O'Sullivan Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select O’Sullivan Meaning
The Gaelic root of O’Sullivan is Suileabhan – with suil meaning “eye,” dubh possibly “black” or “dark,” and the diminutive –an acting as a suffix. Some think Suileabhan means one-eyed, others hawk-eyed.
Suileabhan was a person, born in 862 and a descendant of Finghin the King of Munster in the 7th century. He has been seen as the first of the O’Sullivan line. Many consider that the O’Sullivan clan represents the most senior bloodline of the Gaelic families.
O’Sullivan and Sullivan are the two main spellings today. The “O” in O’Sullivan has been retained or restored in Ireland generally, but has dropped off elsewhere.
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Select O’Sullivan Ancestry

Ireland. The original home of the O’Sullivans was Tipperary. They were driven westward
from these lands by the Anglo-Normans in the 1190’s and divided into two main septs:

  • the
    O’Sullivan Mor (the larger or the
    greater) in the Iveagh peninsula in south Kerry
  • and
    the O’Sullivan Beare (from the Beara
    peninsula) on Bantry Bay in west Cork.

The early
O’Sullivan history
was characterized by ongoing feuds with
their neighbors the MacCarthys. But they
generally prospered – at least until
1590’s when they came up against the English. In a final
confrontation in
1601 Donal O’Sullivan Beare had taken command of the Irish Munster
forces and,
with their Spanish allies, they faced the English at Kinsale. The
was defeat. The O’Sullivan Beare fortress of Dunboy castle
then lost. Donal led the retreat of his
troops but he himself
died in 1618.

After the Kinsale
debacle, there were later assaults on O’Sullivan lands by Cromwell’s
troops and
confiscations during the penal years.
Oge O’Sullivan Beare
, having fled abroad, did return but
outlawed. In 1756 he was captured and
executed by British forces and his body towed headless to Cork. Many O’Sullivans at this time or later left
Ireland. There are now more than three times as many Sullivans
O’Sullivans outside Ireland than within.

The clan history was first recounted in the Book of
, but that book disappeared in the early
1800’s. Gary Sullivan’s 2007 book History
of the O’Sullivan Clan
is a modern account.

France. Colonel Dermot O’Sullivan Mor was one of the
“Wild Geese” who fought in Irish brigades for France in the 1640’s. The O’Sullivan McCragh branch in Kerry
departed Ireland and acquired Dunderry castle in the Loire valley. These O’Sullivans became the O’Sullivan
chiefs when the last of the O’Sullivan Mors died in 1762.
They remain at Dunderry today.

Charles O’Sullivan of Nantes was the grandson
of an Irish emigrant who was sent to the guillotine in the 1780’s for being a
Royalist. His brother John, a fencing
master, was tried for the same offence but acquitted.

England.  Almost half of the Sullivans in England in the 1881
census were to be found in London. Their
numbers included Arthur Sullivan, the collaborator in the Gilbert and Sullivan operas and E.J. Sullivan the illustrator.
Many Sullivans came to the East End of London in the 1850’s
after the potato famine. A later Londoner, John
Sullivan, devised the hugely popular TV program Only Fools
and Horses
in the 1980’s.

India.   Laurence Sulivan (not Sullivan) was born in Cork, it
is believed, and arrived in India sometime around 1740.
After marrying the daughter of a rich
merchant, he used this connection to rise through the ranks of the East India Company. He was described as being
“unburdened by scruples, remorseless, and vindictive.”
In London he directed the company’s affairs during its heyday. Probably through his patronage Sullivan
kinsmen from
Cork became important figures in British rule in India in the late
18th and
early 19th centuries

America.  John O’Sullivan of the
O’Sullivan Beares was an early arrival in America, coming to Virginia in 1655
as a planter. His father had fled
Ireland with his family after the failure of the 1641 Rebellion. Later generations of these Sullivans migrated
to South Carolina and Alabama.

Owen O’Sullivan left his home in Limerick in 1723 and
settled as a schoolmaster with his wife Margery in the frontier town of Berwick, Maine. Known as Master John Sullivan, he lived to be 104 years old. The Sullivan family of Berwick had some distinguished offspring.:

  • one of his sons John was a General in Washington’s army in
    Revolutionary War
  • another son James became Governor of Massachusetts
    in 1807.

