John McGuinness: One of the forgotten holy men and women of Ireland

John McGuinness

Contrary to popular perception, there was an extraordinary flourishing of holiness in Ireland in the 19th and early 20th Century. Yes, there were problems in the Church and in the country at that time, but this does not take away from the inspiring witness of so many in that period.

Many of the men and women of this period are well known and loved, including figures such as Blessed John Sullivan, Blessed Columba Marmion, Venerable Matt Talbot, Venerable Nano Nagle and Venerable Edel Quinn. Their causes are opened, and we await their happy conclusion. 

Fr Doyle, of course, stands out as one of those who, despite his remarkable fame after his death, and the widespread acknowledgement of his evident sanctity, still does not have an active Cause for his canonisation. There are others in this category – Ellen Organ (Little Nellie) is one obvious name that springs to mind. We hope and pray that their Causes will soon be opened.

But there is a third category of holy men and women from this era – those whose sanctity burned brightly before their contemporaries but who, for unknown reasons, are almost entirely forgotten today.

One of these individuals is John McGuinness, who died on this day in 1947. John was a civil servant by day, and the servant of the poor by night. He lived a life of constant prayer and self-denial and was a Third Order Franciscan who explicitly modelled his entire life on that of Matt Talbot. Despite his great personal success – he was a high ranking official in the Revenue Commissioners with a very large salary – he died of malnutrition in his mid 40s because he literally gave everything away to the poor. 

He was involved in numerous charitable activities across the city of Dublin, but to this day the full extent of his service to the poor remains unknown, as he always acted with discretion, never drawing attention to himself. 

When he died he was mourned as a second Matt Talbot, who opted against the life of a priest so that he could live holiness as a professional in the middle of the world. There was extensive media interest in his life In the years after his death and speculation that he would be canonised, but today, sadly, he is mostly forgotten. It’s not hard to imagine that, were he an Italian, he could well have been canonised by now. 

Catholics have much to be proud of in Ireland, and we forget our heritage to our own cost. 

Later this year a new book will be published, edited by Fr John Hogan of the Diocese of Meath and by myself, on the lives of the many holy Irish men and women like John McGuinness, Fr Doyle and a range of others, some of whom are well known and some who are less known.

Ireland needs more saints. Our recent history is full of inspiring examples. It’s time we remembered them.

2 thoughts on “John McGuinness: One of the forgotten holy men and women of Ireland

  1. When I suggested the same to a confrere a few years ago he dismissed the idea. It doesn’t fit with the entrenched idea that Ireland was inward looking and repressed, a land of public piety but without real sanctity. Yet one of my confreres told me that not only did two of his female relatives live very holy lives when they dies extraordinarily beautiful singing was heard but the source could never be identified. I look forward to the new book!

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