O'Sullivan Surname Meaning, History & Origin

O’Sullivan Surname 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.

O’Sullivan Surname Resources on The Internet

O’Sullivan and Sullivan Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Kerry and Cork)
  • to France, England, India, America, Canada and Australia

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.

Early History. The early O’Sullivan history was characterized by ongoing feuds with their neighbors the MacCarthys. But they generally prospered – at least until the 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 result was defeat. The O’Sullivan Beare fortress of Dunboy castle was then lost. Donal led the retreat of his troops but he himself died in 1618.

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

Later History.  After the Kinsale debacle, there were later assaults on O’Sullivan lands by Cromwell’s troops and confiscations during the penal years.  Morty Oge O’Sullivan Beare, having fled abroad, did return but was 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 and O’Sullivans outside Ireland than within.  Almost eighty percent of the O’Sullivans within Ireland today are to be found in two counties, Cork and Kerry.

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.

Father John Sullivan from Kerry was educated at the University of Louvain in the 1650’s.  Later he was the President of its Irish Pastoral College and in 1699 set up a bursary there for his relations “of the second degree.”

England.  Almost half of the Sullivans in England in the 1881 census were to be found in London. These numbers included:

  • Arthur Sullivan, the collaborator in the Gilbert and Sullivan operas.  He was the son of Thomas Sullivan, a musical bandleader from Cork.
  • and E.J. Sullivan the illustrator, the son of Irish-born art teacher Michael Sullivan.   

Many Sullivans came to the East End of London in the 1850’s after the potato famine.  One family history began with Mortimer Sullivan from Cork coming to London around the year 1852.  A later Londoner, John Sullivan, devised the hugely popular TV program Only Fools and Horses in the 1980’s.

Ronnie O’Sullivan, the snooker champion known as “the Rocket,” has Scots-Irish heritage, although he grew up in Essex.  He has a colorful past.  His father Ronnie mixed in London’s underworld and ran a string of sex shops in Soho before being jailed for a brutal murder in 1992.

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.  Among them was Benjamin Sullivan who was a judge in Madras and was knighted in 1801.

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 the 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 have been some of the meanest folks around.

19th Century Arrivals.  The Sullivan arrivals at that time were mainly focused on the big cities on the East Coast like Boston and New York.

John and Denis Sullivan left Cork for America in 1803 and, for some reason, adopted the Scully surname.  The two brothers settled in Pennsylvania, John farming in Allegheny county and Denis involving himself in iron and glassworks in Pittsburgh.  John’s great grandson Cornelius was the mayor of Pittsburgh from 1938 to 1946.

John L. Sullivan, born in 1858, was the son of Irish immigrant parents Michael and Catherine Sullivan from Kerry.  He grew up in Boston and was nicknamed the “Boston Strong Boy.” He was from 1882 to 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 circuit.”

Daniel and Julia Sullivan arrived in New York from Kerry in the 1850’s.  Their son James, born in 1862, rose to eminence in the organizing of athletics in the United States.  The Amateur Athletic Union, which he founded, would award the prestigious James E. Sullivan award each year.

Florence and Margaret Sullivan came to New York from Cork around the same time.  Their son Peter was born there in 1865, their grandson Edward, who was to achieve fame as the TV host of the Ed Sullivan Show, in 1901.

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 James 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 at 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.

Australia.  Benjamin Sullivan, the illegitimate son of an Irish-born judge in Madras, served in the British army and on retirement moved with his family to NSW in 1828.  His son John did not do well there.  He struggled as a farmer and as a wine merchant.  Then he rushed to the Victorian goldfields in 1852 in the hopes of success there.  But no success and he died four years later.

O’Sullivan and Sullivan Surname 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%.

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

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 O’Sullivan.
  • 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.

There were times when the O’Sullivans had to pay tribute to the feudal authority of the McCarthy Mor.  This could mean:

  • that McCarthy would be entitled to receive a payment for every ship that came to fish or trade in O’Sullivan’s harbors
  • and that O’Sullivan Beare was bound to entertain McCarthy and his train for a minimum of two nights a year at their Dunboy 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 primary residence of the O’Sullivan Beare. Its position enabled the clan to control the sea fisheries off the Irish coast and to collect sizeable taxes from Irish and Continental fishing vessels sheltering in the haven.

In 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 gunpowder.

In the 1700’s the English Government granted the O’Sullivan lands at Dunboy to the Puxley family.  The O’Sullivans were 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 Puxley mansion when his wife died in childbirth.  He was so distraught by her 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 wild mountain scenery of his native home.

At 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 Irish Brigade.”

Around 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.

He 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 Ballylongford 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 grounds.

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 Brown despite their 20 year difference in age. They made their home in the Pine Hill area of Berwick, Maine.

John did not involve himself in the physical labor of running his farm, but instead 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 Governors.  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.”

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

  • Benjamin (1736-1767) who served in colonial navy, but was lost at sea.
  • Daniel (1738-1782) 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) who 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, a 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 Choctaw territory.  According to family lore, Pappy Tom and his sons built their house by cutting pine logs in the daytime 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.

For 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:

“He 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 called him wild, and his enemies called him everything their imaginative ire could think of.  He drank heavily and brawled weeknights as well as on Saturdays, fouling the air with curses and drunken shouts.”

It 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.

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

Thomas Sullivan in Tasmania and Victoria.  Thomas Sullivan from Kerry had joined the British army in 1805 and fought in the various wars against Napoleon.  In 1823 his regiment was sent all the way to Tasmania.  And Thomas. who by then had married Maria Coghill and had three children in tow, set sail there.  They were to remain in Tasmania until 1829.

At that time the regiment returned to Ireland and Thomas was discharged.  However, Australia must have left a very positive impression on him.  In 1848 he and his family left Ireland and returned to Tasmania as free settlers, later settling in Victoria. His son Thomas, who worked as a saddler, married in Victoria.

O’Sullivan and 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 in the 1880’s the first recognized world heavyweight boxing champion.
  • Arthur Sullivan was the composer of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.
  • Maureen O’Sullivan was a leading Hollywood actress of the 1930’s and 1940’s (her daughter Mia Farrow is also a well-known actress).
  • Ed Sullivan was the American host of the TV Ed Sullivan Show from 1948 to 1971.
  • Ronnie O’Sullivan, known as “the Rocket,” has been considered the best snooker player in England in recent times.

O’Sullivan and 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.

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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Written by Colin Shelley

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