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(O) Sullivan


In Irish O'Sullivan is O Súileabháin. The derivation of the name is in dispute among scholars. There is no doubt that the root word is súil (eye), but whether it is to be taken as one-eyed or hawk-eyed must be left an open question. While not quite as numerous as Murphy and Kelly, Sullivan, which is by far the commonest surname in Munster, comes third in the list for all Ireland. Almost eighty per cent of the Sullivans (or O'Sullivans) in Ireland today belong to the counties of Cork and Kerry, the remaining being mostly of Co. Limerick, or of the city of Dublin, in which, of course, families from all the four provinces are found. Despite this, historians believe that the sept originated around Cahir in County Tipperary and that they were displaced to what is regarded as its traditional homeland in south-west Munster, presumably under pressure from the Lords of Desmond.

It was not until after the Anglo-Norman invasion of the 1170's that the O'Sullivans came to the fore. Their origin, however, is illustrious: descended from Eoghan (Owen) Mór, the father of the famous Oilioll Olum, King of Munster, they were, with the O'Callaghans, the MacCarthys and the O'Keefes, one of the leading families of the Munster Eoghanacht. In Cork and Kerry they became very numerous and powerful, dividing into a number of branch septs of which O'Sullivan Mór and O'Sullivan Beare were the most important. The former had his principal castle at Dunkerron on the shore of Kenmare Bay; the latter was lord of the modern baronies of Beare and Bantry. Other branch septs include MacGillucuddy; O'Sullivan Cumurhagh or Mac Muirrihertigg; O'Sullivan of Glenbeigh; O'Sullivan of Caneah and Glanacrane; O Sullivan of Culemagort; O'Sullivan of Cappanacuss; O'Sullivan of Capiganine; O'Sullivan of Fermoyle and Ballycarna and O'Sullivan of Ballyvicillaneulan. The Mac Crehans of Iveragh are also given as descended from the O'Sullivans, as are the MacCraths.

Though seldom appearing in any of the Annals before 1400, they were prominent in the sixteenth century. Outstanding at that period was Donal O'Sullivan Beare. Following the disastrous battle of Kinsale, which changed the Gaelic order forever, Donal O Sullivan Beare managed to regain Dunboy Castle with a force of 143 men, including a few Spaniards. Carew, with 4,000 men, attacked from sea and from land and for 21 days Dunboy held out, until hardly a stone remained. Then, while O Sullivan Beare went to meet a Spanish ship, which had landed too late and on the wrong side of the peninsula, his constable, Richard MacGeoghegan, was killed and the castle was breached. Carew and his men killed every man, woman and child inside the castle. O Sullivan Beare decided to make his way north to Leitrim with his remaining people to seek refuge with his ally, O Rourke. At the end of December 1602, with 400 fighting men and 600 civilians, they began their 200 mile trek-two weeks of appalling cold, hardship and bitter tragedy. The Annals of the Four Masters said of O Sullivan, "He was not a day or night during this period without a battle, or being vehemently and vindictively pursued; all of which he sustained and responded to with manliness and vigour". Sadly, his main enemies were Irish chieftains anxious to win approval from their new masters. Day by day the party struggled on. At the wide River Shannon, they killed some of their horses and crossed with boats made from their skins strengthened with osiers. At Aughrim they were attacked by the Anglo-Irish. They fought back and killed both leaders, Sir Thomas Burke and Captain Malby. Eventually, they reached Brian O Rourke's castle at Leitrim. Of the original 1,000 who had started out, only 35 reached their destination.

