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McGuinness, William Francis (Liam) (1889–1966)

by Anne-Maree Whitaker

Irish Internees in Darlinghurst Gaol, 1918 [McGuinness is centre, back row]

Irish Internees in Darlinghurst Gaol, 1918 [McGuinness is centre, back row]

William Francis McGuinness (1889-1966), Irish community activist, was born on 10 April 1889 at 103 Leeson Street, Belfast, Ireland, son of Thomas Patrick McGuinness, clerk, and his wife Kate, née Smyth. His father died on 26 September 1893 of diabetes at the age of 35. His widow knew ‘many of the fine spirits, the gallant patriots and “intelligentsia”, who successfully strove to awaken the people to national consciousness and to full realisation of the priceless heritage of Celtic tradition, Irish thought and custom and Gaelic culture’.[1]

William (known as Liam) was brought up steeped in the culture of Ireland with emphasis on the Irish language, literature, music, and sports. He and his older brother Joseph learned Irish as well as English.[2] At the age of 13 Liam came in touch with the Irish-Ireland movement in Belfast at the foundation of the youth group Fianna Eireann, and became friendly with its founder Bulmer Hobson who was only six years his senior. Liam was an expert Irish dancer, winning the Feis Uladh (Ulster Dancing Competition) in Cushendall in 1905. He was also an active member of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Belfast, playing football and hurling for Tir na nOg, Brian Og and Mitchels.[3]

Hobson founded the Ulster Literary Theatre in 1904 which produced works by established playwrights as well as commissioning new plays.[4] Liam played prominent roles in productions including Yeats’ Cathleen ni Houlihan, AE’s Deirdre and Hobson’s Brian na Banba. Through the theatre he became acquainted with a who’s who of Ireland’s cultural elite. He was also engaged in politics, joining the militant Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and rubbing shoulders with activists such as veteran Fenian O’Donovan Rossa and international human rights campaigner Roger Casement. He also befriended a young man from Leitrim, Seán MacDermott or Mac Diarmada, to whom he lent the first Irish Republican book Mac Diarmada ever read.[5]

In 1908 Hobson was moving to Dublin to edit a weekly newspaper, Irish Freedom, and Liam McGuinness planned to accompany him. However his brother Joseph emigrated to New South Wales and their mother was determined to follow him, so Liam agreed to accompany her and his sister Mary. His place as manager of the newspaper was taken by Seán Mac Diarmada.[6] The McGuinnesses arrived in Sydney in 1912 and settled at 20 Upper Road, Forest Lodge, near the Harold Park harness racing track and a short walk to the city tram. Liam and Joseph both found work with the NSW Railways, Liam as a tram conductor and Joseph as a railway porter.[7] Kate and Mary supplemented the family income by taking in lodgers.

Soon after his arrival Liam was moved to write to the Catholic Press regarding an editorial in the notoriously anti-Catholic Truth newspaper. Declaring that ‘up till I left Ireland some 18 months ago, I took an active part in Sinn Fein, the Gaelic League and Gaelic Athletic Association’, he rebutted suggestions that these groups were anti-clerical.[8] He also continued his interest in Irish dancing, performing at a concert in the Repertory Theatre in early 1915. Alongside performers from the Tivoli Theatre, ‘gold medallist’ William McGuinness gave an exhibition of ‘Irish-reel dancing in Irish kilt costume’.[9]

In 1915 O’Donovan Rossa died in New York after a lifetime of political activism, and his body was brought home to Ireland for burial.[10] He lay in state in City Hall and his funeral brought Dublin to a standstill. The graveside oration was delivered by Irish Volunteers leader Patrick Pearse and concluded with the words ‘They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves Ireland unfree shall never be at peace’. Two months later it was quoted in Sydney in a talk given by Edmund McSweeny of the newly formed Irish National Association (INA).[11]

Liam and his brother Joseph soon became involved with the INA. Liam’s first involvement was as Irish dancing teacher, and he was elected warden in July 1916 while Joseph took on the position of assistant secretary.[12] Liam was to remain an executive member of the association for the next 25 years, and in March 1916 penned a celebratory poem praising the INA: 

God’s blessing on the work,
And may He guide your willing hands,
That toil for ‘Cathlin’s’ honor
In these far southern lands.
And may our holy Padraic
With faith and hope sustain
The children of ‘Cathlin Dubh’ —
‘The sea-divided Gael’.[13]

The following month on Easter Monday a rebellion broke out in Dublin when Patrick Pearse stood on the steps of the General Post Office and read the proclamation of independence. In the space of a week 500 people were killed and large parts of central Dublin were destroyed by British bombardment. Following the rebellion fifteen of its leaders were executed, including Liam’s boyhood Belfast friend Seán Mac Diarmada. Later in the year Roger Casement was tried in London and hanged for organising the smuggling of German arms to Ireland to aid the rebels.[14]

