Seaton, Molly (Mary Anne) (1905–74), soccer player, was born 2 September 1905 in the family residence at Greencastle in the docks area of Belfast. She was the second youngest of the four surviving children (three daughters and a son) of Henry Seaton, brick layer, and his wife Mary Jane (‘Anney’) Seaton (née Quinn). Her father died when she was nine years old. Living on Dandy Street, she worked as a doffer at the Whitehouse Flax Spinning Mill and the Upper Corgery Road Spinning Mill. In time she became a doffing mistress.
By the 1920s women’s football matches had become a popular way of raising money for charity in the UK. These matches were often organised by factory owners who put together teams drawn from their workers. Whereas the English Football Association (FA) had crippled this development by banning women from affiliated pitches in 1921 (the Scottish and Welsh FAs imposed partial bans), no such restrictions were imposed in Northern Ireland, though there was little organised women’s football there for most of the 1920s. Seaton’s first reputed high-profile appearance came in 1923 as one of three Northern Ireland women on the Scottish team Rutherglen that shocked the famed Dick Kerr Ladies 2–0 near Glasgow.
Seaton next appeared in 1927, when she participated in Rutherglen’s ground-breaking tour of Britain and Ireland. To overcome the bias against women’s football, their teams provided their own opposition by travelling and playing as one large squad or two loosely affiliated squads. From 9 May teams styled Rutherglen and Edinburgh played matches in Belfast, Larne (on two occasions) and Ballymena. Seaton was Edinburgh’s free-scoring centre-forward and captain, notching three of her team’s goals in a 4–5 loss at Ballymena. On 21 May she participated in the first organised women’s football match held in the Irish Free State. (The two most well-known women’s football teams of that era, the Dick Kerr Ladies of Preston and Femina Sport of Paris, made numerous attempts to tour the Irish Free State but were thwarted by the opposition of the catholic church.) She scored seven goals before a crowd of 12,000, the largest then seen at the venue in Milltown, Dublin, as Rutherglen routed the local Irish team 8–1.
The tour returned to Northern Ireland with matches in Derry and Portadown between sides billed as Ireland versus Scotland, even though the ‘Irish’ team, captained by Seaton, was overwhelmingly Scottish. In the Derry match she scored both goals for Ireland in a 2–2 draw in front of a capacity crowd of 5,000 at Bonds Field Park. A Derry journalist committed to print his outrage at the sight of women disporting themselves in shorts before prurient attendees, contrasting their attire with the long skirts worn by women hockey players. Ireland then lost further matches played in Manchester, England (August), and in Bellshill, Scotland (September), with Seaton scoring all of Ireland’s goals in the 5–9 loss at Bellshill.
In 1928 a similar tour took place with Seaton again leading the ‘Ireland’ team and again featuring as star player and chief goal scorer. Ireland and Scotland played each other across Scotland from April to July followed by a shorter return tour to Northern Ireland in September. She scored five goals at least twice: in Ireland’s 6–5 win over Scotland at Scone, Scotland, on 9 April and in the 5–5 draw at Larne in September. Belfast folklore has it that she played regularly in men’s football games, and she may well have done so in informal kickabouts and perhaps also incognito in organised matches. Contrary to legend, she never signed for Linfield but did line out in a pre-season friendly for the Forth River men’s team at Eldenderry in south Belfast on 12 September 1928.
From 1929 she featured as the main attraction in women’s charity matches held in and around Belfast. She had a long association with the local Crusaders Football Club, which encouraged the use of their ground for women’s football. As her fame grew, her local Greencastle team Castle Rovers became the Molly Seaton XI. Local boxing agent Josie Farrell was her manager and agent, and she often picked up ‘gate money’ of 10 shillings per game. During 1931–2 there was an unusually large number of women’s matches involving prominent Belfast factories such as Ropeworks, York Street Mill, Owen O’Corks, Jennymount Mill and Milewater Mill as well as teams from outlying towns. She played for different mill teams including York Street Mill and Jennymount Mill, also refereeing many women’s matches. Her catholic faith was never an issue in a lively women’s football scene that cut across Northern Ireland’s religious divide.
Newspaper reports gave a mixed picture of the standard of play, with some suggesting that the predominantly male crowds turned up to be amused (or titillated). But even the most scornful of dispatches wrote glowingly of Seaton: ‘at times [Seaton] literally walked through her opponents from one end of the field to the other, just to let the spectators see that ladies with training and experience can play good football’ (Larne Times, 25 July 1931). By then she was playing in defence, presumably to give her opponents some chance of stopping her. Powerfully built, she towered over the other players at 5ft 10in (1.78m); the Dick Kerr Ladies (Preston Ladies), who were known as a tough, strapping side, averaged about 5ft 5in (1.65m). Yet Seaton’s dominance cannot be attributed purely to her physicality, as match reports praised her clever play and skill, particularly her powerful and accurate shooting.
Her finest hour came on 27 July 1931 when a strong Dick Kerr Ladies team including Lily Parr, Jenny Harris and Lizzy Ashcroft played a genuine Irish selection in Windsor Park, Belfast. (The Ireland teams of the 1930s were more specifically Northern Ireland selections, often exclusively from the Belfast region.) Ireland lost 2–3 as the crowd of 4,500 saw Seaton nearly beat the English single-handedly: ‘Nominally she was playing centre-half, but she took the corners, scored the goals, cleared dangerous rushes in the full back position and led the forward line’ (Northern Whig, 28 July 1931). The three English players who marked her ‘tried to sandwich her, to bamboozle her with three-cornered passing, to kick the ball over her head, to charge her, and to dribble past her, but she got the ball almost every time’.
The arrival of Femina Sport of Paris in summer 1932 generated great excitement in Belfast. The Femina players were mostly upper middle class and went about in the latest Parisian fashions; they also played in more revealing shorts. On 4 August they drew 15,000 paying spectators to Grosvenor Park where Seaton scored twice for Ireland in a ferociously contested 3–4 defeat. As before she was the outstanding player on the pitch; as before she was closely shadowed, eventually being one of several players to retire injured. After spending the night in hospital, she missed the second, similarly combative encounter between Ireland and France. She recovered by 19 August to appear at Grosvenor Park for Molly Seaton’s XI in the inaugural and only Irish Ladies’ Football Cup final; she scored twice as the Ropeworks Ladies were defeated 5–0.
From 1933 the number of women’s football matches staged in the Belfast region fell markedly, probably due to renewed sectarian unrest in Northern Ireland. Seaton’s last big match came on 10 August 1936 when Femina Sport, under the captaincy of Carmen Pomies, returned to Belfast to take on Ireland. The 2,000-strong attendance relished the rough-and-tumble nature of the proceedings, which abated somewhat after Pomies briefly led her team off the pitch over a bad infringement by Seaton. This marred a customary barnstorming performance by Seaton capped by her goal from an unstoppable twenty-five-yard free kick. The 1–4 score flattered the victorious French. She continued to appear in those women’s matches that were played until the second world war effectively ended women’s football in Northern Ireland for the best part of a decade.
A formidable woman who liked a smoke and a pint of Guinness, Molly Seaton was sometimes mocked for her hulking, masculine appearance, but she was in the main cherished as a great Belfast character. Tales of her footballing exploits were preserved in local folklore for decades after her death in a Belfast hospital on 12 January 1974. Her remains were buried in St Mary’s church cemetery, Greencastle.