Tributes paid by family of former councillor

The family of the first Irish woman ever to be elected to Birmingham City Council have paid tribute following her death before Christmas.

Catherine Finegan
Catherine Finegan

First elected to the council for the Saltley Ward in 1978, Catherine Finegan (known as Kathleen, Cath and Cathy) passed away shortly before Christmas on December 13 at the age of 90.

Described by her family as a feisty, independent person, Catherine moved to the UK from Ireland at a young age to work on the buses in Birmingham, where she met her future husband, James Finegan, who was from Monaghan.

Catherine and Jimmy were married at the Holy Family church in Small Heath and spent the first years of married life renting rooms before eventually settling in Alum Rock, where they raised their 6 children.

After a period of ill health in her youth meant she had to leave school at a young age, Catherine went back to school to study tailoring and design in her 40s, turning her talents into a business and taking commissions to make suits, dresses and wedding dresses.

Catherine’s working life was a varied affair, her family says, with spells as a service girl before leaving Ireland, a ‘clippie’ (conductor) on the buses, a hospital auxiliary, on the production line at Smith’s crisp factory, Bird’s Custard factory, Southalls factory in Alum Rock and as a bar maid in various pubs.

Catherine finally settled into regular work as a breakfast and silver service waitress at the Grand Hotel on Colmore Row, and in the 70s became involved with a monthly 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.

Catherine believed in direct action to get things done. She led two protests locally for safer streets during which she was arrested for obstructing a road, but her successful campaigns earned the interest of the local Labour Party who invited her to stand in the local elections. She became the first Irish woman to be elected to Birmingham City Council.

At the time of her election Catherine was a breakfast waitress and a photo of her holding a tray outside the Grand Hotel appeared in the Evening Mail.

Catherine poured her heart and soul into her role as a councillor, her family said, who added that she thrived off of having a cause to fight for and worked hard to resolve the issues of people who felt their voices weren’t heard.

Catherine was made Honorary Alderman of the City of which she was incredibly proud.

Catherine is survived by her siblings Margaret Reed; Philomena Phillips; and Peter O’Driscoll; children Peter, Breda, Brendan, Nuala, Gerard and Siobhan; 12 grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.

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