In June 1916 Liam McGuinness appeared at a fundraiser for the Hibernian Society. Although it was not a political event Liam reflected the sombre mood of the time in his chosen recitations, ‘The Uplifting of the Banner’, a 19th-century ode to the Irish Gaelic Chieftain Red Hugh O’Neill who died 300 years earlier, and ‘The Death of Robert Emmet’ who had been executed in 1803.[15] His involvement with the INA had increased as he was running the INA dancing class along with Michael McGing, while still serving on the executive.[16]

In the wake of the Easter Rising and as the war continued in Europe, members of the INA formed Australian circles of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. As a veteran member of the organisation Liam McGuinness was appointed the Centre of one of the two circles formed in Sydney.[17] On 17 June 1918 authorities arrested seven of the INA’s officebearers in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and interned them in Sydney’s Darlinghurst Gaol. Fellow internee Albert Dryer said of McGuinness that he ‘maintained the intense and unremitting devotion to the cause of Irish-Ireland that characterised him in Ireland’ and praised his ‘wise and sustained enthusiasm’ in promoting Irish culture and independence.[18]

In September a public enquiry was held in Sydney under Supreme Court judge John Musgrave Harvey. The judge was somewhat dismissive of McGuinness, declaring him not to be a man of ‘education and ability’ unlike some of the other defendants, despite the fact that the authorities had to find an interpreter to read McGuinness’s Gaelic writings. He also overlooked McGuinness’s subscription to the outlawed newspaper Irish Volunteer, while dramatising his possession of a copy of Roger Casement’s 1914 book The Crime Against Europe.

At the age of 29 Liam was the youngest of the internees, described as a shoe salesman. He was joined by INA vice-president Edmund McSweeny, secretary Albert Dryer, and his fellow dancing teacher Michael McGing. The Melbourne internees were veteran Fenian Maurice Dalton and bricklayer Frank McKeown, with bookseller Tom Fitzgerald joining them from Brisbane. At the conclusion of the hearing all seven remained in detention until after the armistice, most being released on 19 December 1918 while Dryer was held until February 1919.[19]

Liam lost no time in resuming his activism after his release. In the December 1918 British general election, the first since 1910, the nationalist party Sinn Féin won 73 of 105 Irish seats in the House of Commons. Boycotting Westminster they set up an Irish parliamentary assembly which first met in Dublin in January 1919. Liam McGuinness declared his happiness at these ‘stirring and triumphant events’, and said that he believed that ‘the Irish Republic was founded by the Gaelic League 25 years ago, and its work had been continued in the schools of Ireland.’[20]

In the same month McGuinness oversaw the inauguration of a new Irish organisation in Sydney, Cumann na mBan or the Society of Women. The organisation had been founded in Ireland in 1914, and was a unique nationalist group whose membership consisted entirely of women and girls. The Sydney branch adopted the name of Ethna Carbery, an Irish nationalist poet and journalist who died in 1902 at the age of 35. Her husband and father were both active in the Belfast literary circles which Liam had frequented. The Sydney group held monthly social events for over 15 years, with profits sent to Ireland to assist prisoners’ dependants. As well as fundraising the group promoted Irish music and dance, both dear to McGuinness’s heart.[21]

Irish dancing also provided the introduction to his wife Mary ‘Mollie’ Dunne, whom he married in 1923. Their only child Brian Eamon was born in 1924 and named after Mollie’s father Brian and Irish nationalist leader Éamon de Valera.[22] Liam and Mollie participated in Irish community festivities such as Cumann na mBan’s Tom Moore Night in 1928 when Mollie played Tom Moore melodies on the violin while Liam acted as MC and danced a hornpipe.[23] The same year the group held an Ethna Carbery night when Liam paid a glowing tribute to the work of the Irish poet, briefly sketching her life and her great love for Ireland, before reciting her poem ‘Donal Mac Seaghain Na Mallacht’.[24]

Liam remained active with the INA and the Gaelic League through the 1920s and 1930s. When the INA commenced annual commemorations of the Easter Rising in 1930 he was a regular participant, reciting the rosary in Gaelic and giving talks on the 1916 leaders from his first-hand knowledge. In 1935 the Irish community organised a benefit night for him at the Australian Hall in Elizabeth Street, Sydney, featuring orchestral and vocal performances as well as Irish dancing.[25] The following year another gathering was held to farewell McGuinness as he left Sydney’s Central Station for a health trip to the country.[26] He appears to have separated from his wife by this time and she and their son remained in Sydney.

