Lives Remembered

Tony McKenna: Tyrone footballer and county chairman embodied 'service, commitment and community'

Tony McKenna was Tyrone GAA county chairman in the late 1980s. Picture by Bill Smyth

TONY McKenna's link to the first Tyrone squad ever to win the Ulster senior football championship would be enough alone to earn him legendary status in the county.

The young colleges star was drafted into the panel in 1956 when the Red Hands shocked the GAA world by comfortably beating perennial winners Cavan.

Emigration would then rob Tyrone of his best years as a player but Tony later returned to serve as a manager and administrator, including three years as county chairman in the late 1980s.

His time in office saw Tyrone reclaim the Ulster senior and minor titles but also witness the shocking death of Aidan McAnespie (23), shot by a British soldier close to a checkpoint at Aughnacloy as he made his way to Aghaloo GAC's grounds.

Earlier this year Tony returned to scene to mark with relatives the 30th anniversary of the killing, as well as back calls for the release of a withheld Irish government report.

He is remembered as a "pivotal figure in the development of GAA in Tyrone for over 60 years" as well as a generous and hard-working teacher and businessman who loved to see young people given a chance to advance in life.

Tony was born in Clogher in 1937 to Owen and Bridget McKenna. He was the second youngest of 12 children, two of which died in infancy.

He attended the local St Macartan's Primary School and earned a scholarship to board at St Macartan's College, Monaghan, where he played football under the legendary Fr Enda McCormack.

After debuting for the Clogher seniors aged just 14, he was selected for the Tyrone minor team of 1955.

In 1956, his third year of MacRory Cup football, St Macartan's defeated St Eunan's, Letterkenny in the final in Omagh and Tony was named captain of the Ulster Colleges team who played Munster in Croke Park.

He had been accepted to study pharmacy the following year but received the devastating news that the Pharmaceutical Society in the north would not recognise his Leaving Cert qualification.

Tony decided instead to follow the path taken by two of his brothers and emigrate to Canada, where he played football across North America with Toronto GAA and in 1960 captained them to their first All American League title.

The team later toured Ireland, defeating Monaghan and Mayo.

Tony trained as a teacher in Toronto before deciding to return home, where he got a job teaching English in Omagh 'Tech'.

Football remained a big part of his life, and he coached college teams for many years as well as co-managing Tyrone vocational teams to All-Ireland success.

He was the first Tyrone man to manage an All Stars team, leading the side that toured the US in 1987.

He also played midfield and centre-half back for Clogher and managed the club to a junior championship.

Last Saturday, his son Niall poignantly handed over the Division 3 league trophy to Éire Ógs captain Mark Bogue, 33 years after his father had presented the same cup to then captain Kevin McConnell.

Tony married Shiela Logan from Stewartstown in 1975 and they had two sons, Eoghan and Niall. They settled in Killyclogher outside Omagh, where both boys played for the local club.

He became a prominent businessman in Omagh, developing and running The Cellar bar, a coffee shop and snooker club in Bridge Street, and after retiring from teaching he looked after the family farm in Clogher.

He was also a founding member of Clogher Valley Credit Union and chaired the board of governors of St Brigid's PS, Mountfield and was a strong advocate of Catholic education and the rights of small rural schools.

Despite failing health this year, he followed the Tyrone senior team on their All-Ireland journey to Navan, Carlow, Enniskillen, Croke Park and Portlaoise, and there would have been few prouder to see the county reach the final last Sunday.

Fr Andy Dolan told his funeral at St Mary's Church, Killyclogher that "all the books could not contain everything that Tony said and did".

"We can safely say that he viewed life through the eyes of faith and respected the dignity of each other person," he said.

"One of his driving forces was the view people deserved something better and he was always there to try and improve things. He put his shoulder to the wheel and made things happen.

"He embodies so much about service, commitment and community."

Tony McKenna died aged 81 on July 30 and is survived by his wife, sons, brothers and sister.

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Lives Remembered