McGuckin (McGucken), James (d. 1817), attorney, politician, and informer, of South Parade, Belfast, was a native probably of Antrim or Down. According to Bernard McAuley (1771–1863), a catholic priest who knew him well, his father was a catholic but he and his sisters belonged to the established protestant church. Whatever the case, McGuckin passed for a catholic and, after being admitted an attorney (1794), worked from an office in Fountain Lane, Belfast, where he was known as a defender of catholic interests. By the early 1800s and until his death he appeared in Wilson's Dublin Directory with different addresses on the north side of Dublin.
McGuckin was from 1796 a sworn United Irishman and, by his own account, between the spring of 1797 and June 1798 ‘chief agent or solicitor for the United Irishmen of the north, being generally consulted upon every matter of law relative to the prisoners, as well in the north as in Dublin’ (Dickson, 240). He acted for Joseph Cuthbert and John Boyce, who were accused and acquitted (1797) of the attempted murder of John Lee at Drumbridge (19 August 1796), and – fatefully – for William Orr (qv). On foot of information reaching the government from Samuel Turner (qv), he was arrested in Liverpool (June 1798) on his way from Kent, where he had attended the trial of Arthur O'Connor (qv), James Coigly (qv), and John Allen (qv). Held in Newgate prison, Dublin, for two months, he was persuaded to turn informer, which he did through John Pollock (qv), bringing about the arrest of Thomas Wright (qv), who in turn gave information.
After the 1798 rebellion, McGuckin's position among the United Irishmen was unquestioned, which enabled him to obtain and pass on more useful information to the administration. He reported the return to Ireland from France of the banished Thomas Russell (qv) in May 1803 and some months later (July) Russell's appointment as United Irish commander in Ulster. McGuckin was still informing on the disaffected in Ulster in 1806. Over the years he received payments as an informer, the earliest known (5 March 1799) being for £60; he was also paid an annual state pension of £150 from December 1800 until his death. By 1810 he was the most prominent Ulster catholic politician next to Bernard Coile (qv). In 1814 he was informing Dublin Castle of the activities of the Catholic Board, and as late as February 1816 he was still giving information on catholic politics. McAuley told Madden that McGuckin claimed to have forsaken the United Irishmen after seeing Coigly ‘sacrificed’ by O'Connor, whose evidence told against Coigly and brought about his execution. Fear of being put on trial for treason must also have been a factor in his activities.
James McGuckin was well regarded in Belfast by catholic and presbyterian alike, being, with Charles Hamilton Teeling (qv) and William Drennan (qv), a member of the committee of the Cotton Court Sunday school. In 1806 and as late as June 1816 he was acting on property matters for Drennan and his sister Martha McTier (qv), neither of whom, however, found him altogether satisfactory. McGuckin was a member of the Belfast Harp Society founded in 1809. According to Madden, he ‘died at the end of the summer of 1817'. His activities as an informer were revealed posthumously. With his wife, Euphemia (née Hughes), he had an only son, William (b. 1801?), who also became an attorney.