McGuinness continued to return to Sydney for INA events such as St Patrick’s Day and Easter commemorations, and for his mother’s funeral in 1936.[27] In 1943 he was living in Blackheath in the upper Blue Mountains, and by the end of the war he was working as a storeman at the Small Arms Factory in Lithgow and living in their hostel.[28] He was active in the Australasian Society of Engineers and the Australian Labor Party, but by 1953 his ill-health forced a lengthy stay in Randwick Hospital undergoing treatment for fibrosis and tuberculosis.[29] McGuinness retired to the Catholic church’s Macquarie Homes in Bathurst, where he died on 10 July 1966, fifty years after the Easter Rising.[30] 

[1] ‘The Late Mrs Catherine McGuiness’, Freeman’s Journal, 28 January 1937, p 39.

[2] 1901 and 1911 censuses, http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/.

[3] ‘Mr William F McGuinness’, Catholic Press, 1 August 1935, p 17.

[4] Patrick Maume, ‘Hobson, (John) Bulmer’, Dictionary of Irish Biography https://www.dib.ie/biography/hobson-john-bulmer-a4038

[5] Witness statement of Albert Dryer, WS1526, Bureau of Military History, Irish Military Archives, np (hereafter Dryer witness statement).

[6] Lawrence William White, ‘Mac Diarmada (MacDermott), Seán’, Dictionary of Irish Biography https://www.dib.ie/biography/mac-diarmada-macdermott-sean-a5027

[7] Railway personal history cards, NSW Records and Archives.

[8] W McGuinness, ‘Attacking the Archbishop’, Catholic Press, 31 July 1913, p 31.

[9] ‘Regimental Comforts Fund’, Sunday Times, 17 January 1915, p 2.

[10] Patrick Maume, ‘O’Donovan Rossa, Jeremiah’, Dictionary of Irish Biography https://www.dib.ie/biography/odonovan-rossa-jeremiah-a6719.

[11] ‘Irish National Association of NSW’, Catholic Press, 14 October 1915, p 31.

[12] ‘The Irish National Association’, Freeman’s Journal, 20 July 1916, p 21; ‘Irish National Association’, Catholic Press, 27 July 1916, p 21.

[13] William McGuinness, ‘To the Irish National Association’, Catholic Press, 23 March 1916, p 23.

[14] ‘Remembering the 1916 Rising’, Irish Times website https://www.irishtimes.com/history/1916/.

[15] ‘Social News and Gossip’, Catholic Press, 8 June 1916, p 38.

[16] ‘The Irish National Association’, Freeman’s Journal, 20 July 1916, p 21.

[17] Garrath O’Keeffe, ‘Australia’s Irish Republican Brotherhood’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 83, pt 2 (December 1997), p 137.

[18] Dryer witness statement.

[19] Inquiry under Regulation 56B of the War Precautions Regulations before the Hon Mr Justice Harvey re Irish Republican Brotherhood, National Archives of Australia, series no A432, control symbol 1929/4572, pp 7, 32; Patrick O’Farrell, ‘Dreaming of Distant Revolution: AT Dryer and the Irish National Association, Sydney, 1915-16’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 69, pt 3 (December 1983), p 151.

[20] ‘The Released Internees’, Freeman’s Journal, 13 March 1919, p 22.

[21] Anne-Maree Whitaker, ‘The Irish Women’s Club: Cumann na mBan in Sydney 1919-1935’, Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, vol 40 (2019), pp 90-102.  

[22] NSW marriage certificate 14533/1923.

[23] ‘Cumann na mBan: Tom Moore Night’, Catholic Press, 23 August 1928, p 35.

[24] ‘Cumann na mBan: Ethna Carbery Night’, Catholic Press, 26 July 1928, p 21.

[25] ‘Complimentary Concert’, Catholic Press, 8 August 1935, p 21.

[26] ‘Gael farewelled in Sydney’, Freeman’s Journal, 17 September 1936, p 27.

[27] ‘The Late Mrs Catherine McGuiness’, Freeman’s Journal, 28 January 1937, p 39.

[28] NSW electoral rolls 1943 and 1949; ‘Onward Australia’, Lithgow Mercury, 4 January 1945, p 5.

[29] ‘Successful Six-Hour Day’, Lithgow Mercury, 6 November 1945, p 2; ‘Candidates at Meeting of Hartley Assembly’, Lithgow Mercury, 19 December 1952, p 7; ‘Christmas Phantasy from Hospital’, Lithgow Mercury, 29 December 1953, p 4.

[30] NSW death certificate 32371/1966.

Original Publication

Citation details

Anne-Maree Whitaker, 'McGuinness, William Francis (Liam) (1889–1966)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/mcguinness-william-francis-liam-32880/text40953, accessed 7 February 2023.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012