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The History of the O’ Sullivan Name

This week I had more orders for family crest jewelry. To design many of these orders I need to research the family crest and often stumble upon really interesting stories of Irish surnames. Here’s the story of the O’ Sullivans whom I’m sure you’ll agree have played an important role in Irish history.

O’ Sullivan comes from the Irish O’ Suileabhain. This can be translated as one eyed or hawk eyed. The name is the third most popular in Ireland with almost eighty percent of the O’ Sullivan’s today based in the counties of Cork and Kerry. As is almost always the case with great Irish septs they are still concentrated in or near their ancient homeland.

The O’ Sullivan’s did not come to the fore until after the Anglo-Norman invasion. They were one of the main families in the Munster Eoghanacht along with the O’ Callaghans, the McCarthys and O’ Keefe’s.

Due to the Norman invasion in the late 12th century the O’ Sullivan’s were forced from their original lands in Co Tipperary to the less fertile lands of West Cork and South Kerry which was the territory of the O’ Driscolls. The O’ Sullivan’s in turn drove the O’ Driscoll’s into the sea around the Beara Pennisula. The O’ Sullivan’s then divided in two branches, O’ Sullivan Mor (larger or greater) in South Kerry and O’ Sullivan Beara (after the Beara pennisula) in West Cork.

In the 1590’s the O’Sullivan Mor clan and their allies the McSweeneys bore the brunt of the fighting with English forces. By the 1600’s Munster was in turmoil and the clans had lost over 500,000 acres of their land to English settlers.

King Phillip III of Spain agreed to send support to Catholic Ireland, hoping to avoid the English warships on the Irish Sea these Spanish forces landed in Kinsale Co. Cork. On Christmas eve 1601 the battle began and was over in a matter of hours. It was a resouding defeat for the Irish forces who were left to fight while the Spainish stayed behind the protecive walls of Kinsale for the majority of the battle.

O’Sullivan Beara returned to his castle at Dunboy. In June 1602 this castle which was the last rebel stronghold to holdout against the English was attacked and its inhabitants slaughtered. O’Sullivan Beara escaped as he was in Spain at the time trying to aquire reinforcements and weapons. In January 1603 with the country ravaged by war and famine he led 1,000 followers across Ireland to O’Rourke’s castle in Leitrim. This journey became known as O’Sullivan’s March, only thirty five completed the journey with many of them fleeing to Spain. Other Irish Chieftains escaped to Spain in what is known as the ‘Flight of the Earls’.

In theory all O’ Sullivan’s are descended from the one man, making the O’ Sullivan name one of the oldest and most numerous European family surnames, differing from occupation surnames like Smith.

If you would like to know your family crest or would like a piece of jewelry designed, please use our Custom Order Jewelry page – It doesn’t cost anything to enquire.

You’ll find a Silver Tie Pin design that we engraved the O’Sullivan family crest on in our store.

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