A WEST Cork woman who became the first Irish woman to be elected to Birmingham City Council has died at the age of 90.
Catherine O’Driscoll – the daughter of Jeremiah and Mary-Ellen O’Driscoll of Aughaville, Bantry – passed away in December.
She was an honorary alderman for Birmingham City Council and was a strong advocate for social justice.
Catherine was the eldest of eight surviving children and at the age of 90 she earned the distinction of being the longest living member of the O’Driscoll family for four generations.
She attended Dromore National school but was a sickly child who effectively left school at the age of eight.
She was very ill with rheumatic fever which significantly weakened her heart. She also had a serious lung condition, however this never got in the way of leading a full and active life. Catherine secured her first paid job as a nanny at the age of 13, but other jobs followed including housemaid, cook, and as a ‘clippie’ – a bus conductor – where she met her future husband, James Finegan. Together they had six children.
‘She was always a feisty, independent person,’ her daughter Nuala Finegan told The Southern Star. ‘Catherine scandalised her in-laws when, during her first visit, she refused to sit in the designated women’s section of the church away from her husband. She resolutely sat next to him amongst the men of the parish causing many tongues to wag.
‘She also claimed to be the first woman to wear trousers in Caheragh, as it made riding her bike that much easier,’ said Nuala. Although a talented seamstress and proficient pastry chef, Catherine was conscious of her lack of learning and took her O and A levels through the Open University and a local college.
Catherine was very involved in her community. She believed in direct action and led two protests about dangerous roads in her area to gain the attention of the council. She was even arrested for obstructing a road but was nevertheless successful in getting the roads improved.
In the 70s, she became involved with a monthly social group for families with children with disabilities, but she became frustrated with processes that were difficult or unduly bureaucratic.
She became angry on their behalf and when a friend – Harry Callaghan a committed trade union member – said she should go where she would have influence to change the system, she joined the Labour Party.
Her protests brought her to the attention of the party and she was asked to stand for Saltley ward. That’s how, in 1978, Catherine became the first Irish woman to be elected to Birmingham City Council.
She thrived on having a cause and worked hard to resolve the issues of people who felt their voices weren’t being heard.
She was particularly proud of her work with social services, monitoring the quality of care homes for the elderly. Her mantra was, ‘if it isn’t good enough for my mother then it isn’t good enough for anyone else’s mother!’
She served the city for 20 years, with a short pause in 1994/5. When she left the council in 1999, her work was recognised and she was made Honorary Alderman of the City. It was a singular honour of which she was very proud.