‘Intensely Irish’: Probing a Kerry Claim on Celebrity Minstrel Denis O’Sullivan

He came to Ireland with a concert party in the flush of his great success 
and sang from Cork to Portrush some of our loveliest melodies as, without 
exaggeration, they were never sung before

In 1901, American tenor and actor Denis O’Sullivan, described as ‘intensely Irish,’ was approaching his zenith, wowing audiences with his baritone voice and acting ability.  He was praised for his performance in a recital at St James’s Hall:


Mr O’Sullivan has rapidly won popularity.  He is a gifted and versatile artist … An old Italian melody by Vannuccini, another by Schubert, and old English melodies proved the variety of Mr O’Sullivan’s gifts.  His favourite Widow Malone was included by request.[1]


Denis O’Sullivan, in full, Cornelius Denis O’Sullivan, was born in San Francisco of Irish parents perhaps in the year 1866.[2]  His father, Cornelius D O’Sullivan, was from Skibbereen and his mother, it was suggested, from Bandon.[3]


A correspondent of a Kerry newspaper, however, signing himself ‘J M V O’S,’ reckoned the singer’s roots were in Castleisland in county Kerry:


Some old Kerrymen here in India believe Mr Denis O’Sullivan’s father and mother came from the Castleisland district, and not from Skibbereen; that Mr Denis O’Sullivan’s parents emigrated to America in 1847-48, and that whether they went direct from Skibbereen to America or resided there, his parents were of the O’Sullivans of Cappanacuss, known as the O’Sullivan ‘Verra,’ a direct branch of the O’Sullivan Mor.[4]


The writer felt sure Cornelius (senior) was of the O’Sullivan Mor family, ‘as from this branch the O’Sullivan Mors of Dunkerron Castle, Co Kerry were recruited in case of there being no male issue of the house of Dunkerron.  The ancient pedigree and history of the O’Sullivan Mor family fully explains this.’

J M V O’S’ continued:


There are Kerrymen living in India at present who have left Kerry over fifty years ago, and who knew Mr O’Sullivan’s father, and can say that he was born in the Castleisland district, and that he was baptised either in Castleisland Catholic Church or the old thatched church at Sliabh Luachra (near Dromore).[5]


Unfortunately, O’Sullivan’s dazzling international career, which can be sketched from interviews given during his heyday, was short-lived for he died from appendicitis and blood poisoning at Columbus, Ohio on 1 February 1908 aged 39 years.[6]  As such, there was little more written about him from that time on.[7]


Descendants of Denis O’Sullivan


Denis O’Sullivan left a widow, Elizabeth Curtis O’Sullivan (‘Patrick Bidwell’) of 7 Lansdowne Road, Holland Park, West London to whom he willed his estate.[8]  They had two known children, Curtis and Elisabeth, both born in London in 1894 and 1900 respectively.[9]


Curtis O’Sullivan (1894-1967), later a San Francisco businessman, married Helen Hooper (1895-1969).  Curtis was Major General O’Sullivan in WWII, commanded 184th Infantry Regiment and led the California National Guard as adjutant general after the war.  His eldest son, Cornelius Dion O’Sullivan (1919-1943) studied at Westminster for one term in 1935.  He returned to America and entered first the University of California and then the Naval Academy.  He was assigned to submarine duty, and lost his life in the sinking of the Triton on 15 March 1943.  The year previous he had married Kathryn Black of San Francisco.[10]


Elisabeth Brigit Barbara O’Sullivan, daughter of Denis O’Sullivan, appears not to have married, and as far as can be seen, died at Britwell Salome, Wallingford, Oxfordshire in 1958.[11].


Denis O’Sullivan in 1905 (left) and in 1896 (centre).  On the right, his daughter Elisabeth.  Advertisements for Travatore in 1895 and a Song Recital in Skibbereen in 1905: ‘Denis O’Sullivan  returns almost yearly to Skibbereen to give a concert for the benefit of the poor of that town’


Ancestors of Denis O’Sullivan


Research of the O’Sullivan name in Kerry and Cork might be regarded as of needle-in-a-haystack.  However, some details about the singer’s Irish roots can be gathered.  The year of birth of his father, Cornelius D O’Sullivan, is given invariably as 1817 and 1820, the birthplace Bridgetown, Skibbereen or Raheen, Castlehaven.  Some sources give his middle name as Daniel and mother’s maiden name as Driscoll.


