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Ó Súilleabháin
Armorial of O'Sullivan
Country Kingdom of Munster
Parent house Eóganachta
Founder Suilebhan mac Maolura
Final ruler Donal Cam O'Sullivan Beare
Cadet branches O'Sullivan Mór
O'Sullivan Beare
O’Sullivan MacCragh

O'Sullivan (Irish: Ó Súilleabháin), also known as simply Sullivan, is an Irish Gaelic clan based most prominently in what is today County Cork and County Kerry. The surname is associated with the southwestern part of Ireland and was originally found in County Tipperary before the Anglo-Norman invasion. It is the third most numerous surname in Ireland. Due to emigration is also common in Australia, North America, Britain and the rest of the world.

The O'Sullivans are the medieval and modern continuation of the ancient Eóganacht Chaisil sept of Cenél Fíngin, being descendants of Fíngen mac Áedo Duib, king of Cashel or Munster from 601 to 618. They are thus understood to be of royal extraction. Fedelmid mac Crimthainn (died 847), the celebrated King of Munster and nearly High King of Ireland, was the last king of the Cenél Fíngin/O'Sullivan line. Later they became the chief princes underneath their close kinsmen the MacCarthy dynasty in the small but powerful Kingdom of Desmond, successor of Cashel/Munster.

The motto for the O'Sullivans is "An Lámh Fhoisteanach Abú" which translates as "The peaceful hand forever".

Etymology and Orthography

In the Irish language the word Ó means 'grandson' and can be found in many Irish surnames. It has been anglicised as O'. When placed before the genitive form of Súileabhán, which is Súileabháin, it can be translated as grandson of. While the use of an apostrophe is a common convention in English, the apostrophe is never used in the original Irish language version of the name.

In the last 200 or 300 years those families connected to the name have dispersed widely throughout the English-speaking world and to other areas. Emigrants often suppressed the prefix "O".

According to Woulfe in Sloinnte Gaedheal is Gall Ó Súileabháin (the genitive form of súileabhán being súileabháin) derives from the Irish Ó which comes from Ua meaning grandson and súildubhán meaning little dark-eyed one, from the Irish súil meaning eye followed by dubh meaning black and the diminutive suffix -án.

Edward MacLysaght states in The Surnames of Ireland that while there is no doubt that the basic word is súil (eye) there is a disagreement as to the meaning of the last part of the name. Other meanings commonly reported are one-eyed or hawk-eyed.

MacLysaght also tells us that Mac Criomhthain (MacCrohan) and Mac Giolla Chuda (MacGillycuddy) are important branches of the Súileabhánaigh in Co Kerry.

Spelling variants on the name include: Sullavan, Sullivant, Sillivant, Silliphant, and Sillifant.


Some O'Sullivans in the midlands and south Ulster were originally (O) Sullahan (from Ó Súileacháin (probably from súileach, quick eyed, according to MacLysaght. This surname has now almost entirely changed to Sullivan.

History of the O'Sullivan clan

In mythology

The O'Sullivan clan claimed a descent from the mythological followers of Milesius who were the first Celts to colonize Innis Fáil, their "island of destiny". They had migrated from an area of the northwest coast of Spain which is now known as the province of Galicia. There they had founded a city they called Brigantia. They had remained there for several generations before embarking on the last leg of their odyssey. They arrived in their promised land in approximately the year 800 B.C. They conquered the people that were there at that time, the Firbolg and the Tuatha Dé Danann.[citation needed]

Eóganachta dynasty

In the Irish language O'Sullivan is Ó Súilleabháin. Súilleabháin was a direct descendant of Finghin who was a King of Munster in the year 620 A.D., of the Eóganachta dynasty. Súilleabháin was born 8 generations later, in the year 862.

Following the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169–71, Norman incursions into Munster were made in the 1180s. The O'Sullivan clan was forced from their original homeland in County Tipperary by the Normans in 1193. They moved to the less-fertile area which is now west Cork and south Kerry. Soon after, they divided into several branches and the two main ones are:

  • O'Sullivan Mór (Mór indicating larger or greater) in south Kerry, and
  • O'Sullivan Beare in the Beara Peninsula, West Cork and South Kerry

The cadet branch of the O'Sullivan Mór dynasty is McGillycuddy of the Reeks (Mac Giolla Mochuda). Of the O'Sullivans Beare the cadet branch was the sept Mac Fineen Duff (Mac Fíghin Dúibh), now thought to be defunct.

