Together, the surnames names Sullivan and O’Sullivan are the third-most frequently found names in Ireland. While Tipperary may have once been the stronghold of this family group, currently about 80% of Irish Sullivans can be found living in County Cork and County Kerry. There are also many Sullivans found in County Limerick and in Dublin.

The modern name Sullivan derives from the old Irish spelling of “Ó Súilleabháin.” The root word of the name is “suil,” meaning “eye,” but there is some disagreement of how the name actually translates, with variations including “one-eyed,” “dark-eyed,” and “hawk-eyed.” Either way, etymologically, the focus on the eyes remains.

The Sullivan family motto translates to “The Steady Hand To Victory.” For a family whose name places emphasis on the eyes, it makes sense that Sullivans would also commemorate steadiness and faithfulness in their family motto. The adage of “look before you leap” comes to mind. So, just who were these early Sullivans?




Donal O'Sullivan Beare, age 53, painted at the court of Philip III of Spain in 1613 after he was exiled to the European continent.

Donal O’Sullivan Beare, age 53, painted at the court of Philip III of Spain in 1613 after he was exiled to the European continent. (Public Domain / via Salamanca Archive, St Patricks College Maynooth / Wikimedia Commons)


Sullivans and O’Sullivans are part of the great prominent family groups of Irish history. In mythology, they are said to be descended from Eóghan mac Néill (a friend of Saint Patrick and son of Niall of the Nine Hostages). Other families in this Eoghanacht tribal grouping include such names as the MacCarthys, O’Keefes, and O’Callaghans.

After the Norman invasion of Ireland in the 12th century, the O’Sullivan clan was forced from their homeland in County Tipperary. The clan splintered into several branches, with the two largest being the O’Sullivan Mór group in South Kerry and the O’Sullivan Beare in the Beara Peninsula (West Cork and South Kerry).

The O’Sullivans joined Gaelic Irish chieftains in rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I between 1593 and 1603. The conflict, also referred to as the Nine Years’ War or Tyrone’s Rebellion, ended with the defeat of the Irish lords. However, it is also considered the largest conflict fought by England during the Elizabethan era.

In the last part of Tyrone’s Rebellion, on 31 December 1602, clan leader Donal O’Sullivan and approximately one thousand followers set off on a 500 kilometer march to meet Lord Tyrone at Lough Neagh. However, the O’Sullivan group was beset by troubles almost from the start — the Irish countryside had been devastated by war, and there was little food available in the middle of winter. After approximately two weeks of marching and fighting, only 35 of the original thousand O’Sullivans remained. Many succumbed to hunger and cold, and many fled the march along the route, desperate for food and shelter. After the Irish lords eventually surrendered to England, Donal fled to Spain along with other members of the Irish Gaelic nobility.

Two centuries later, as Ireland was ravaged by the Great Hunger, many of the Sullivan descendants in Cork and Kerry, two counties hit particularly hard, emigrated to America. Today, it remains as one of the top 10 Irish surnames in the United States.




Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan, 1888.

Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan, 1888. (Public Domain / via New England Historic Genealogical Society / Wikimedia Commons)


Anne Sullivan (1866-1936) was a teacher who gained notoriety as the woman who broke into Helen Keller’s dark and silent prison, teaching a blind, deaf, and mute girl to read, write, and eventually speak.  Her role in teaching Keller is also forever commemorated in the play The Miracle Worker.  While Keller gained more fame than her teacher, Anne Sullivan was Keller’s devoted companion and friend for most of her life.




Maureen O’Sullivan (1911-1998) was an Irish-born actress (now known as the “first Irish movie star”) who rose to become one of MGM’s leading actresses during the 1930s and early 1940s.  Maureen is known for playing the role of Jane Parker in Tarzan the Ape Man and several follow-up films opposite Johnny Weissmuller.  Her film and television career spanned decades, from the 1930s until shortly before her death in the 1990s.  She is also mother to American actress Mia Farrow.


Ed Sullivan

Maurice Carnes LaClaire / Library of Congress


Ed Sullivan (1901-1974) is famous for hosting and producing his popular television variety show, The Ed Sullivan Show, which ran on CBS between 1948 and 1971.  Sullivan’s show was widely recognized during its time on the air as a springboard for up and coming talent, and introduced America to acts such as Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Elvis Presley, and The Beatles.  The show was so popular, in fact, that the television studio where Sullivan’s show was filmed was renamed the Ed Sullivan Theatre in the 1960s.




Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan (1842-1900) is famous for being one-half of the renowned Gilbert and Sullivan duo, composing music for W.S. Gilbert’s lyrics.  Together, Gilbert and Sullivan wrote fourteen comic operettas that have clinched a solid place in musical history — H.M.S. Pinafore, The Mikado, and The Pirates of Penzance, to name a few.  If the names of these plays don’t sound familiar to you, the music likely is.  Gilbert and Sullivan operettas have featured many times in pop culture —you may know them better as particular musical favorites of the character Sideshow Bob on the long-running television show The Simpsons.


Kathryn Sullivan NASA



Kathryn Sullivan (b. 1951) also earns a place of honor for her accomplishments.  Dr. Sullivan has an illustrious academic career, with a Doctorate in Geology from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  After completing her education, Sullivan not only pursued a career as a NASA astronaut, but also has the distinction of being the first American woman to walk in space.  She has flown three shuttle missions, logging a total of 532 hours in space. After her NASA career, Sullivan took a position as chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) before serving as an adjunct professor of geology at Ohio State University.  She became a member of the National Science Board in November 2004.


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