Cornelius left Ireland in the 1840s, made his fortune and his home in America, settling in San Francisco.[12] He was evidently in the right place at the right time for the Catholic population of the city rose rapidly in the mid nineteenth century from about 15,000 in the 1840s to 250,000 by the turn of the century.[13]  He was one of the founders of the Hibernia Savings and Loan Society in San Francisco (1859) and in 1862, entered into partnership with Kerryman Hugh Dimond (1830-1896) and William Francis Cashman, opening O’Sullivan, Cashman & Co, a wholesale liquor business.[14]


His wealth enabled him to send money home to support local and national causes.[15]  It also enabled him to travel home to Ireland.  In 1863, a dinner was given in the Prince of Wales Hotel, Skibbereen in his honour when it was observed that ‘Mr O’Sullivan as a young man served his time to the drapery business in this town.’


Mr O’Sullivan thanked the organisers:


This visit to Ireland was one I contemplated for a long time, and one I always looked forward to with great pleasure; but I find Irishmen, all over the world, no matter what clime their lot may be cast in, or what risk they may undergo, have that never-dying yearning to see the land of their birth, and, no tongue could give expression to the feelings of joy indulged in by the Irish emigrant as he sights Cape Clear, bringing to his memory the scenes of his childhood and his once happy home, and none but the emigrant can tell of the anguish of the heart as he bids that far-famed spot a long and sad farewell.[16]


Cornelius D O’Sullivan hoped to return to Ireland one day and find ‘some green spot near Skibbereen’ to spend his late years.[17]


In 1870, a question was raised about his business dealings in America which may have caused some harm to his reputation.[18]  He was in San Francisco in June 1883 when he contributed to the Parnell Testimonial Fund.  Cornelius D O’Sullivan died in San Francisco on 5 March 1888.  His widow, Mary Ann O’Sullivan, whose maiden name may have been Cunningham, died in 1900.


There were, besides Denis, other children of the family.  J B O’Sullivan of Reno and later of Los Angeles, whose daughter married into the Blasingame family[19] and Joe O’Sullivan who lived in London, were sons, and a daughter, Mary Ellen (Mollie), married Oscar Sutro.[20]


Cornelius O’Sullivan, Poor Law Guardian in Castlehaven, son of Peter O’Sullivan, was a cousin of Denis O’Sullivan. Cornelius married Mary Josephine, daughter of Cornelius Collins, Munig House, Skibbereen, in Skibbereen in 1900.[21]


None of the above yet reveals a link to Castleisland and it is clear that more genealogical work is required to prove the claims of ‘J M V O’S’ – one way or another.


[1] The Era, 21 February 1903.  O’Sullivan had studied under Vannuccini in Florence in 1892.

[2] ‘At San Francisco, California, on the 25 April, the wife of C D O’Sullivan of a son’ (Cork Examiner, 15 June 1866).  Denis had two brothers, J

[3] ‘His father was a banker in San Francisco and his mother a gifted woman who was an artist and a writer of plays under the nom de plume of Patrick  Bidwell’ (Irish News, 15 February 1908).  It seems it was the wife of Denis O’Sullivan who wrote under the pseudonym Patrick Bidwell.

[4] Kerry Weekly Reporter, 18 May 1901.

[5] Ibid.

[6] His debut was in Dublin in 1895 when he appeared in Trovatore, conducted by Claude Jaquinot and presented by the Carl Rosa Opera Company at the Gaiety Theatre, 27 August 1895.  He played the part of Ferrando (Il Trovatore was also presented at the Gaiety Theatre Dublin by the Carl Rosa Opera Company for one night only on Tuesday 2 September 1890).

In 1896, he was interviewed backstage at the Opera Comique after his performance in Shamus O’Brien and stated he was educated at the Jesuits’ College, San Francisco and displayed great ability in music.  He became proficient on the violin and was in demand as an amateur vocal and instrumental musician.  He was ‘persuaded he had a voice’ and studied in San Francisco under the bass singer, Karl Formes.  He went to Florence in 1892 as a student of Luigi Vannuccini and other masters extending his repertoire to include twenty Italian operas.  In Paris he married artist Elizabeth Curtis, and they went to live in England.  His first appearance there was at a concert at the Prince’s Hall and at a few hours’ notice was called to take the place of Douglas Powell.  His success was immediate.  In London he studied with Charles Santley particularly German songs.  He took part in the Carlton Concert organised by the Irish Literary Society at which he was heard by Dr Villiers Stanford, who offered him the title role of Shamus O’Brien but he had entered into contract with the Carl Rosa Company.  Sir Augustus Harris negotiated with that company with success (Evening Telegraph, 7 March 1896).