The "Beare" suffix came from the Beara peninsula that was named for the Spanish princess Bera, the wife of the first King of Munster. They continued to be harassed by the Normans and so allied themselves with the McCarthys and the O'Donoghues. The three clans defeated the Normans in 1261 at the battle of Caisglin near Kilgarvan, just north of Kenmare. They were again victorious the following year. These two battles settled the boundaries between the Normans of north Kerry (the FitzGeralds) and the three Gaelic families of south Kerry and west Cork. These boundaries were in effect for the next 300 years. In the interim, the Gaels and the Normans inter-married and became friends. They became military allies when Henry VIII decided to exercise his authority in Ireland by imposing his new religion of Anglicanism (a form of Protestantism) on the Catholic populace.[clarification needed]

The O'Sullivan Beare clan was further divided in 1592. When Dónal O'Sullivan, the chieftain, was slain in 1563 his son of the same name was but a child two years of age. The Irish laws of Tanistry required that the title of chieftain be passed on to the most capable of the dead chief's family. As a result the clan decided that Owen, one of the brothers of the dead chief, would take over control of the clan and become Lord of Beare and Bantry. Owen acknowledged the English crown and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. In 1587 Dónal, now twenty-six years old, decided to claim leadership of the clan. He petitioned the authorities in Dublin, using primogeniture as the basis for his claim, whereby the oldest son should inherit his father's title regardless of his age at the time of his father's death. The English Commission in Dublin was receptive to his argument since they would prefer to have the English procedure followed throughout Ireland. In addition Sir Owen had lost influence in Dublin due to implication in the Desmond Rebellion. The Commission found in favor of Dónal, who was now The O'Sullivan Beare. Sir Owen had to be content with Whiddy island and part of Bantry. He died the following year and was succeeded by his son, another Sir Owen.

The O'Sullivans and other clans provided shelter to 12-year-old Gerald FitzGerald when troops sought to capture him, being the last heir to the Earlship of Desmond.

Nine Years' War

In the late 1590s, it was the O'Sullivan Mor clan and their close allies the McSweenys that bore the brunt of the fighting with the English forces.[citation needed] Donal Cam O'Sullivan Beare, now chieftain of the O'Sullivan Beare clan, held back from the fighting until the O'Donnells and O'Neills of Ulster entered the campaign.

By the year 1600 all of Munster was in a turmoil. As retribution for their support of the Desmond rebellion the Munster clans lost over 500,000 acres (2,000 km2) of their land to English settlers. When the Earl of Clancarty died in 1596 his lands were parceled out as well to settlers.

King Philip III of Spain agreed to send help to his co-religionists in Ireland under the command of Don Juan D'Aquilla. Rather than landing in Ulster, as suggested by O'Neill, the Spanish forces landed at Kinsale in County Cork to avoid encountering the English warships in the Irish Sea. The war weary and decimated Munster clans had difficulty mustering an army to join the Ulster and Spanish forces. Donal O'Sullivan Beare was given command of the Munster forces which consisted mainly of soldiers of his clan and those of the O'Driscolls, McSweeneys, and O'Connor Kerry. Daniel O'Sullivan Mor could only contribute token support because of the losses he sustained in the previous years.

The Spanish soldiers were given the responsibility of forming the garrisons for the castles of the O'Driscolls and the O'Sullivans so as to free the Irish troops for the battles to come. The rest of the four thousand Spanish soldiers remained at Kinsale to await the arrival of the Ulster forces. Dónal marched to Kinsale with an army of one thousand men. He sent a letter to King Philip swearing allegiance to him as his sovereign. The letter was intercepted by English agents and was later used as reason for denying him pardon.

On 24 December 1601 at the coming of dawn the battle began. It was over in a matter of hours. It was a resounding defeat for the Irish forces. This was due in large part to the reluctance of the Spanish troops to leave the protection of the walled city of Kinsale and join the battle until it was over. O'Neill retreated back to Tyrone with his battered troops. O'Donnell handed over command of his soldiers to his brother and embarked for Spain to plead for more help from King Philip. General Aquila sued for peace and Lord Mountjoy, commander of the English, was only too happy to accept his request. Aquila agreed to surrender the castles his troops were defending. This meant that the O'Sullivans and the O'Driscolls had to fight the Spanish to regain their castles. Donal O'Sullivan wrote to King Philip complaining about the behavior of Aquila. When Aquila returned to Spain he was held in contempt by King Philip and put under house arrest.

