September 21st, 2021


Richard Bullick

Fionnuala McKenna’s Orchard career is set to reach a special landmark this weekend when the 27-year-old cathedral city woman makes her 100th Armagh appearance in the All Ireland Senior Championship quarter-final against Meath.

Having made her Orchard debut in a one-off appearance aged just 16 as Armagh bowed out of the 2010 All Ireland at the hands of Kerry, McKenna came into the panel properly at the start of the 2012 season.

She took a year off from inter-county football in 2019 and opted out last autumn due to coronavirus concerns but has been an Armagh regular for most of the past decade under a succession of management teams.

Leaving aside those breaks, of the 101 matches Armagh have played since McKenna came in at the start of 2012, she has missed just three through injury and started all but one of the other 98.

An NFL Division One game away to Kerry in 2017 is the only time McKenna has been left out of the run-on line-up when fit and available, but she came off the bench that day so this weekend will be her 100th county cap, to borrow a concept from other sports.

Although Armagh appearances information from the past are hard to come by, it is fair to say that Fionnuala will be joining a pretty exclusive Orchard centurion club which includes her Harps clubmate and current county captain Kelly Mallon and is led by Caroline O’Hanlon.

Also a notable handballer as a teenager, a very youthful Fionnuala helped St Catherine’s College claim an All Ireland C title in gaelic football, was a Feile individual skills champion and awarded an Ulster Schools All Star.

Also a high-achiever academically and model pupil who almost inevitably became Head Girl, she always seemed destined for the top in ladies gaelic and was part of the Orchard’s All Ireland Minor B title triumph in 2011 after winning Armagh Junior Sportswoman of the Year.

McKenna then helped Armagh claim the Ulster and All Ireland Intermediate titles in her first full season at adult level, the latter success coming in Croke Park three months after she had finished school, and she went on to shine on the Orchard’s return to the Senior ranks.

In 2013, Fresher Fionnuala was an important member of the first and only Queen’s University team to win the prestigious O’Connor Cup and was named in the Team of Division Three at the NFL Awards in spite of Armagh being pipped by Down in their league final.

Armagh suffered further one-point losses to Tyrone in the Ulster semi and champions Cork in an All Ireland qualifier but McKenna won Ulster Ladies Footballer of the Year at the Irish News All Stars Awards that September.

Back in May, she had been crowned (Senior) Sportswoman of the Year at the Armagh Sports Awards but picking up prizes was nothing new for Fionnuala as her huge haul of trophies from her last St Catherine’s speech-day had illustrated.

Reigning champions Queen’s surprisingly lost at The Dub in the 2014 O’Connor Cup final, but McKenna was awarded the coveted Cormac McAnallen Medal, presented in honour of the tragic Tyrone footballer whose footsteps she would follow by teaching in St Catherine’s.

As centre half forward, McKenna played a key role in the Orchard’s highly successful season of 2014 which saw Armagh secure promotion from NFL Division Three at the third attempt and go on to claim their first Ulster title in seven seasons.

Having won Player of the Match as Armagh beat Waterford at Parnell Park in their league final, McKenna was allocated the No 11 jersey in the Team of Division Three at the NFL Awards.

She was an influential figure as James Daly’s ladies reeled off a trio of impressive victories over sides which had spent the spring playing two league levels above them to be crowned provincial champions, and top-scored with six points against Monaghan in the final.

Armagh won their first 13 matches of that season, with their only defeat not coming until September’s All Ireland Senior Championship semi-final against Cork, and McKenna was one of four Orchard heroes to make that autumn’s All Stars shortlist.

Daly swapped the Harps pair of McKenna and Mallon round the following season and, now at full forward, Fionnuala shone alongside new sensation Aimee Mackin as Armagh emphatically defeated Donegal 4-18 to 4-6 in the NFL Division Two decider.

Having secured back-to-back promotions, Armagh went on to reach a second consecutive All Ireland semi-final in spite of being dethroned as Ulster champions by Monaghan, who subsequently lost the provincial showpiece to Donegal.

After a successful spell of four seasons at the Orchard helm, Daly stood down and was replaced as Armagh manager by 2002 All Ireland winner Ronan Clarke, who not only made McKenna vice-captain but temporarily converted her to centre half back!