  • and a great grandson of James Sullivan was the
    Boston writer Thomas Russell Sullivan

The earliest
records for Judge Jeremiah Sullivan were in the 1780’s in Augusta
county, Virginia. He was in 1818 an early
settler in Indiana
and his home in Madison, which still stands, is reckoned to have been the first brick
mansion built in the state. He had three
illustrious sons:

  • Algernon Sullivan who
    co-founded the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell in New York;
  • and Jeremiah and Thomas Sullivan, both Union
    generals during the Civil War.

Tom Sullivan migrated from South Carolina to Mississippi
in the early 1800’s and was the forebear of the Sullivans of Sullivan’s Hollow, said to be some of the meanest folks around.

The Sullivan arrivals in the 19th century were mainly focused on the big cities on
the East Coast like Boston. John L.
Sullivan, the son of Irish immigrant parents, grew up in Boston and was nicknamed the “Boston Strong Boy.” He
between 1882 and 1892 the
first world heavyweight boxing champion, having
previously been the king of bare-knuckle boxing

“An interesting point about John L. Sullivan is that he
was a heavy
drinker until he met and married his second wife who helped reform him. He ended up as a speaker on the temperance

James Sullivan from Cork had
an unusual route to America. Convicted
by the British authorities of theft in 1838, he was transported to
Australia. Then, having served out his
sentence in 1849, he and his wife Bridget and their family embarked on
a ship
for San Francisco. Sadly, the Irish were
being victimized by vigilante groups in San Francisco at that time and
Sullivan was found murdered in a police cell in 1856.

Canada. Denis and Mary
Sullivan came to Canada from Kerry in 1849 at the time of the potato famine,
suffering many hardships in their voyage to Quebec.
They made their home first at Pakenham in
Lanark county before their six sons set out for Brudenell in the
wilderness. Also
in 1849 and also from Kerry came Jeremiah Sullivan and his family who settled with
other Kerry arrivals in Kingsbridge in Huron county.
Three of their sons – Tom, Henry and Jerry –
headed west around 1900 to set up a timber and logging operation in Surrey,
British Columbia at what came to be known as the Sullivan station.

Edward Sullivan was an Anglican bishop from county
Armagh who took up positions in Canada in the 1850’s and 1860’s. His son Alan Sullivan made his mark in Canada
as a poet and writer of short stories in the 1920’s.


O’Sullivan Miscellany

Sullivan and O’Sullivan.  In Ireland the “O” prefix for O’Sullivan fell into disuse with the strengthening of English rule from the 17th century.  By 1866 only 4% used it.

The 20th century saw the trend reversed,
although the prefix has not been equally restored in all locations.  O’Sullivans were 96% in the Cork area, while
in nearby Bantry they are 80% and in the Dublin area about 83%.  The average for all of Ireland is in the order
of 89%.

Ireland, however, Sullivan
remains the main spelling.  The following
is an estimate of the numbers

Numbers (000’s) O’Sullivan Sullivan Total
Ireland   40    6   46
UK    2   33   35
America    3   57   60
Elsewhere (1)    1   17   18
Total   46  113  159

(1) Canada, Australia, and
New Zealand.

Early O’Sullivan History.  The time-line below shows some O’Sullivan accounts from the Irish annals.  The conflicts with their neighboring McCarthys were a recurring feature:

  • 1188. Normans forced Sullivans from Knockgraffan to Cork and Kerry.
  • 1190. Sullivan boys killed by McCarthy.
  • 1193. Sullivan united with McCarthy against Normans.
  • 1193. Sullivans rebelled against McCarthy
  • 1193. The Bantry monastery in O’Sullivan’s country founded by O’Sullivan from Franciscan friars.
  • 1193. McCarthy killed O’Sullivan the Bold and two sons of
  • 1193. War between McCarthy and Sullivan.  Sullivan drowned.
  • 1193. Donal O’Sullivan Beare died.
  • 1549. Dermot O’Sullivan, a kind and friendly man to his friends, was burned by gunpowder in his own castle.

