JJ Tohill charts the life of the acclaimed actor and his journey from non-believer to his conversion to Catholicism
Sir. Alec Guinness (1914 – 2000) was born into a broken family. His mother, Agnes Cuffe, was unmarried. He never knew his father. Abused by a brutal stepfather, as an adolescent Guinness discovered the solace of the theatre.
Confirmed into the Anglican Church at 16, as a young man he dabbled in various religions while secretly considering himself an atheist. Religion, he believed was ‘so much rubbish’, a wicked scheme of the Establishment to ‘keep the working man in his place’.
He was anti-clerical and ‘shuddered’ with superstitious dread when he passed a priest or a nun. But like his mother, he had always been receptive to quasi-mystical or spiritual experience.
Acclaimed for his role as Hamlet on the West End stage, he went on to launch what would prove to be an equally illustrious film career. In 1954 he was cast as the lead in ‘Father Brown’, a film based on the character of G.K. Chesterton’s crime–solving priest.
Father Brown was modelled on Monsignor John O’Connor, a venerable Irish priest, who received Chesterton into the Catholic church.
There was a scene at Victoria station in London when Sir Alec and 50 extras all dressed up as priests, who were supposed to be making a journey to the Eucharistic Congress in Rome. During the tea break, when they were all lined up at the mobile canteen for a ‘cuppa’, a strange face was noted in the throng.
It was a real priest who had come to join what he thought was a clerical gathering!
On location near Macon in Burgandy, another incident spun him in the direction of conversion to Rome. He had just finished filming, it was pitched black and still robed as a priest he began the walk of about a mile back to the village where he was staying. In the late 1970’s he told a reporter;“It was absolutely dark, I heard little footsteps running after me. Suddenly I felt my hand taken by a seven-year-old boy, who walked with me all the way back to the village swinging my hand and chattering. I only caught little bits of what he was saying. I didn’t dare utter a word in case I frightened him with a foreign accent or my clumsy French.
“I remained absolutely silent, and eventually, he squeezed my hand and disappeared. I thought it was simply marvellous that a child in a dark lane would run up to a man because he’s dressed up as a priest. And it totally changed my attitude ….I’ve always looked back on it as a magic moment.”
Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own