Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Michael O'Sullivan (1866–1950)

by W. Ross Johnston

This article was published:

Michael O'Sullivan (c.1866-1950), policeman, was born about 1866 at Grenagh, County Cork, Ireland, son of Denis O'Sullivan, farmer, and his wife Catherine, née O'Callaghan. A minor prank in which he was involved at Blarney Castle led him to emigrate to Queensland. Sailing under an assumed name, he disembarked at Rockhampton in January 1883. He initially worked at clearing land and installing a saw-milling plant.

On 30 May 1883 O'Sullivan was appointed a mounted constable in the Queensland Police Force. His postings included Roma, Dulbydilla, St George, Taroom, Rockhampton, Winton, Mount Morgan, Emerald, Brisbane and Cunnamulla. He dealt with murderers, rapists, horse-thieves, and travellers lost in the bush. In helping to bring law and order to the western frontier, he established a reputation as a persistent and fair officer, and was promoted sergeant in 1899. At St Stephen's Catholic Cathedral, Brisbane, on 30 April 1890 he had married Norah Eveleen Gaine (d.1922), a 23-year-old dressmaker.

O'Sullivan's methods of detection (such as taking plaster casts of horses' hooves to prove the guilt of horse-thieves) impressed Chief Justice (Sir) Pope Cooper. In 1904 O'Sullivan was transferred to the Criminal Investigation Branch, Brisbane, as second-in-charge. Despite an immediate strike by detectives who objected to the appointment of an outsider, he soon improved the calibre and performance of the branch, which he later claimed was as good as any in the world. He was made head of the branch in 1912. Promoted senior inspector in 1920, he took charge of protecting the Prince of Wales during his visit to Queensland. His precautions included 'detaining' at Boonah a deranged man who was seen as a threat to the prince.

In 1921 O'Sullivan was promoted chief inspector and deputy-commissioner to Patrick Short. His name was mentioned as a possible commissioner, but seems to have been rejected because he was not sufficiently sympathetic to Labor's cause: in 1901-02 he had incurred the wrath of Labor members of parliament for his actions in guarding and escorting non-union shearers; in the 1912 general strike in Brisbane he had stood firmly with Commissioner W. G. Cahill who led a baton charge against demonstrators; and in 1915 he had opposed the police force being unionized. Some Labor politicians argued that, if he were made commissioner, he would be a 'second Major Cahill'. O'Sullivan responded by criticizing politicians for meddling in police affairs.

Exhausted by years of constant work, cynical about politicians and promotion, and distressed by the death of his wife, O'Sullivan suffered a nervous breakdown in 1922 and retired in the following year. He served as secretary (1923-50) of the Queensland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty, and took up lawn bowls. On 20 November 1924 at St Patrick's Church, Glen Innes, New South Wales, he married Gertrude (d.1949), daughter of K. I. O'Doherty. In 1935 O'Sullivan published his memoirs, Cameos of Crime (Sydney). Survived by the son and three of the four daughters of his first marriage, he died on 5 October 1950 at Clayfield, Brisbane, and was buried in Toowong cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • W. R. Johnston, The Long Blue Line (Brisb, 1992)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Queensland), 1899, 4, p 710
  • Queenslander, 1 Jan 1921
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 19 Apr, 31 Oct 1923, 28 Sept 1935, 6 Oct 1950
  • O'Sullivan newsclipping books, OM 92-85/1-3 (State Library of Queensland)
  • police staff files, A/47938-9 (Queensland State Archives)
  • immigration passenger lists, IMM 116-7, microfilm Z 1959-60 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

W. Ross Johnston, 'O'Sullivan, Michael (1866–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Grenagh, Cork, Ireland


5 October, 1950 (aged ~ 84)
Clayfield, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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