Elizabeth I died the next year. Her nephew, James I, came to the throne and the Irish chieftains, full of hope, went to London. They got no welcome there from James and no restitution of their territories. There was nothing for them at home and so they were forced to go abroad. Donal O Sullivan Beare, whose wife and children had been guarded by the MacSweeneys, took flight with his family to Spain in 1604. Here, Philip 111 treated him kindly, created him Knight of St. James and Count of Berehaven, and gave him a monthly pension of 300 pieces of gold. He was killed, accidentally, in Madrid in 1618, aged 58. His son, Donal, had been killed at the siege of Belgrade. Dermot, his brother, and Dermot's wife - the only woman to survive the epic march from Dunboy - had also gone to Spain. Dermot, who lived to be 100 and had been Lord of Dursey Castle at the entrance to Bantry Bay, had a son who had been in Spain since childhood. Together with other Irish youths he had been sent there as a hostage (the kings of Spain gave no aid to Ireland without collateral).

Philip O Sullivan Beare (1590-1660) was destined for the Spanish navy and served faithfully, even if his mind was more occupied with the study of Latin, history and politics. Fortunately, he left a most useful contemporary account of the Elizabethan period in Ireland, which was published in Latin in Lisbon in 1621.

From then on, the story of the O Sullivans is diffuse, exemplified by characters pursuing diverse careers both at home and in the old and new worlds: soldiers, sailors, poets and writers predominate. In Brady and Cleeve's 1985 "A Biographical Dictionary of Irish Writers" there are no less than fifteen O Sullivans.

John O Sullivan (1700-46), born in Kerry, was sent to Paris and Rome to be educated for the priesthood but, changing his mind, he returned to Ireland. The penal laws presented him with the choice of forfeiting his estates or changing his religion. He chose the former and returned to France, where he joined the army and saw much service. When Prince Charles Stuart was planning his assault on Scotland in 1745, John O Sullivan was chosen as his adjutant and quartermaster-general. From then until Prince Charles' escape after Culloden, when he boarded a French frigate captained by another Irishman, Antoine Walsh, John O Sullivan was by the Prince's side. Despite the defeat at Culloden he was knighted for his services by James III, the Old Pretender.

Tadhgh Gaolach O Sullivan (1715-95) was a poet born in County Kerry. His work was mostly political or sentimentally religious and Dr Douglas Hyde, the Gaelic scholar, has described it as "very musical and mellifluous".

Owen Roe O Sullivan (1748-84) was also born in Kerry. He abandoned farm labouring to become a teacher. His weakness for women, and theirs for him, disrupted his life so much that he had to give up teaching. He joined the army, but eventually returned to school teaching. He wrote many poems and songs, some of which still linger on today. He has come to be regarded as a great lyric poet.

Two O Sullivan brothers were in France at the time of the Revolution. Charles O Sullivan, grandson of an Irish emigrant who had settled at Nantes, was a royalist. He had saved his brother, John, an ardent revolutionary, from the militant Vendeans. Later, John, a former fencing master, became a notorious terrorist. With the cruel pro-consul, Carrier, he organized the sinking of barges filled with priests and other citizens-a diabolical way of bypassing the guillotine or the expense of gunfire. John even betrayed his own royalist brother, Charles, who was guillotined. When the inevitable revulsion against the horror set in, John O Sullivan came before the Revolutionary Tribunal, which found him guilty of many atrocities and murders, but set him free "because he did not act with criminal revolutionary intention". He was, they averred, "merely a revolutionary with a perverted moral sense".

Morty Óg O Sullivan, a dispossessed O Sullivan of Berehaven, was a captain in the Irish Brigade in France. He served in Austria in Maria Theresa's army and was at the battle of Fontenoy in 1745. The following year he was another of the many Irishmen who supported Prince Charles Stuart at the battle of Culloden. After the defeat of the Scots, he went to sea to earn his living smuggling to and from France, from the conveniently indented Munster coast. He also smuggled "Wild Geese", young men escaping from the frustrations of English rule in Ireland who wanted to join the Irish Brigade in France. The export of Irish wool was also forbidden, but Morty Óg smuggled it to France to finance his adventures, until he was caught and shot dead. Many ballads have been written in remembrance of Morty Óg O Sullivan.