Dunboy Castle and the O’Sullivan Curse.  Dunboy castle was built on the Beara peninsula in
county Cork in the 15th century and shortly afterwards became the
residence of the O’Sullivan Beare. Its position enabled the
clan to control the sea fisheries off the Irish coast and to collect
taxes from Irish and Continental fishing vessels sheltering in the

1549 the chief of the clan accidentally blew himself up with gunpowder
there.  True to humorous form, the Irish
memorialized him with the nickname Diarmuid
a Phudair,
or “Dermot of the Powder.”

After the O’Sullivan defeat at
Kinsale in 1601, the English laid siege to Dunboy castle.
It fell after a bloody battle.  The 58 survivors of the
two-week siege were executed in the nearby market square. The
English then destroyed all of the remaining standing walls of the
castle with

In the 1700’s the English Government granted the
O’Sullivan lands at Dunboy to the Puxley family.  The O’Sullivans
outraged and foretold misery and bad luck to the interlopers. The
legend of the
O’Sullivan curse was born.

The Puxley family
brought copper mining to the area and became quite wealthy as a
result. The manor grew along with every Puxley generation until
the copper
dried up and tragedy stuck the Puxley family.
Henry Puxley was orchestrating a new addition to the
mansion when his wife died in childbirth.  He was so distraught by
death that he packed his bags and left Ireland forever. The house was
unfinished and left in the hands of caretakers.
Then in 1921 the IRA, convinced that the
house was meant to house English troops, torched Puxley Manor.

The Dunboy estate
remained abandoned for years.  In the
early 2000’s an investment group started building a new luxury hotel on
the site
of the ruined estate.  However, in 2008
the worldwide financial crash put the project in a tailspin and it was
abandoned.  The O’Sullivan curse had
struck again!

Morty Oge O’Sullivan Beare.  In the Beara area along the shores of Bantry Bay,
it was said that a thousand traditions hanged on the name of Morty Oge.  He was the last of the chiefs of the princely
line of the O’Sullivan Beares and was reputedly as picturesque as the
mountain scenery of his native home.

the time of his birth his family had been broken in fortune.  So he went abroad, as did many of the “Wild
Geese” at that time.  He fought for the
Spanish in the Austrian War of Succession. An official recorded him in
1738 as
“Muirtead Oge O’ Sullivan of Eyeries in this country” and he was
presented with
a richly mounted sword for his bravery during the fighting.  He was a dark, handsome man with a fine
figure and, according to the local tradition, “the finest man in the

1750 he returned to his native Ireland and, with his boat and
the support of a body of some trusted men, engaged in smuggling.  Each of his trips to the French coast meant
scores of new recruits for the Irish “Wild Geese” and a return cargo of
smuggled goods. Morty Oge’s activities attracted the attention of a revenue
agent named John Puxley.  At one point
they met and John Puxley was shot and killed.
After that Morty Oge was a marked man.

escaped to France.  Although outlawed he
still managed to make
frequent visits home to his family.
However, on this final visit in 1754, he was betrayed and
captured by
the English.  He was executed and his body towed headless to Cork.  The
Lament for O’Sullivan Beare
commemorates him.

Father Daniel Sullivan of Ballylongford.  Father Daniel Sullivan was the parish priest of Ballylongford in county Kerry from 1823 until his death in June 1832 at the
time of a cholera epidemic.

Before his death he had
expressed a wish of being buried inside the church.  Suspecting,
correctly, that
the cholera epidemic would cause a problem with this, a group of
people secretly buried him at night, at two o’clock in the morning,
inside the
church.   The next day a Catholic
magistrate ordered his body disinterred and then buried in the church

This created
much controversy.  The body was indeed
exhumed and re-buried amidst
the execrations and yells of hundreds, who certainly, had it not been
for the
presence of the police, never would have allowed the remains of their
priest to
have been treated with such indignity.” 

