Catherine Finegan obituary

Other lives: Birmingham city councillor made honorary alderman for her 20 years of service

My mother, Catherine Finegan, who has died aged 90, was a strong advocate for social justice in her adopted home of Birmingham, where she served as a city councillor for 20 years. On retirement, in recognition of all she had done for the city, she was made honorary alderman for Birmingham city council.

When she was elected, in 1978, Catherine, who had never had a formal education, was working as a breakfast and silver service waitress at the Grand hotel on Colmore Row, Birmingham. She had became politically active during this time, leading two protests locally for safer streets during one of which she was arrested for obstructing a road. She also unionised the Grand hotel, and became involved with a social group for families with children with disabilities. It was through listening to their difficulties and the lack of support available to them that she joined the Labour party, and was eventually invited to stand in the local elections.

Born in Aughaville, Co Cork, Catherine was the eldest of eight surviving children of a farming couple, Mary (nee Ellen) and Jeremiah O’Driscoll. She attended the Dromore National school but effectively left education at eight years old due to a lung condition, bronchiectasis. Her first paid job was as a nanny, at 13; she worked as a housemaid and cook before leaving for England aged 22 to work as a cook/housekeeper.

In 1954, Catherine moved to Birmingham to work as a “clippie” (conductor) on the buses. There she met James Finegan, from Monaghan. They married that November and settled in the suburb of Alum Rock, where they raised their six children. He got a job at Rootes car factory.

Over the following years, Catherine worked at various factories, as a hospital auxiliary, and as a barmaid. In 1973 she finally settled into regular work at the Grand hotel, where she stayed until 1994.

She began studying during this time, gaining O- and A-levels at Matthew Boulton College in 1976. She also took classes in tailoring and design, and began taking commissions to make suits, dresses and wedding dresses. She also did piecework for fashion boutiques in the city centre, including Chelsea Girl.

In 1977 she began a humanities degree with the Open University, but, due to time constraints, had to give up the following year when she was elected to Birmingham city council, for Saltley ward.

Catherine was particularly proud of her work with social services, visiting care homes. Her mantra was: “If it isn’t good enough for my mother then it isn’t good enough for anyone else’s mother!”

She also supported the regeneration of Birmingham, and was on the commercial services committee when the Bull Ring redevelopment was approved in 1987, which brought 8,000 jobs to the city.

In her retirement, Catherine sat on the fostering and adoption panel for social services.

Jimmy died in 2009, and two grandchildren predeceased Catherine. She is survived by her children, Peter, Breda, Brendan, Gerard, Siobhan and me, 12 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, and by two sisters, Margaret and Philomena, and a brother, Peter.

Nuala Finegan

The GuardianTramp

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