The name Denis O’Sullivan might not resonate so quickly with Skibbereen people now, but there was a time when he was the toast of Skibbereen, Ireland and Irish communities in Britain and the USA. He had a rich baritone voice and became one of best-know singers of his day in Ireland, Britain and the USA.
Maybe better known as the ‘Singing Sullivan’ in these parts, Denis O’Sullivan was born in San Francisco in 1868, the son of Skibbereen emigrants. His brother John was also a fine performer, but did not reach the same levels as Denis.
His father, Cornelius D. O’Sullivan, was born in Skibbereen in 1820. He emigrated to America in 1845, just on the eve of the Great Irish Famine. After some extraordinary adventures Cornelius settled in San Francisco and did very well for himself, managing to amass quite a fortune.
The story of Cornelius O’Sullivan is one of legend, as told by Hal Johnson in the ‘So We’re Told’ column, in The Gazette, Berkeley, California, USA –
“If it had not been for the refusal of Joaquin Maurietta, California’s ‘Robin Hood’, of gold rush days, to waste a bullet on a seemingly dying man in the Hariposa forest, there would not have been any “Singing O’Sullivans.” It is a true story that ties in with California’s gold centennial.
“Cornelius O’Sullivan who became the father of the singers, came from Skibbereen, Ireland, to the United States in 1845.
“He was clerk in a cotton broker’s office in New Orleans. The cry of ‘Gold in California’ echoed throughout Louisiana and Cornelius O’Sullivan sailed to Panama, crossed the Isthmus and arrived in San Francisco in October, 1849.
“O’Sullivan had only $2.50 when he reached California. For $1.50 he was able to get a bunk for the night on the old sailing ship ‘Niantic’. His last dollar he spent on a cup of coffee and a piece of pie.
“With two new found friends, Irishmen, of course, he started for the gold fields the next day. The trio worked several months draining water from a bar which was expected to yield a fortune of gold but it did not.
“O’Sullivan collapsed from scurvy. His companions left him what meagre provisions they had and started on foot for Sacramento. He was too weak to walk.
“They had only been gone a day when Joaquin Maurietta dismounted from his horse, bowed and covered O’Sullivan with a brace of pistols. Then the bandit discovered his victim was ill. ‘El senior ces mucha seek. Manans, perhaps him die. Joaquin no waste bulleet. Adios!’ Well, that was one of the good things Maurietta did – sparing the life of Cornelius O’Sullivan.
“Within a week Cornelius O’Sullivan’s companions returned with food and medicine. As soon as he had partially regained his health he started a general store in Mariposa with William Cashman. Business flourished from the start. O’Sullivan and Cashman opened a branch in Coulterville and then established a store in San Francisco.
“Cashman sold out his interest to O’Sullivan. Subsequently the latter became one of the five pioneers who established the Hibernia Savings and Loan Society.
“In 1854 O’Sullivan returned to New Orleans and married Mary Ann Sullivan. [Mary Ann Sullivan was also from Skibbereen.] Her uncle was one of the first men to operate a mechanical cotton gin in Louisiana. In San Francisco bride and groom established their home at Bush and Leavenworth Sts. The family lived there until 1903 when the house was razed.
“Sweet singing Denis O’Sullivan was born on that corner. Following his graduation from St. Ignatius College, he studied voice production under Karl Formes and Ugo/Talbo, then went to London and Italy. He made his debut with the Carl Ross Opera Company in Italy in 1895.”
Cornelius O’Sullivan never forgot his native Skibbereen and regularly sent money ‘home’ to support local charities. He made a contribution of £100 towards the Christmas Charities appeal in Skibbereen in 1869, an act of generosity which prompted an editorial in the ‘Skibbereen Eagle’ newspaper. “The poor of his native place have very often and gratefully experienced Mr. O’Sullivan’s charitable generosity. Much has been done by the wide and judicious diffusion of his timely liberality towards alleviating the miseries of the destitute of this locality.” – The West Cork and Carbery Eagle, January 1, 1870.
Like his father before him, Denis O’Sullivan was very generous to Skibbereen. At the height of his career, when he was filling many of the most famous Grand Old Opera Houses and theatres in Britain and America, he still found time to make his way to Skibbereen. For five consecutive years, the famous baritone and actor made his way ‘home’ and gave recitals at the Town Hall with the entire proceeds going to the local branch of the St Vincent de Paul Society.
The Southern Star of March 22, 1902 reported that: “On Tuesday evening last, Mr. Denis O’Sullivan, the world renowned baritone, gave a song recital in the Town Hall for the benefit of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. The audience was the largest that even attended a concert in Skibbereen.”
In 1890 Denis O’Sullivan went to London to have his voice cultivated and afterwards visited Italy where he studied under Vannuocini. Two years later he returned to London where he met Elizabeth Curtis, also of San Francisco, and the couple were later married.
After a hugely successful series of concerts in London in 1901, the Times of London pronounced him to be “one of the illustrious singers of the world.”
One of O’Sullivan’s most famous roles was undoubtedly as the part of ‘Shemus O’Brien’ in Sir Villiers Stanford’s opera of the same name. His voice was greatly appreciated in London, and he was engaged by Carl Rosa, appearing in English grand opera at Covent Garden for two successful seasons.
It was in London that O’Sullivan’s wife, Elizabeth Curtis, wrote ‘Peggy Macher’ and in that he scored his greatest triumph producing it in both England and the United States. Such was the success of ‘Peggy Macher’ that Klaw and Erlanger engaged O’Sullivan for a five-year contract which he had just begun when death cut short a marvellous career and life. He was only 39 years old.
He was stricken with appendicitis while filling an engagement in Toledo, Ohio, on February 1, 1908. Although in intense pain, he insisted on going on with the matinee, collapsed after the performance and died that night.
Denis O’Sullivan was regarded as the foremost authority on Irish music in the world. He was the adjudicator of the Feis Coil, was vocalist, delegate and speaker to the Pan-Celtic congress in Dublin and was a delegate to the Irish national convention in 1907. He led the London ballet concerts before his majesty the king, and belonged to a score of musical organisations in Great Britain.
In 1907 Denis made a special trip to America to promote the Feis Ceoil and to help establish a similar festival there. Before his departure from London, the Irish Parliamentary Party gave him a banquet. He was also one of the honoured and leading vocalists at the St. Patrick’s Day Banquets in London for many years.
At the Feis Ceoil competition every year, still one of the most coveted prizes is the Denis O’Sullivan Medal which is awarded for the best rendering of Irish songs.
In 1909 a bust of Denis O’Sullivan was added to the collection at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. The sculptor was Francis Derwent Wood, who was commissioned by the subscribers to the Memorial Fund.
I wonder are there any relatives of the famous ‘Singing Sullivans’ still living in this area? I’d love to know!
– P. O’R