O’Sullivan was interviewed some years later during his tour with C E Hamilton’s Company in the opera, Peggy Machree, and in discussion about the ‘stage Irish’ stated he had ‘played Shamus from London to San Francisco and I think I may safely say the play never gave offence to any Irishman, even those of the most fervid and intolerant ideals.  It was a long cry back to Boucicault and his Irish plays, Shamus was something new’ (The King, 6 May 1905).

[7] It would seem that it was the wish of Mr and Mrs O’Sullivan was that they would be buried in the graveyard at Britwell Salome, where they spent their summers.  It was suggested the remains would be returned to England for burial.  See https://genbook.dordtenazoeker.nl/Overige_Links/osullivan_denis.htm

[8] In the year of her husband’s death, Elizabeth presented the Denis O’Sullivan Memorial Prize to the Feis Ceoil in Dublin.  The competition included selections of Irish songs associated with him.

In 1918, Elizabeth Curtis O’Sullivan, widow, responded to the Irish question and the visit to San Francisco of ‘Tay Pay’ [Thomas Power O’Connor, MP (1848-1929)]: ‘If the Irish question was geographical, that is was bounded on the North by Ulster bigotry, on the East by English stupidity, on the South by Irish passion, he could certainly add that it was surrounded on the West by in incredible lack of comprehension – the whole defaced by Sinn Fein – black-spotted by Sinn Fein.  Never was the map of beloved Ireland more extraordinary … Ireland in this prosperous 1918 is still a combination of the executions of 1798 and the starvations of 1846’ (Freeman’s Journal, 11 May 1918).

[9] Reports of the death of Denis O’Sullivan in 1908 mentioned three children.

[10] Cornelius’s brother, Curtis Hooper O’Sullivan (1922-2016) was born in San Francisco.  He was an officer in the Reconnaissance Company of the 645th Tank Destroyer Battalion attached to 45th Thunderbird Division during the war.   He completed his military career with the rank of Brigadier General.  In 1979, he retired from the National Park Service. 

[11] It is probably worth noting here the private publication of The Two Britwells: The Story of a Village (1969) by Biddy O’Sullivan. Special thanks to Marie H Wilson, Tralee, for genealogical research.

[12] The career of Cornelius Denis O’Sullivan senior is given in an article on the website of the Skibbereen Historical Society, https://skibbereenhistorical.ie/singing-sullivan-parents-were-from-skibbereen/

[13] ‘Ireland in ‘Frisco, A Glimpse of its Citizens,’ Irish Independent, 21 April 1906.   In 1885, Dr Cornelius P Buckley, an Irish American from Baltimore, Co Cork, was interviewed about Irish settlers in America.  Himself a settler, he stated, ‘The population of California is about one million, and the Irish people form about one third, while they certainly own one third of the property of the State.  Three Irishmen, Mackey, Flood and O’Brien, probably own between them twenty millions sterling and there are other Irishmen nearly as wealthy, for instance William Dunphy, Peter Donohoe and C D Sullivan’ (Freeman’s Journal, 7 August 1885).

[14] William Francis Cashman (1824-1895) was born in Cork County, Ireland on August 24, 1824.  He arrived in New York in the early 1840s and shortly afterwards worked in North Carolina.  He arrived in San Francisco by boat on May 9, 1849, and found success as a gold miner.  He and C.D. O’Sullivan opened a mercantile business in Garrote in 1850 and Coulterville and Mariposa in 1851.  They also opened wholesale house “Sullivan and Cashman” in San Francisco in 1855 with Hugh Dimond, which was dissolved in 1868.  He died on March 1st, 1895 (Reference: Online Archive of California, Society of California Pioneers, Collection Ref: C057748).

[15] One of the local causes he supported was an appeal for his former schoolmaster, William Brickley.  He sent £16 from San Francisco in June 1865.