The Sullivan Family of Berwick, Maine.  Owen O’Sullivan and Margery Brown both arrived in
York, Maine in 1723 on the same ship from Limerick. Owen
was 33 years old at the time and Margery
a nine year old orphan.  Twelve years
later Owen O’Sullivan was Master John Sullivan and he married Margery
despite their 20 year difference in age.
They made their home in the Pine Hill area of Berwick, Maine.

not involve himself in the physical labor of running his farm, but
spent his time studying and reading.   While Master Sullivan
poured over
his books, she managed the farm, the household and the six children.
These children inherited the intelligence of their father and the
grit of
their mother.   Four were Revolutionary War heroes and two were
She used to say: “I have dropped corn many a day with two
governors, a
judge in my arms and a general on my back.”

children John and Margery Sullivan raised in Berwick, Maine were as

  • Benjamin
    (1736-1767) who served in colonial navy, but was lost at sea.
  • Daniel
    who fought in the Revolutionary War, but was captured by British
    soldiers and
    later died in a prison ship in New York harbor.
  • John (1740-1795)
    distinguished himself as General Sullivan during the Revolutionary War.
  • James (1744-1808) who was Judge
    James Sullivan and Governor of Massachusetts in 1807.
  • Mary
    (1752-1827) who was their only daughter and was, like her father,
    well-known schoolteacher.
  • and
    Eben (born in 1753) who fought in the
    Revolutionary War, was captured, but eventually released.

Sullivan’s Hollow.  When Tom Sullivan first settled there in the early 1800’s
from South Carolina, this part of southern Mississippi was still
territory.  According to family lore,
Pappy Tom and his sons built their house by cutting pine logs in the
and assembling them after dark, using large bonfires for light.  After clearing the land, the Sullivans farmed
it.  By 1830 they were well established
in what became known in Smith county as Sullivan’s Hollow.

the next century
Sullivan’s Hollow developed a famous, some would say notorious,
reputation for
being “the meanest, roughest, toughest place around.”
The meanest of the Sullivans there was
probably “Wild Bill” Sullivan in the early 1900’s:

killed numerous individuals,
some say as many as fifty, although seldom could anyone name a victim.  Others said he was the meanest son-of-a-gun
that ever walked the face of the earth and that he took his
grandfather’s place
as the tyrant of the valley. His mother called him lead-proof, the clan
him wild, and his enemies called him everything their imaginative ire
think of.  He drank heavily and brawled
weeknights as well as on Saturdays, fouling the air with curses and

was generally agreed that few blacks were welcome in the
Hollow.  Once Wild Bill Sullivan caught a
black man, he would tie a bundle of bobwire to his back and make him
get down
on all fours and crawl a mile, before telling him to leave the Hollow.

been both a book written (by Chester Sullivan) and a documentary film
about Sullivan’s Hollow.


O’Sullivan Names


  • Donal O’Sullivan was the last independent chief of the O’Sullivan Beare sept.
  • Owen Roe O’Sullivan who wrote in the 18th century is considered the last of the great Gaelic poets.
  • Alexander Sullivan was the editor and proprietor of The Nation, a proponent of Irish nationalism in the 19th century.
  • Louis Sullivan, an architect working in Chicago in the 1880’s, is considered the father of the modern skyscraper.
  • John L. Sullivan was the first recognized heavyweight boxing champion.
  • Arthur Sullivan was the composer of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.
  • Ed Sullivan was the American host of the TV Ed Sullivan Show.
  • Ronnie O’Sullivan, the “Rocket,” has been considered the best snooker player in England in recent times.

Select Sullivan/O’Sullivan Numbers Today

  • 35,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in Kent)
  • 72,000 in America (most numerous in Massachusetts)
  • 64,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

O’Sullivan is the #3 ranked surname in Ireland.


Select O’Sullivan and Like Surnames 

The Irish clan or sept names come through the mists of time until they were found in Irish records such as The Annals of the Four Masters.  The names were Gaelic and this Gaelic order was preserved until it was battered down by the English in the 1600’s.

Some made peace with the English.  “Wild geese” fled to fight abroad.  But most stayed and suffered, losing land and even the use of their language.  Irish names became anglicized, although sometimes in a mishmash of spellings.  Mass emigration happened after the potato famine of the 1840’s.

Some surnames – such as Kelly, Murphy and O’Connor – span all parts of Ireland.  But most will have a territorial focus in one of the four Irish provinces – Leinster, Munster, Ulster, and Connacht.

Munster in SW Ireland covers the counties of Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford.  Here are some of the Munster surnames that you can check out.




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