The book contained other examples : 'Mr Paisley came in and had a few words with whoever was organising the meeting before saying : "Right, we'll get down to business". Then he turned to me and said : "You go and make some tea love". In a meeting in 1993, where she was the only woman, Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, had asked the fourteen men around the table for their opinion and omitted May. When his secretary whispered in his ear he said : "Oh. I'm very sorry. I just assumed you were somebody's secretary. Have you a comment you'd like to make ?"
May said to women who went to see her to ask her advice :
May's family of nine lived in four main rooms in a two-up, two-down terraced house with an outside toilet, coal fires, no hot running water and no bathroom. Living in a community which was mixed between Protestants and Catholics in religion, they were all united in being poor working class. It meant that May grew up with a sense of cooperative spirit where she said everybody "Chipped in" and : “Community was everything because we had nothing else”. She said that she : "Wasn’t aware of any discrimination" because : "Catholics, living beside me, lived in the same conditions as I did"."If there was a death, everybody piled in. If there was a birth everybody piled in. and even the time we were flooded, the people just came all together to help one another". (link)
From the age of five she attended Donegall Road Methodist Church Primary School and said : "We called it 'Tin Top' because it had a tin roof and it was great in the winter. You couldn't hear the teacher. It was brilliant in the rain". She then moved to Linfield Junior School on Sandy Row where she passed the eleven plus examination and earned a place at a grammar school. Apparently, she was always in detention but said : "I wanted to be a schoolteacher. I don't know why, because I hated school with a passion unless I'd seen the teacher had some power and said : "That's for me". She would later explain this with a compulsion she felt and said : "I suppose at a very early age, I wanted to save the world and I never knew where that came from".
She began work as a 'hooker' in the cutting room of Blackstaff Linen Mill, with the intention of only staying for two weeks, but loved it so much that she stayed until the mill closed down in 1989. Her job was to place lengths of linen cloth on hooks on the wall and then lift them off to be hand cut into lengths to be made into bed sheets and pillowcases.
May would later say the mill workers : “Were a community within a community” and “I was proud to be a millie for 38 years”. Nearly sixty years after becoming a millie, in 2010, as 'Baroness May Blood', she would be given the honour of unveiling the bronze statue on the Crumlin Road in North Belfast, 'The Mill Worker', by Northern Irish sculptor Ross Wilson. (link)
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 said she : "Wasn’t gonna be the different one" and signed up. At the age of nineteen, she was approached to fill a temporary shop steward vacancy. As a shop steward, she would be the union member elected as the representative of a department in any dealings with management and when her boss laid down an extensive list of what she could and could not do as 'Acting Shop Steward', she decided : “Well if you’re that angry about it, … that’s for me”. (link)In the years that followed she attended Union funded training courses, which she said was : "Where I got my education”. She learnt about employment law, wage negotiation, health and safety and put theory into practice fighting for members’ compensation claims. She progressed to the position of 'Senior Shop Steward' and later 'Convener' and began to work together with trade unionists in the other six mills in the area. Other campaigns within Blackstaff Mill included fighting to reduce working hours, negotiating for holiday pay and Saturday overtime rates, and campaigning for a minimum wage for the women working in the mill offices. When she was ready, she applied for, and got elected to, the Regional Committee of the TGWU. She later reflected that : "This was totally unheard of. Women did not apply for those positions. We had to fight for our place there and gain the respect for the other guys on the Committee". (link)
With the outbreak of 'The Troubles' when May was thirty-one in 1969, her work in the linen mill became more difficult. She said : "Overnight Catholics had suddenly become the enemy. 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".(link)
At home in the Magnetic Street community, she said : "When people came one night to "Put the neighbours next door, out", May'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 May : "That was a definite message" for their earlier defence of their Catholic neighbours. The family struggled to find a new house, but eventually relocated to a newly developed 'Springmartin Estate' where a peace wall had been erected. (link)
During the 1970s, May actively supported the 1970 Equal Pay Act and the 1976 Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order. In addition, these were the years where, for the first time, she found herself getting involved in voluntary community work with other women living on the Springmartin Estate. She said : "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".