[16] Skibbereen and West Carbery Eagle, 25 July 1863. 

[17] O’Sullivan continued, ‘In a few days I will be departing from among you, to visit the land of my adoption, and those fond objects of my affection, from whom I have been separated for months, by the foaming billows of the Atlantic and Pacific;; but I have partially resolved, if my efforts are only crowned with success, to select, at no distant period, some green spot near Skibbereen to spend the balance of my days, and thus realize the day-dream of my existence.’ 

A return visit was made in 1867, when it was reported, ‘On this day, our local Peabody, Mr C D O’Sullivan leaves for Cork en route for San Francisco’ (Skibbereen & West Carbery Eagle, 11 May 1867).

[18] Isabella McManus, sister of patriot and Young Irelander, Terence Bellew McManus, who died in San Francisco in 1861, attempted to claim her brother’s 130-acre property in San Francisco, which he had registered on 14 July 1853, but found it had been ‘jumped’ (swindled).  The matter was taken to the Supreme Court and despite appeal, the case was found in favour of the defendants, Peter Donahue, C D O’Sullivan, Wm F Cashman and John P Buckley, ex-Senator of California.   In 1870, a correspondent signing himself ‘Wolfe Tone’ outlined the details of case in The Irishman (25 May 1872) to which newspaper (31 August 1872) C D O’Sullivan responded, writing from the Beecher Arms Hotel, Skibbereen on 20 August 1872.   He described ‘Wolfe Tone’ as prejudiced or misinformed. He outlined matters from his point of view, that the land had been purchased in 1863 or 1864 he had transferred his interest to Cashman about a year later.  The first they had heard of McManus was in 1870 when served a law suit.  ‘Rather than enter into vexatious litigation with a lady, I proposed that the owners of the several lots through which her claim ran should pay her by joint subscriptions an amount about equivalent to what the law expenses would cost.  Miss McManus was inclined to accept this offer … but she was powerless in the case, the matter having passed out of her control into the hands of certain speculating lawyers. …The land is little better than a wild, arid, barren waste … owing to the increasing proximity of the city its value has advanced but I would be quite willing at any moment to dispose of my portion of it at seven hundred dollars the acres, which is about its value.  I have now done with ‘Wolfe Tone.’ I do not intend for the future to notice any of his calumnies in print.  I only hope that during my short sojourn in my native land I will not be put to the painful necessity of seeking redress or protection for my character from the attacks of anonymous writers.’ 

For further details of the appeal, see McManus v O’Sullivan, Supreme Court of California.  See also letter about the affair from C D O’Sullivan, William F Cashman and C M A Buckey (representative of late John P Buckley) in the Irishman, 20 June 1874 to which Isabella McManus replied, and asked, ‘Why was the public administrator, J W Brumagun, in 1864, allowed by the Probate Court to take out letters of administration of McManus’ estate if my brother had no right to the land?  For these men to sully my brother’s name as a squatter upon their land and insult his sister by representing her to the public as prosecuting his mythical claim is adding insult to injury to an old and respected name.’  Miss McManus pointed out that over thirty thousand men attended her brother’s funeral.  A committee was subsequently formed by the Irish Nationalists in the Irish Confederation Hall to raise a pecuniary testimony for Miss McManus, 

The Flag of Ireland, 25 July 1874, supported the case of Miss McManus: ‘Terence Bellow McManus escaped from the British penal settlement in Australia whither he had been sent solely for that he loved his country too well, escaped to America and settled in California as his future home.  He acquired possession of some land, then of little value, and lived on in this State.  But his heart was broken by the sufferings and wrongs of Ireland and by his inability to right them.  He died and the tears of a sorrowing nation were the fitting tribute of his unselfish life.  But the property which he had here acquired, having increased in value by its proximity to the growing city, had attracted the attention of certain unworthy Irishmen … These men were C D O’Sullivan, Wm F Cashman, John P Buckley and Colonel Peter Donahoe … Miss McManus, the sister of the deceased, came to collect her brother’s effects and found his property in the hands of the precious quartette.  They have retained it ever since for they well know how ‘the wicked prize itself buys out the law.’  They cannot attempt to deny that the property belongs to Miss McManus of right but by pleading the Statute of Limitation they have contrived to avoid restitution … It is in vain for Peter Donahoe to attempt to drown the wronged lady’s appeal for justice as it was for C D O’Sullivan to heap benefactions upon his native district till the Skibbereen Eagle burst forth into a discordant canticle in his praise … No florid prose, nor honeyed lies of rhyme/Can blazon evil deeds, or consecrate a crime.’

