May was born and brought up in the town of Ballycastle, County Antrim. Her father’s family were all of farming stock who lived near Claudy Co. Londonderry; but both he and his brother had been in the police, where both reached the rank of Sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary. Her mother was a schoolteacher. Her (Hunter) family were also farmers from Ballintoy Co. Antrim.
The Kennedy name became world famous when both Hamilton and Jimmy Kennedy made successful careers in the music business. These two notables were May’s first cousins.
May was educated at Ballycastle High School, where she took top place in Northern Ireland in the Domestic Science section of the Senior Certificate examinations. She then enrolled as a student nurse in the Royal Victoria Hospital in November 1941. This must have been a difficult decision for her mother and her to make; her father had just died in 1939; and she had to leave her home in the country at the age of 18. Worst of all, this was the time when Belfast had just suffered two huge bombing raids in April and May of that year, 1941. But she did it!
Following the completion of her initial training as a State Registered Nurse (SRN), May worked as a staff-nurse in the RVH; but soon she transferred to the Royal Maternity Hospital Belfast and trained as a midwife (SCM). After appropriate experience she was appointed Sister to the Ante-Natal Ward, which was under the care of the redoubtable Professor Macafee. In 1949, her mother died of ovarian cancer in the hospital nearby.
She married Robin Harland in 1951, and they moved to Park House, Sherburn, Durham, England. From October 1953 to August 1955 they lived in Germany, where their eldest son, Robert Wallace Harland, was born on 12 May 1955 at Iserlohn British Military Hospital.
After this enforced interlude, they took up life as before in Park House, Sherburn Durham. Twin sons, Patrick William Harland and David Alexander Harland were born on 27 August 1956. Their fourth son, Simon John Harland, arrived on 21 February 1958.
In that year, with four children under three, the constant washing and wringing of all those terry-towelling nappies caused serious bilateral wrist synovitis. This heralded the purchase of their first automatic washing machine - these machines were still quite a rarity in those times.
Their fifth and last child, another boy, Dermod Kennedy Harland, was born on 29 August 1963, when May was 40. Just like the twins, Simon and Dermod were born in Dryburn Hospital Durham. Dr. Martin Williamson provided excellent care during these last three pregnancies.
May was a wonderfully supportive wife and mother.
Disaster struck the family in 1957. Patrick was unlucky enough to develop diabetes just as he reached his first birthday. It is difficult to know if the Asian influenza epidemic then sweeping the country was causal or not, but that pandemic undoubtedly made the over-worked medical staff at Dryburn Hospital, Durham, rather slow in diagnosing the cause of his coma, which turned out to be diabetic hyperglycaemia. By the time they had the right answers Paddy had suffered permanent brain damage, causing mental handicap - or learning difficulties, as the problem has come to be known.
Paddy was a hyperactive child and could have been institutionalised; but, with the dual handicap, he would never have survived. He just had to be cared for at home. Having a nurse as a mother and a doctor as a father probably explains why he was able to grow into manhood and beyond. He has been insulin-dependent since 1957, with injections every morning and evening.
The family returned to Northern Ireland in 1970, unaware of the long period of civil unrest that was about to follow. May answered the call with enormous courage. Their new home at 6 Castlehill Road Belfast was like a builder’s yard; Wallace was left behind at boarding school in Durham; Patrick had to cope with his new Special School at Dundonald; and, as well as everything else, May also had to undertake the care of an aging and ailing mother-in-law. Fortunately things gradually settled down with help from friends and family.
In 1974, some 23 years after her enforced retirement (on marriage) - she was able to go back to work as a midwife in the Ulster Hospital Dundonald - and she found this very stimulating and rewarding. Sadly this pleasure was not allowed to last. She developed breast cancer in 1980. She had a mastectomy and radiotherapy; but she bore this illness with wonderful, uncomplaining fortitude. Secondaries arose in 1984 and the treatment was more radiotherapy.
It was at this low point that she had to travel to Glasgow for the funeral of her brother-in-law, Arthur. She became too ill to continue work and died on 7 November 1985, in Belvoir Park Hospital Belfast, some 14 hours after admission. She was just a few days short of her 63rd birthday.
Mary Elizabeth (May) Kennedy – Mrs. Robin Harland
b. 11 November 1922,
Ballycastle, Co. Antrim
m. 18 August 1951
d. 7 November 1985
Ashes in the Kennedy family grave, Ballintoy, Co. Antrim