"If you can't beat them, join them", has long been the motivation of the many Irish who travelled no further across the sea than to England. Many went on from there to take part in the expansion of the British Empire. One of these pragmatic Irishmen was Sir Richard Sullivan (1752-1806), born in Dublin, the son of Benjamin Sullivan of County Clare. These Sullivans made a life for themselves in India. Benjamin Sullivan was a Supreme Court judge in Madras. Another member of the family, Lawrence, was chairman of the East India Company. The climate did not agree with Richard, who returned to England where he began writing political history, including a history of Ireland. One of his three sons, Charles Sullivan, was Admiral of the Fleet.

Another Sullivan, Rear-Admiral Ball Sullivan (1780-1857), had fourteen children; four of his sons were in the British navy. In the First World War, Vice-Admiral Norton Allen Sullivan took part in the battle of Jutland in 1916. John O Sullivan of Bantry won the Victoria Cross in that same war.

An impressive number of O Sullivans were literary. Their diaries, political treatises, poems, plays and songs are testimony to the endurance and versatility of this great clan. In the eighteenth century, Bantry in County Cork was a seedbed of brilliant, if impoverished, O Sullivans. Alexander Martin O Sullivan (1830-84) worked as a government clerk while still a teenager, during the terrible famine of 1845 to 1849. Moved by this experience, he joined William Smith O Brien's Young Ireland movement. Afterwards, he worked as a reporter on the Liverpool Daily Post, and when he returned to Ireland he got a job as assistant editor of the Nation. Inevitably there was conflict between those who sought an Irish republic by peaceful means and those who wanted instant and violent action.

A.M. O Sullivan joined the Home Rule movement and was elected to Parliament and, as editor of the Nation, he began an unpopular temperance campaign. His legal studies led to his being called both to the Irish and English Bar. He handed over the Nation to his brother, Timothy Daniel O Sullivan, but over-exertion had damaged A.M.'s health and he did not live for much longer.

Timothy Daniel Sullivan (1827-1914) was a politician, journalist and poet. He wrote many popular nationalist songs, including "God Save Ireland", and "Ireland, Boys, Hurrah", which was sung by both sides during the American Civil War.

Alexander Martin Sullivan's second son, also Alexander Sullivan (1871-1959), was a distinguished barrister. He was the last to hold the title of King's Serjeant in Ireland. Because he was a constitutional nationalist, opposed to physical force, his life was threatened, as was his father's before him, by the men of violence who also burned his County Cork home. He was practising successfully at the English Bar until 1949, when the Costello coalition government repealed the External Relations Act. Feeling himself to be an alien in England, he retired from the English Bar.

Perhaps because of their rich Kerry literary background, many of the O Sullivans have been dedicated folklorists. Muiris O Suileabhain (1904-50) was born on the Great Blasket Islands off the Kerry coast. He joined the Garda Siochana (the Irish police force) and, while stationed in Connemara, he wrote Fiche Bliain ag Fas (Twenty Years A-Growing), an account of his childhood on the Blaskets, which became an international classic.

Sean O Sullivan (1906-64) studied art in Dublin and London and, at the age of 21, was the youngest artist ever to be elected to the Royal Hibernian Academy. He had a genius for portraiture and painted leading politicians, painters and writers.

In England the Sullivans mostly dropped the O prefix. Joseph Sullivan left Ireland to become a bandmaster at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. He was the father of the great Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900), whose music, coupled with W. S. Gilbert's witty lyrics, was to fill theatres, with amusing light operas such as "The Pirates of Penzance", "The Mikado" and "The Gondoliers". Arthur Sullivan was also a composer of hymns: particularly well-known are his "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "The Lost Chord".

Barry Sullivan's (1821-88) father left Ireland to join the British army and was invalided out after the battle of Waterloo. Barry soon abandoned his law studies to tour Ireland with a theatre company. He made his first important appearance in London, playing Hamlet. From then on he toured Europe and America as Hamlet. In Australia, his acting in Shakespearean drama was so popular that he remained there for three years. For twenty years he was confined to two principal roles, Hamlet and Richard IV. He said he appeared 3,500 times in each part.