In an article published in 1877, ‘Rich Irishmen in San Francisco,’ reference was made to thirty-four individuals and firms whose wealth exceeded four million dollars each.  The wealth of one Peter Donohoe was 5,000,000 dollars.  The following year, 3 May 1878, Isabella McManus died in San Francisco, California.  ‘She was a native of Monaghan, county Monaghan, aged 58 years, and like her brother, Terence Bellew McManus, the Irish patriot, of intense national feeling.  Her funeral obsequies were held under the auspices of the Knights of the Red Branch which association, in connection with other nationalists of San Francisco, were out in force at the funeral’ (Wexford People, 8 June 1878).

Note on Colonel Peter Donahue (1822-1885): The south-western terminus of the North Pacific Railroad is named after Colonel Peter Donahue, the Irish-American capitalist’ (Munster News, 25 July 1874). ‘It was two Irishmen, James and Peter Donahoe, that erected the first foundry in San Francisco which enterprise led to the rapid increase of mechanical industry.  The same firm projected the gas works and with such success that the stock of the company has increased to six million dollars.  The same firm erected the largest hotel in the city … The Donahues were from this district [Antrim], and are relatives of Mr Alexander Keenan, Ballycastle and Mr Canning, Ballymoney’ (Coleraine Chronicle, 25 April 1868).  ‘Peter Donaghue, who died recently in San Francisco, was worth 10,000,000 dollars.  He began life as a blacksmith and was never ashamed of his humble calling.  When he came to build a 25,000 dollar tomb or vault in Calvary Cemetery he placed upon the front a large bronze medallion representing in bas-relief a tremendous arm, with a heavy hammer in the fist, and underneath the words, ‘Labour Omnia Vincit’ while over it was the single name ‘Donaghue.’  His daughter is the wife of Baron von Schroeder of Germany and lives in Stuttgart’ (Dundee Evening Telegraph, 9 January 1886). 

‘By the 1930s, the mass graveyard relocation project was underway, with thousands of corpses being relocated to Colma, claiming that Calvary was on hallowed ground ... Calvary residents were moved south over the next few years.’

The following from ‘The Baron of San Rafael’ by Robert L. Harrison in Anne T Kent, California Room Newsletter, 2020: ‘Baron Johann Heinrich von Schroeder (1852–1927) was a native of Germany and a veteran of the Franco-Prussian and first World Wars. He was the eldest son and heir to the estates and titles of the Von Schroeder family. In 1880, after 10 years he retired from the Prussian Army and began a tour around the world eventually arriving in San Francisco in 1881.  Von Schroeder’s dignified bearing and unpretentious manner won him many friends in San Francisco’s high society. On November 27, 1883 he married Mamie Donahue, the only daughter of Peter Donahue, builder of the Union Iron Works in the City and the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad in Marin.  Brother of the bride, James Mervyn Donahue, was usher.’

The Will of James Mervyn Donahue was published in the Daily Alta California, 12 March 1890.

Peter Donahoe married Anna Downey in about 1862: ‘Mrs Eleanor Martin, widow of the late Mr Edward Martin, the founder of the Hibernian Bank, San Francisco, native of Enniscorthy, is a sister to the late Governor John Gately Downey of California and a sister-in-law to the late Colonel Peter Donohue’(Wicklow People, 12 May 1906).

[19] J B O’Sullivan’s daughter, Katherine O’Sullivan, was in 1926 engaged to Frank Marvin Blasingame.

[20] Some sources give Mary Ellen’s birth in ‘Brandon, Kerry’ on 27 October 1864.  She died on 13 January 1952 and was buried in Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery Colma.

[21] Married on 12 June 1900 at the Chapel of the Convent of Mercy, Skibbereen, Cornelius, son of the late Peter O’Sullivan, Castlehaven, and nephew of the late C D O’Sullivan, San Francisco, to Mary Josephine, daughter of the late Cornelius Collins, Munig House, Skibbereen.