In 1989, when May was made redundant from the mill and was left unemployed for eight months. Her next job, as a paid community worker, came in the form of a project for long-term unemployed men. At the same time, she became involved with the 'Great Shankill Early Years Project' as Information Officer and helped to set up three community centres in the Shankill area of Belfast to help over 1,300 families and, as she said : "We gave local people the jobs. We trained them”.
In the 1990s with the prospect of ceasefires and peace talks in Northern Ireland, May and a handful of other women asked if there would be women present at such talks and were told that there would be, should they be elected. She later said, that as a woman : "I found that if I wanted to change the system I had to be part of that change". The next six weeks : "Were the most hairy and the most scary" of her life as she and her women colleagues quickly tried to organise their newly formed : 'Women’s Coalition'. (link)
In 1995, at the age of fifty-seven, May was awarded an MBE by the Queen for her work in 'Labour Relations' and in her sixties she served as both the Chair of the 'Early Years Belfast' and the 'Barnardo's Northern Ireland Committee'. Referring to the year 1997, may said : "I was given a peace prize by some Americans in Boston, the 'Global Citizen's Circle Award' and I was really honoured to get it because Nelson Mandela had been given it, Desmond Tutu had been given it, Hilary Clinton had been given it and I said to Hilary Clinton, who I know quite well, I said : "I understand you got the Global Citizen's Award last year"."Yes" "Well I'm getting it this year".(link)
Then in 1999 she became the first woman in Northern Ireland to be given a life peerage as 'Baroness Blood of Blackwatertown'. In her initial response she declined the offer, for to her the House of Lords was a place where rich old men sat around and slept all day, a place far removed from the everyday realities of working-class Belfast. She said : "It was another world I wasn't familiar with and I wondered exactly what I could achieve in the House of Lords. I was so busy at home and I was looking forward to retiring and this would have meant a whole change of lifestyle". To help her make a decision she turned to he religion : "I have a very strong Christian faith, personal faith and I prayed about it and always found that God has opened doors for me and I'd come to realise that this was another door".She phoned and reversed her decision and in addition said : “All my life I fought to get women to take these opportunities and I thought it would be churlish to turn it down”. She took her seat, hoping that, as 'Baroness May Blood', she could advance the causes she held so dear. Initially she was extremely lonely, but after a year began to gain recognition as she, with her usual energy threw herself into things.
She said : "I made up my mind I would try to represent Northern Ireland as best I could". She also thought it was an opportunity to show that Northern Irish women could actually hold a position like this. "I watched what people were doing. I went to all the training I could get. I learned how to use a computer, which is very valuable in the work. So you can do it, but you have to convince yourself of that. It's not easy for any woman to break into the system, but it can be done. I'm proof of that".
In 2013, when she was seventy-five she was awarded the 'Grassroot Diplomat Initiative Award' under the 'Social Driver' category for her tireless campaign for education and was also heavily involved with the 'Integrated Education Fund' in Northern Ireland, with the group describing her as a : “Great friend and champion” who had helped to raise over £15 million for the Fund. May, however, openly expressed her disappointment that, as of June 2018, there were only 65 integrated schools in Northern Ireland.
“My passion in life is integrated education. The Troubles split communities and I think if you get kids mixing from an early age, they learn about one another’s culture, it doesn’t become a big fear factor that then people can use to drive people apart".
May said : "The most important thing to say to women when they hear of my experience is to start from the fact that I don't know it all I'm not one of these women who has broken through this glass ceiling we hear about. I'm a woman, just an ordinary woman, whose had extraordinary opportunities and it is about grasping those opportunities, because an opportunity happens and it's gone".
May said :
"Failure is only the first rung on the ladder to success".