Winnie McKenna was born in Middlesbrough, North Yorkshire in 1897. She was a talented athlete who played a leading role in ‘Munitionettes Football’ in North East England during and after the First World War. Winnie played many times in front of huge crowds at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough, and St James’s Park, home of Newcastle United. Winnie was captain of women’s teams representing the North East. She also played in two ‘Munitionette Cup Finals’ – for Bolckow Vaughan in 1918 and for Brown’s Sawmills in 1919 – and was widely regarded as the best female player in the region. The Newcastle Evening Chronicle in 1918 declared: ‘See Winnie McKenna at centre; she is as good as any man’.
Young Lady from Lurgan: Ambassador for Women’s Football in Ireland
Although her birth and upbringing belonged to Northern England, Winnie’s father was a Catholic Irishman from Tullybrick near Derry in the North of Ireland. Winnie was proud of her Irish roots and spent much of her working life and football career in Belfast. From 1921, she often captained Ireland against teams from England and Scotland. These matches were special events, attracting big crowds and arousing much public interest. Winnie played with and against the great players of the 1920s, like Molly Seaton, Lily Parr, Sadie Smith and Carmen Pomiès. Although she stopped playing in 1927, Winnie remained a key ambassador for the women’s game, especially in hosting the French XI led by Carmen Pomiès in 1936.
What happened afterwards
Winnie’s playing career ended in 1927, with a big match against Scotland at Belfast’s Windsor Park. Winnie never married, and it was time for her to make a career. She became a successful businesswoman, sole proprietor of her own hairdresser’s shop. Winnie remained active as an organiser and promoter of women’s football but the game in Ireland, especially in the Catholic South, faced powerful religious, social and political opposition. Like almost everywhere else, the women’s game was snuffed out by the Second World War and took decades to re-emerge. Memories of the brief flourishing of the game in the interwar years disappeared under a suffocating blanket of forgetting. Winnie moved back from Belfast to England, living at Redcar, close to her married sisters. By the time Winnie died in 1971, she was almost entirely unknown. Only from 2019, 100 years on from the Munitionettes Cup Final, did Winnie McKenna begin at last to receive the recognition she deserves.
Women’s football in Ireland faced huge problems in the 1920s. These were years of violent unrest and civil war as Ireland struggled for independence. In Dublin and the South, the Catholic Church was immensely strong and unrelentingly hostile to women playing football. Even in Belfast and the North, there was entrenched male prejudice. How was the women’s game able to flourish at all?
Women’s football did indeed have an impact, making strong connections with the game in England, Scotland and France, often arousing much public enthusiasm. What were the factors that enabled it to grow? What were the factors that stunted its growth?
History is not only about memory; it is also about forgetting. Winnie McKenna was silenced by history, even more than the other great players of her time. Why was this so?
Long after she died, Winnie McKenna’s place in the history of women’s football in the North East was noted by local newspapers in Middlesbrough and Newcastle and, above all by the historian Patrick Brennan, author of a fine book The Munitionettes. See fascinating images of women’s football in Brennan’s online archive, www.donmouth.com
Many of the great female footballers Winnie played against, such as Lily Parr and Florrie Redford of Dick, Kerr Ladies, Molly Seaton and Carmen Pomiès, can be found in the collection of life stories on www.footballmakeshistory.eu
The story of French teams touring Ireland between 1921 and 1936 is covered, in Chris Rowe’s 2022 book, Carmen Pomiès: Football Legend and Heroine of the French Resistance. In 2023, the histrorian Steve Bolton has compiled important new evidence and insights in The Lioness Who Roared for Ireland, an online article for Playing Pasts. Steve hs collaborated with Margaret Roberts, editor of Playing Pasts; Margaret’s in-depth researches have revealed fascinating detail about Winnie’s life, including her visit to the United States in 1958, to stay with her brother, one of thousands of Irish emigrants to America.
Though he is remembered for scoring the most goals in a World Cup, Fontaine also worked tirelessly to defend footballers’ rights.