In the United States of America, notable Sullivans appear with great regularity. General John O Sullivan (1744-1808) opened hostilities in the American Revolution by capturing a fort and taking a cannon. He was a personal friend of George Washington and, at the siege of Boston, he watched the English sail away. He and his brother James were lawyers by profession and helped in the establishment of the new nation. James was twice elected Governor of Massachusetts. There were, in fact, four Sullivan boys, all sons of Owen Sullivan, who had emigrated from Limerick in 1723 and had founded an exclusive school in New England.

Louis Henri Sullivan (1856-1924) always referred to himself as "of mongrel origin". His father was a musician who, in the course of his European wanderings, married a French-German wife. In Chicago, where they lived during his youth, Louis Henri had the benefit of grandparents of three nationalities. He became one of America's visionary architects, pursuing his "form follows function" theory. He designed many of Chicago's important public buildings, including the Auditorium.

Building sites and boxing gloves were outlets for the poor who had the physical strength but lacked education. Irish immigrants were highly rated in the boxing ring, particularly John L. Sullivan (1858-1 91 8), who was born in Boston of parents who had come from Tralee, County Kerry. His father was a small man, but his mother weighed 180 pounds and it was undoubtedly from her that John L. inherited his prodigious physique, which led him to become one of the most famous boxers in the history of the sport. He began to live recklessly and was reduced to making vaudeville appearances. His second wife reformed him and he ended his career as a temperance lecturer.

James Edward Sullivan (1860-1914), whose parents were from Kerry, was self-educated. He became a successful publisher in the United States and started the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States and New York's Public School Athletic league. He also opened the first public playground. He was American director of the Olympic Games and represented President Theodore Roosevelt and President Taft at the Olympic Games of 1908 and 1912.

Timothy Daniel Sullivan (1862-1913), son of emigrants to New York, progressed from Tammany Hall politics and saloon-keeping to leadership of the Democratic Party in the Bowery. His commercial enterprises, which embraced theatres and gambling, made him a millionaire. He turned down leadership of Tammany Hall in favour of his good friend, the incorruptible Charles W. Murphy. He donated generously to charity and was elected to Congress. When his wife Helen Fitzgerald died, he lost interest in life and died soon afterwards.

Irish construction workers contributed to the dangerous job of erecting the Statue of Liberty, while the dedication speech for its opening ceremony in 1886 was delivered by John L. O Sullivan, the Irish-American statesman and editor who coined the phrase "Manifest Destiny".

Anne Sullivan (1866-1936) taught Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind from the age of nineteen months, to talk by lip-feeling. She was so successful that Helen Keller graduated from Radcliffe College, became a writer and linguist and worked for the physically handicapped.

It was Pat Sullivan, an Australian cartoonist, who created "Felix the Cat" for the New York Herald in 1919, while Ed Sullivan (1902-74) brought the Sullivan name into millions of American homes with his weekly variety show which ran from 1948 to 1971.

Irish-Canadians feature among the Sullivans of North America. William Henry Sullivan (1864-1929) started as a lumberman and ended up as a civic leader. Born of Irish parents at Port Dalhousie, Ontario, he moved to Louisiana where he founded the town of Bogalusa and became its mayor.

O Sullivans visiting the lakes of Killarney in County Kerry will find their name commemorated in the names of places such as, for instance, a stretch of water known as O Sullivan's Punch Bowl. At Muckross Abbey there are tombs of many distinguished O Sullivans of past centuries.


O'Sullivan Mór: Arms: Per fess, the base per pale, in chief Or a dexter hand couped at the wrist Gules grasping a sword erect blade entwined with a serpent proper between two lions rampant respecting each other of the second, on a dexter base Vert a stag trippant Or, on the sinister base per pale Argent and Sable a boar passant counterchanged. Crest: On a ducal coronet Or a robin redbreast holding in the beak a sprig of Motto: Lamh foisteanach abú