Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

O'Sullivan, Christopher Michael (Chris) (1895–1996)

by Bridget Griffen-Foley

This article was published online in 2021

Christopher Michael O’Sullivan (1895–1996), journalist, was born on 26 October 1895 at Lewisham, Sydney, sixth of thirteen children of Irish-born John O’Sullivan, railway clerk, and his locally born wife Julia Ann, née Murray. Chris attended Christian Brothers’ School, Lewisham, until he was fourteen. An early recruit to the Boy Scouts, he ran messages for Robert Clyde Packer, the chief scoutmaster of New South Wales, at the Sunday Times. A cadetship at the Evening News and Sydney Mail followed about 1910, with O’Sullivan becoming an expert in shorthand, a useful source of extra income.

In 1913 O’Sullivan joined Bathurst’s National Advocate, and subsequently the Bathurst Times. While learning Latin from a priest, he was encouraged to join the priesthood, with the prospect of an education in Rome, but the idea—along with his faith—passed quickly. Sacked for being an advocate for the fledgling Australian Journalists’ Association (AJA), he moved to the Orange Leader in 1914. He returned to the Sunday Times as a sub-editor in 1915, before moving to the Daily Telegraph. A vigorous opponent of conscription, he frequented Bertha McNamara’s bookshop in Castlereagh Street and became acquainted with her son-in-law, the future premier J. T. Lang. A sympathetic news editor sent him to Melbourne to report on Federal parliament, partly to avoid possible arrest in Sydney. From 1917 he was elected to AJA committees.

After modest success running a horse-racing syndicate, O’Sullivan sailed for the United States of America in 1919. He took with him secret messages on behalf of Australia’s Industrial Workers of the World, and while there undertook a range of jobs, from shipbuilding to farming, as well as urging journalists to unionise. By 1920 he was in his father’s birthplace of Kerry; he found a job on Dublin’s Irish Times as he was seen to be independent of either side in the Irish War of Independence. Wanting to progress in his profession before leaving Dublin, which had become ‘sticky’ (O’Sullivan 1976, 10) owing to suspicions he was spying for one side or the other, he secured a commission from (Sir) Keith Murdoch to interview the republican leader Eamon de Valera. His cloak-and-dagger interview with de Valera in June 1921 was a worldwide scoop.

An offer from a new Labor-backed Sydney newspaper, the Daily Mail, to set up a cable service in London followed. On 3 January 1922 he married (Katharine) Georgina Skinnider, a commercial clerk, at the register office, St Pancras, London. She and her sister were involved in the Irish republican movement. Still in London, O’Sullivan moved to Smith’s Weekly, part-owned by Packer. Taking leave in late 1922, he spent three months in Russia, where he secured work taking shorthand—including speeches for Trotsky and Lenin—in English, organised a strike of shorthand writers, and attended the fourth Comintern congress.

Returning to Australia in 1923, O’Sullivan was offered three positions by Smith’s Weekly. Instead he worked variously for Brisbane’s labour Daily Standard and Sydney’s Labor Daily, where he organised an AJA house committee. With something of a reputation as a troublemaker in newspapers, he left journalism briefly to farm (disastrously) on the Hawkesbury, worked on the short-lived Melbourne Morning Post, edited the Railways Union Gazette, and moved into publicity. He served as the second editor of David Yaffa’s Newspaper News in 1930 and 1931. Having moved to the World as chief sub-editor, he was sacked in early 1932; the Industrial Commission awarded him £82 in damages.

In May O’Sullivan headed back to Ireland, where his wife, who resented the lack of stability, was based with their two sons. He and Roy N. Connolly, a former colleague at the World, failed to raise the funds to buy Dublin’s ailing Evening Mail. Instead he worked for the Irish Independent, followed by the Irish Press. He was dismissed as managing editor, ostensibly for acting without consulting the general manager, but actually at the behest of the Catholic Church because of his family’s refusal to attend Mass. Until its closure in 1938 he edited the weekly Labour News. He followed the American manager of the Irish Press to New York, where they set up a small business selling newspaper machinery. After serving in the Australian News and Information Bureau, he became deputy director of the news division of the United States Office of War Information until its closure in 1945.

Back in Australia, O’Sullivan joined the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) as a sub-editor in 1947, taking a particular interest in Colombo Plan trainees and, following a stint as a relieving journalist in Port Moresby, urging the ABC to employ cadets from the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. He ‘was forever pouncing on some aspect of a story which took his fancy, chasing it up by telephone and building a piece unlike anything the original reporter had conceived’ (Chris 1995, 26). In 1953 he stood, energetically but unsuccessfully, for election as the New South Wales secretary of the AJA. His younger son, Fergan, was press secretary to H. V. Evatt and author of ‘Document H,’ a series of colourful biographies of members of the press gallery given to a Russian journalist. O’Sullivan accompanied Fergan when he was called to testify at the 1954 (Petrov) royal commission into espionage.

O’Sullivan left the ABC in 1965. His rented house in Mona Vale was filled with books on Irish republicanism and the Bolshevik revolution. Generous and gregarious, he had a rare gift with bank managers, securing the funds to buy his first house, a derelict cottage in Woollahra. His schemes ranged from hydroponic tomatoes and racing kangaroos to making electricity from seawater (for which he obtained a patent in 1978), and, as his friend Rae Gorman recalled, in his later years he had a ‘mania for eating seeds’ and little else (Chris 1995, 19). He had his wife visit Australia on two or three occasions.

Worried about a possible coup against the Labor prime minister, Gough Whitlam, O’Sullivan launched a national newspaper in November 1975; funded by trade unions and $1,000 saved from his age pension, the National Citizen lasted three issues. In 1981 O’Sullivan visited New Zealand, intent on researching a biography of the safer-sex campaigner Ettie Rout, before handing over to her ultimate biographer, Jane Tolerton. On the occasion of his hundredth birthday in 1995, eleven friends privately distributed a booklet, simply entitled Chris, in his honour. Survived by Fergan, he died on 14 September 1996 in Chatswood; his estranged wife and another son had predeceased him. He donated his body to the University of Sydney.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Castellari, Bert. ‘Under the Hat of Revolution.’ Canberra Times, 28 September 1996, C2
  • Chris: Recollections by Himself and Eleven Old Friends. Private distribution, 1995
  • Ellis, Bob. Goodbye Jerusalem: Night Thoughts of a Labor Outsider. Milsons Point, NSW: Vintage, 1997
  • National Archives of Australia. A6119, 623
  • O’Sullivan, Chris. ‘The Despatch Childers Censored.’ Irish Times, 22 June 1976, 10
  • O’Sullivan, Chris. Interview by Andrew Reeves, 26 July 1978. Transcript. National Library of Australia

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bridget Griffen-Foley, 'O'Sullivan, Christopher Michael (Chris) (1895–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/osullivan-christopher-michael-chris-25180/text33647, published online 2021, accessed online 14 May 2021.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2021