Armagh were top of the National League for the only time in their history after former Orchard hero Clarke’s first three games in charge, but it was a short summer in 2016 as they fell at the first hurdle in both the Ulster and All Ireland Senior Championships.

McKenna’s association with Daly had been extended that spring as she was part of her former Armagh manager’s Ulster squad who retained their interpro title, while the previous autumn she had captained her club Harps in their first county final this century.

A couple of leaner years followed for Fionnuala as Harps slipped backwards again and her Armagh form faltered a bit, leading to her being dropped from the starting team for the first and only time in her Orchard career.

Withdrawn by boss Sean O’Kane before half-time in Armagh’s historic away win in NFL Division One at Abbotstown against a Dublin team which has gone on to win four All Ireland titles since, she was relegated to the bench for the trip to the Kingdom a week later.

Although recalled for the next game, McKenna’s career continued to plateau and she was taken off at the interval of the following August’s All Ireland quarter-final defeat to Donegal under Lorraine McCaffrey and Fionnuala McAtamney.

It wasn’t a huge surprise when McKenna opted to take a break from inter-county football to recharge her batteries, so she didn’t feature for Armagh in 2019 but captained Harps to a first league title triumph for a quarter of a century and another county final appearance.

She also helped coach the Harps Under 18 team to the club’s first ever Armagh Minor Championship success having steered the St Catherine’s College Under 14s to a subsidiary Ulster Schools title win earlier in the year.

McKenna made her Armagh return last spring under new manager Ronan Murphy and started all five NFL fixtures before the coronavirus shutdown, though that was a disappointing Orchard campaign.

The Harps skipper really led from the front with an imperious performance in Abbey Park as Clann Eireann were dethroned as Orchard champions, and went on to lift the Marie Hoye Cup in the Athletic Grounds after her club’s first county title triumph since 1998.

However, safety fears for her parents in the face of a fresh surge in coronavirus infections meant McKenna took the understandable decision not to go back with Armagh last autumn so missed their run to the All Ireland semi-finals and Ulster Senior Championship success.

She has returned to the orange jersey this season, starting all eight games so far and making a significant contribution including top-scoring with eight points in the Ulster semi-final victory over Tyrone in the Athletic Grounds earlier this month.

Really looking like she is enjoying her football again, McKenna has kicked some trademark monster points from left half forward and, when Orchard captain Mallon was out injured, she was very useful for taking the right-footed frees as she did earlier in her county career.

McKenna herself has missed only three Armagh matches through injury in her entire career, back-to-back NFL fixtures in the spring of 2015 due to an ankle problem, which along with being selected consistently has enabled her to reach 100 appearances aged just 27.

A complete professional who keeps her head down and works hard, McKenna won’t seek fuss or fanfare around her personal landmark and an Armagh win this weekend will be what matters, but it is an achievement she should be very proud of, with much more still to come.

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Richard Bullick

Her school St Catherine’s College and gaelic club Armagh Harps helped shape Fionnuala McKenna in her formative years and now she’s giving back by doing the same for future generations in both settings.

The former St Catherine’s Head Girl has returned to teach and coach at her alma mater in the cathedral city and she also holds a responsible position at Abbey Park as the well-established Harps club captain.

With McKenna set to reach the special landmark of 100 appearances for the Armagh gaelic county team in this weekend’s All Ireland quarter-final against Meath, it is a natural time to pay tribute to a distinguished sportswoman who doesn’t crave the limelight.

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McKenna comes across as quite a reserved, serious and intense individual who likes to keep her head down and do her talking behind closed doors but others who have watched her develop as a player and person enthusiastically speak proudly of her.

Two who very much come into that category are Armagh Harps stalwart Paula Powell Enright, who wears so many hats around Abbey Park and still plays under McKenna’s captaincy for the club’s senior side at the age of 41, and Ciara Marley.

Marley first came across McKenna as a promising pupil when she returned to her old school St Catherine’s for her first teaching job and is chuffed Fionnuala followed in her footsteps by becoming a colleague and now works with her in coaching their young footballers.

Both Enright and Marley share evident admiration for McKenna and both speak of a conscientious, dependable person who is still much the same as an adult to what she was as an adolescent responsible beyond her years.

“Fionnuala was exactly as she is now when she was growing up.  A pleasant, diligent girl always willing to help out and who would have done anything you asked her.  She was very reliable and didn’t cause any trouble,” explains Paula.

