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Irish Surname - Sullivan / O'Sullivan

The original Irish for the surname Sullivan is O'Suileabhain, but the actual derivation of the name is often disputed. There is no doubt that the root word is 'suil' meaning eye, but whether it is to be taken as 'one-eyed' or 'hawk-eyed' is usually left an open question.

Together the names Sullivan and O'Sullivan rank as the third most frequently found in Ireland. Almost eighty per cent of the (O')Sullivans in Ireland to-day are in counties Cork and Kerry, the remaining being mostly of County Limerick. It prevails a lot in the city of Dublin, where, of course, families from all the four provinces are found. In 1990 the Irish telephone directory had approximately 32,800 subscribers of this surname.

It was not until after the Anglo-Norman invasion that the O'Sullivans came to the fore. In Irish mythology, they are part of the Eoghanacht tribal grouping, descended, along with such prominent families as the MacCarthys, O'Keefes and O'Callaghans, from the mythical Eoghan, supposedly one of the original Gaelic invaders. Some of them were lords of a territory near Cahir (Tipperary) prior to the invasion and from 1200 onwards, they are to be found in the extreme south-west of Munster, where they became very numerous and powerful. They split into two major branches, the O'Sullivan Mor, based on the shores of Kenmare Bay in County Kerry, and the O'Sullivan Beare, around Bantry and the Beara peninsula in County Cork.

In 1602 the O'Sullivans were among the Gaelic families who joined with Hugh O'Neill in his rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I. Following the defeat of the Irish forces at Kinsale, the O'Sullivans first withstood a siege at Dunboy Castle, and then, led by Donal O'Sullivan Beare (1560-1618), the family and their followers began an incredibly hazardous march of 200 miles on foot to the safety of the northern territories of their allies. The majority perished on the journey. Donal's nephew, Philip O'Sullivan Beare (1590-1660), was a soldier in the Spanish army, but is better known as a historian: his Historiae Catholicae Iberniae Compendium details the events of the Elizabethan wars as told to him by his uncle and other participants.

In Griffiths Valuation c1850s, there were 8,000 O'Sullivan or Sullivan households recorded, with 75% of those being in Cork and Kerry.

Famous People

Of the many Sullivan families who rose to prominence in American history, the most remarkable must be the family of John Sullivan who himself was born in Limerick in 1696. He was a teacher in New England for 60 years and a major local influence for independence. He was the father of a governor of Massachusetts, of the first judge appointed in New Hampshire, of a major general in the Revolutionary Army, and of four other sons who were officers in that army. His grandsons included a governor of Maine, a New Hampshire United States senator, and an attorney general of New Hampshire.

Owen Roe O'Sullivan (1748-1784), was one of the most popular poets and songwriters of his time. A wandering laborer and schoolteacher, he was forced to leave Ireland due to his misconduct with a married woman and in his hurried departure he was pressed into the British Navy. Despite his attempts to escape the navy, he was commended for his bravery in several sea-battles against the French. Returning to Ireland, and to his wild ways, he was killed in a scuffle with the servants of a Captain Cronin whom he had lampooned in his poetry.

James Edward Sullivan (1860-1914), born in New York, was one of the founders of the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States. Sullivan himself governed the sport and his decision was final in all matters, but such was the respect for his integrity and sincerity that there was no real opposition to his dominance. He was also director of the American Olympic Teams from 1906 to 1912. When the American team returned from the 1906 Olympics, the banners read 'Welcome home JE Sullivan and the American Team'.

The writer Maurice O'Sullivan (1904-1950) is best remembered for 'Twenty Years A Growing', a description of growing up on the Blasket Islands off the coast of County Kerry.

Irish actress Maureen O'Sullivan (1911 - 1998), was born in County Roscommon and was considered Ireland's first international film star. She enjoyed a remarkable acting career in the Golden Age of Hollywood. She signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1932 and starred as Jane Parker in 'Tarzan the Ape Man' opposite co-star Johnny Weissmuller, with whom she had a brief affair during the early 1930s. She was one of the leading actresses at MGM throughout the 1930s and early 1940s. In later life she continued to star in films and once co-starred with her famous daughter, Hollywood actress Mia Farrow.

Ed Sullivan (1901 - 1974) was an American television host and entertainment writer, best known as the presenter of the famous TV variety show 'The Ed Sullivan Show'. The show broadcast from 1948 to 1971 which made it one of the longest-running variety shows in US broadcast history.

Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan (1842 - 1900) was an English composer, of Irish and Italian descent, best known as the music-writer of the famous Gilbert and Sullivan partnership. Amongst their more popular works were HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado.

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