Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Richard O'Sullivan (1840–1880)

by Mark Lyons

This article was published:

Richard O'Sullivan (1840?-1880), journalist and newspaper proprietor, was born in Bantry, County Cork, Ireland, son of Daniel Sullivan. Educated in Dublin at St Xavier's College and the Catholic University (B.A., 1862), he was a brilliant student of English literature. He was drawn to journalism and worked on the Dublin Nation and Weekly News both owned and edited by his elder brother A. M. Sullivan, later a leading nationalist politician. Late in 1865 ill health forced him to migrate to a warmer climate. Arriving in Sydney, he found work with the Freeman's Journal, the organ of the colony's Irish Catholics. In December 1866 he became editor and part-proprietor.

Despite his youth O'Sullivan soon became a leading figure in Sydney's Irish community; he was devoted to ultramontanist Catholicism and the cause of Irish independence. From mid-1866 he penned fiercely anti-English leaders for the journal and gave the paper an Irish nationalist orientation which became more pronounced after he became editor. This coincided with the peak of Fenian activity in Ireland and England, and although O'Sullivan disagreed with the Fenians' methods he sympathized with their hatred of England and desire for Irish independence. To most colonists this seemed like sympathy with the movement and they viewed Irish Catholics with suspicion. O'Sullivan earned himself, his paper and most Catholics notoriety by the invective he directed at Henry Parkes and all supporters of the 1866 Public Schools Act. On 12 March 1868 the daily papers reported that at a meeting of the St Patrick's Day Regatta Committee O'Sullivan had boasted that he would never drink the loyal toast. Later that day the attempted assassination of the Duke of Edinburgh at Clontarf by an Irishman calling himself a Fenian gave notoriety to O'Sullivan's declaration. A week later the premier, James Martin, carried in one day a bill with seven clauses of the British Treason Felony Act of 1848 to which he added three of his own. Two of them were aimed directly at O'Sullivan and forbade the 'fractious refusal to join in a loyal toast' and expressions of 'approval of persons suspected of being engaged in treasonable practices'. However, Martin's attempts to use it against O'Sullivan and the Freeman's Journal bogged down in technicalities.

O'Sullivan remained unrepentant. In early 1869 he clashed with some of his compatriots and fellow proprietors after sponsoring criticism of their cautious approach to the St Patrick's Day celebrations. They clashed again that year over his sponsoring of a fund to assist the Fenian prisoners released by the British government from captivity in Western Australia. When he organized a welcome for the ex-prisoners to be held at Clontarf, the Catholic authorities advised their flocks not to attend. O'Sullivan denounced this as clerical interference in non-religious matters and was dismissed by his co-proprietors. He sold his share in the paper and sailed for San Francisco, where in 1870 he became editor of the Irish Catholic Monitor and was admitted to the Bar. He died unmarried on 15 or 16 January 1880 of pneumonia.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Quigley, The Irish Race in California (San Francisco, 1878)
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 29 Dec 1866, 17 Apr, 20 Nov 1869, 3 Sept 1870
  • Nation (Dublin), 14 Feb 1880
  • Express (Sydney), 21 Feb 1880
  • M. Lyons, Aspects of Sectarianism in New South Wales circa 1865-1880 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1972).

Citation details

Mark Lyons, 'O'Sullivan, Richard (1840–1880)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Bantry, Cork, Ireland


January, 1880 (aged ~ 40)

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