“Funnily enough, Fionnuala never actually played girls football at an early age.  Instead, she played boys football because her dad was involved with them, and she was very successful.  Back then girls could play along with the boys up until Under 14s.

“So, we couldn’t get her to play with our Under 12s, but the silver lining was that because of her boys football background, she was physically stronger than her female peers and used to taking the knocks and bangs.

“Unsurprisingly, she hit the ground running in ladies football to the extent that she made her debut for the Armagh senior side aged just 16 and since then has gone on to have a fantastic career for club and county.

“As a young girl, she was a dream to coach and all I can say is that there aren’t enough like her.  She was a complete athlete with a real level of professionalism.  Her parents would have been quite strict so naturally her discipline was always good.

“Fionnuala is a very grounded girl who never took anything for granted but worked hard to get to where she is.  I remember her out at the college fields on her own with a bag of balls, working on her skills.

“She became club captain at an early age and is a great role model within Harps.  Fionnuala is top player with plenty of big game experience and also a very respected person who speaks well and sets a good example.

“Fionnuala doesn’t do anything fancy, keeps her life fairly basic, believes in hard work and her discipline is second to none.  She always has positive words to say to the players including the younger ones.

“You won’t hear negative talk from her about others.  She respects team-mates and opponents alike.  When Fionnuala speaks in the team environment you can hear a pin drop.  She’s very honest too in holding her hand up if she isn’t playing well personally.

“As well as being the captain and a key player for our senior side, she has helped Paddy McShane out with the Minors though obviously she has her school coaching commitments and the demands of being a county footballer.

“It’s good to see her back in county colours and enjoying her football because Fionnuala is an asset for Armagh and always represents Harps proudly and in the right manner.  She’s everything ladies football should be about and the perfect role model,” enthuses Enright.

Marley is also an unashamed admirer of McKenna having watched at close quarters and with pride Fionnuala’s transition from being her pupil to staff-room colleague.  From being a member of her school team to being a member of her school team in a different way.

“Fionnuala was actually in the first ever GCSE PE class that I had.  I was covering another teacher’s maternity as a newly-qualified 22-year-old.  That was my first experience of her and she hasn’t changed a bit,” reflects Ciara.

“She was diligent and committed, a really hard worker who embodied all of our school values and really still does.  Fionnuala’s dedication and determination to do well is incredible and it has been a pleasure to watch her go from strength to strength.

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“I’d like to congratulate her on reaching 100 appearances for the county team and hope that there’s another 100 in her.  I’m very proud of her as her former teacher and current colleague and thank her for being such a positive role model for young girls in Armagh.

“As a pupil, Fionnuala played a major part in St Catherine’s winning the All Ireland C title back in 2007 and it was no surprise she went on to be Head Girl.  In recent years, she has returned to the school as a teacher and is a great asset.

“I’ve major respect for Fionnuala and feel lucky to have her as part of my sports coaching team.  As Head of Sport, she’s so important to me in keeping our teams going from year to year and nothing is too much bother for her.

“The girls in school love her taking them for football and handball.  She has been successful as a football coach in our school and gets huge numbers out too.  It’s great that I’ve got her to take the Under 14s and they feed into my teams then year after year,” says Marley.

This writer recalls Caroline O’Hanlon, as special guest at the 2011 Armagh Sports Awards, speaking enthusiastically about how she was looking forward to playing county football with McKenna, who won Junior Sportswoman of the Year that night, in the years ahead.

It was a good call by the legendary O’Hanlon, who has subsequently shared the field with McKenna in most of her 99 matches to date, and Armagh LGFA Chairperson Sinead Reel is among those singing the Harps player’s praises as she joins the centurion club a decade on.

“On behalf of the County Board and indeed all ladies football followers locally, I would like to congratulate Fionnuala McKenna on reaching this impressive milestone, which reflects her commitment as well as her talent,” says Reel.

“I was involved with the Armagh management team in the early stages of Fionnuala’s inter-county career.  She did very well as a young player but always stayed humble and worked hard at her game.

“Over the years, Fionnuala has been a model professional and very dedicated to her club Armagh Harps and the county cause.  Passionate about her football and helpful off the field, she is a good role model for any young girl.

“She is still at the height of her playing career but I am pleased she has also become involved in coaching at St Catherine’s College and her club, helping to develop the stars of the future.”