the regional committee which was the ruling committee of the TGWU. ‘This was totally unheard of. Women did not apply for those positions,’ Blood stated later in an interview, ‘We had to fight for our place there and gain the respect for the other guys on the committee.’
With the breakout of the Troubles in 1969, ‘overnight Catholics had suddenly become [the] enemy’ and Blood couldn’t figure out why:
‘With some women, their men had been interned; other women their men had joined the U.D.A. These women were sitting beside one another. It was strained. It wasn’t easy, because all of a sudden, we started to view each other differently. […] There was always the underlying feeling that we were friends but for the first couple of years of the Troubles it really was very dicey because it put things into people’s minds that they had never thought of before.’
Like everyone in Northern Ireland, sectarianism was always present in Blood’s life at this time. When people came one night ‘to put the neighbours next door out’ Blood’s father came to their defence and argued that ‘this woman’s not doing any harm.’ A little while later, the Blood family were burnt out of their home by Protestants and according to Blood, ‘that was a definite message’ for their earlier defence of their Catholic neighbours. They struggled to find a new house but eventually relocated to a newly developed Springmartin estate where a peace wall had been erected.
‘There was a big risk in doing cross community work. You were threatened but when you get a group of very strong women together who have a real aim in life, there’s very little that stops them, even a threat.’
Here she found herself getting involved in voluntary community work with other women living in Springmartin, because while the house was much nicer than the one she had grown up in, the estate itself was not to the same standard. At a remarkable meeting of both the Catholic and Protestant residents of the estate in the Europa Hotel in the mid-1980s, they decided to leave the constitutional issues to the side because they found that they all faced the same uphill battle with the likes of poor housing, low education attainment and high rates of teen pregnancy. From this they decided to pool their resources.
‘I’ve been threatened a number of times, I’ve had my car destroyed twice and if people thought that it would put me off they were wrong. I remember I went to one of the commanders and said to him I don’t know what I’m doing wrong here, and he told me privately, ‘whatever you’re doing keep it up. If you weren’t doing good, people wouldn’t be interested in you.’
In 1989, the mill that Blood had worked in since she was fourteen, closed its doors, and she was left unemployed for eight months. Her next job came in the form of a project for long-term unemployed men and she became a paid community worker. At the same time, Blood became involved with the Early Years Project and helped to establish three community centres in the Shankill area to help over 1,300 families and employ local parents.
In the 1990s with the prospect of ceasefires and peace talks, Blood and a handful of other women asked if there would be women present at such talks. They were told that there would be, should they be elected. The next six weeks ‘were the most hairy and the most scary’ of her life as they quickly tried to organise the Women’s Coalition. Blood was made Campaign Manager and took full advantage of the media attention they were attracting and took every opportunity to get in front of the camera to plead their case. Their main goal was ‘to get women where decisions were being made.’ Two women – Monica McWilliams and Pearl Sager – were elected. The Women’s Coalition successfully introduced amendments to the Good Friday Agreement on the inclusion of women in public life, mixed housing and integrated education, to name a few.
In 1995, Blood was awarded an MBE by the Queen for her work in labour relations and in 1999 she was the first woman in Northern Ireland to be given a life peerage as Baroness Blood of Blackwatertown. She would later joke that ‘if anything came into the House of Lords pertaining to Northern Ireland and it had sex in the title, I was the only person voting in favour of it.’ She would continue to receive awards throughout the early 2000s and on 4 September 2018, she retired from the House of Lords, aged eighty.
‘Failure is only the first rung on the ladder to success.’
Herstory invites students and artists to create brand new portraits of Northern Ireland’s peace heroines. To have your art featured in the Herstory 2020 project please send your name, age and high resolution jpegs to email@example.com
May Blood, Northern Visions Archive, online at http://archive.northernvisions.org/specialcollections/ogpersonal-stories/may-blood/ [accessed 31 May 2019].