Many of the O'Sullivan clan's non-combatants were sent to the island of Dursey to keep them out of harms way. An English force led by a John Bostock attacked the small garrison guarding the island. They butchered the entire population of the island, women, children, and the garrison. They cast their bodies, some while they were still alive, onto the rocks below the cliff overlooking the sea.

Siege of Dunboy

It became the responsibility of George Carew, the Lord President of Munster, to eliminate Dunboy Castle, the O'Sullivan Beare principal fortress. It was the last rebel stronghold to hold out against the English. Dónal was waiting at Ardea castle in Tuosist for reinforcements and weapons, and gold to pay his troops. He had been promised these by the Spanish envoy from Philip. While he was waiting, Carew's forces consisting of 4000 men and many cannon attacked the small garrison of 143 men left to defend Dunboy while waiting for the return of Dónal and the Spanish reinforcements.

A two-day bombardment reduced the castle almost to the ground, but the defenders fought on. After two more days of fighting the remaining defenders, having retreated to the cellar of the castle, attempted to surrender. It was finally accepted. All were put to death by hanging the next day, except for Brother Collins, a Jesuit lay brother, who was hanged in his home town of Youghal two days later. He had been acting as messenger between the O'Sullivans and King Philip, and was not a combatant.

Dónal O'Sullivan now realized that the Spanish reinforcements were not coming. It was obvious that all was lost in Munster. Famine conditions now existed and though he had considerable Spanish gold, there was little food available. He and approximately one thousand followers consisting of four hundred soldiers and the rest civilians began a journey to Leitrim to the castle of his friend Ó Ruairc (O'Rourke). He believed that he could hold out longer amongst his northern allies, the O'Donnells and O'Neills.

Carew declared them outlaws and decreed that anyone that aided them would be dealt with as outlaws as well. Throughout the 300-mile (480 km) trek they were attacked by English forces and Irish that were loyal to Elizabeth. The countryside had been ravaged by war and famine; the people along the way were trying to stay alive themselves. They could ill afford to provide any aid or food. They began the march on 31 December 1602.

This epic march enjoys a proud place in Irish history due to the detailed account of it provided by Philip O'Sullivan Beare, a nephew of Dónal O'Sullivan.

Notable people named O'Sullivan

Notable people named Sullivan

See also



  • Byrne, Francis J., Irish Kings and High-Kings. Four Courts Press. 3rd edition, 2001.
  • Charles-Edwards, T.M., Early Christian Ireland. Cambridge University Press. 2000.
  • Cronnelly, Richard F., Irish Family History Part II: A History of the Clan Eoghan, or Eoghanachts. Dublin: 1864.
  • Curley, Walter J.P., Vanishing Kingdoms: The Irish Chiefs and their Families. Dublin: Lilliput Press. 2004.
  • Duffy, Seán (ed.), Medieval Ireland: An Encyclopedia. Routledge. 2005.
  • Koch, John T. (ed.), Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. 5 volumes or single ebook. ABC-CLIO. 2006.
  • MacLysaght, Edward, Irish Families: Their Names, Arms and Origins. Irish Academic Press. 4th edition, 1998.
  • Mac Niocaill, Gearóid, Ireland before the Vikings. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan. 1972.
  • Ó Corráin, Donnchadh, Ireland before the Normans. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan. 1972.
  • O'Donovan, John (ed. and tr.), Annála Rioghachta Éireann. Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1616. 7 vols. Royal Irish Academy. Dublin. 1848–51. 2nd edition, 1856.
  • O'Hart, John, Irish Pedigrees; or the Origin and Stem of the Irish Nation 5th edition, 1892.
  • O'Keeffe, Eugene (ed. and tr.), Eoganacht Genealogies from the Book of Munster. Cork. 1703. (available here)
  • O'Rahilly, Thomas F., Early Irish History and Mythology. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. 1946.
  • Sullivan, Gary (2007). History of the O'Sullivan Clan: The Royal Blood of Gaelic Ireland. Gold Stag Communications, Inc. ISBN 978-0-6151-8013-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links