- 1923-2012 (Creation)
Level of description
Extent and medium
Name of creator
Born: 26 July 1904, Bantry, County Cork
Entered 31 August 1923, St Stanislaus College, Tullabeg, County Offaly
Ordained: 24 June 1937, Innsbruck, Austria
Final Vows: 02 February 1940, St Stanislaus College, Tullabeg, County Offaly
Died: 19 November 1977, St Ignatius, Lower Leeson Street, Dublin
by 1929 at Eegenhoven, Leuven Belgium (BELG) studying
by 1935 at Innsbruck, Tirol, Austria (ASR) studying
by 1939 at St Beuno’s Wales (ANG) making Tertianship
◆ Royal Irish Academy : Dictionary of Irish Biography, Cambridge University Press online :
by Lawrence William White and Aideen Foley
O'Sullivan, Donal (1904–77), priest and arts administrator, was born Daniel Joseph Sullivan on 27 July 1904 in Donemark, Bantry, Co. Cork, the only son among two children of John Sullivan, a national school teacher, and Mary Anne Sullivan (née Keohane). After receiving primary and secondary education locally, he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Tullabeg (Rahan), near Tullamore, Co. Offaly (1923). He pursued undergraduate studies at UCD till 1928, then studied philosophy in Eegenhoven, Belgium. He taught at Clongowes Wood college, Co. Kildare (1931–4), before studying theology for three years in Innsbruck, Austria, where he was ordained a catholic priest (24 June 1937). He completed his theology studies at Milltown Park, Dublin (1937–8). After a brief period spent giving missions and retreats, he became rector of the philosophate at Tullabeg (1940–47); during these years he ministered to republican prisoners in Portlaoise prison, with whom he enjoyed some credibility owing to his family having supported the anti-treaty side during the civil war. He was rector and novice master at Emo Court, Portarlington, Co. Laois (1947–59). Thereafter he belonged to the Jesuit community at St Ignatius Residence (House of Writers), 35 Lower Leeson St., Dublin.
Anticipating the reforms of the second Vatican council, O'Sullivan promoted among fellow clergy a more sensitive and artistic presentation of the liturgy, especially the mass. Through encouragement and facilitation of patronage, he contributed to the mid-twentieth-century revival in standards of catholic ecclesiastical art in Ireland. Enjoying a long friendship with stained-glass artist Evie Hone (qv), he arranged the placement of her work in churches and religious houses throughout the country, and commissioned one of her most notable achievements, the five windows for the new community chapel at Tullabeg (1946). After Hone's death, he helped organise the major memorial exhibition at UCD, Earlsfort Tce (1958). Appointed to the Arts Council in 1956, he served for thirteen years as the body's director (1960–73). Overseeing a redefinition of the council's responsibilities based on an appraisal of needs and resources, he directed activities and expenditure away from support for music, drama, and dance, to a concentration on the fine visual arts, his own area of primary interest and expertise. At the suggestion of council member C. S. ‘Todd’ Andrews (qv), he initiated a scheme whereby the Arts Council purchased paintings and sculptures by Irish artists for resale at half-price to public institutions and state-sponsored bodies, including schools, CIÉ hotels, and local authorities. Securing the appointment of an Arts Council exhibitions officer, he attracted important travelling exhibitions to Ireland, including the influential ‘Art: USA: Now’ exhibition (1964). His encouragement of the preparation of carefully researched catalogues to accompany such exhibitions helped stimulate the emergence of art history as a discipline in Irish universities. He brought to Dublin an exhibition of works by the controversial Irish-born artist Francis Bacon (qv) (1965), and encouraged the highly successful Rosc exhibitions of 1967 and 1971 at the RDS, which introduced Irish audiences to a large selection of contemporary international art. His foremost achievement was the formation (1961) and development of the Arts Council collection of contemporary Irish painting and sculpture, comprising some 800 purchases by 1969; the initiative stimulated the establishment of similar collections by private interests, and thus proved an important catalyst of patronage.
Through such initiatives, O'Sullivan dynamically promoted an understanding and acceptance of modern art in Ireland, thereby helping effect a revolution in public taste. However, in exercising his personal preference for abstract works in the prevalent international hard-edge style, he controversially neglected not only artists practising more conservative styles, but also the emerging school of expressionist figurative artists, leading to accusations of confusing artistic merit with private taste, and failing to represent and support the full range of contemporary painting styles in Ireland. Accused of practising an autocratic style of leadership, early in his tenure he led the council into two highly contentious decisions on planning issues, by advising the relevant local authorities to approve demolition of a row of Georgian buildings in Lower Fitzwilliam St., Dublin, to allow construction of a modern office block for the Electricity Supply Board (ESB), and to approve location of a nitrogen factory on an historic and scenic site near Arklow, Co. Wicklow; both decisions embroiled the Arts Council in febrile public rows. He excluded various popular and traditional forms from the range of art eligible for Arts Council support, favouring the fine and applied arts over genres that he regarded as primarily participatory. Ignoring the important 1960s revival of folk and traditional Irish music, he was also accused of inadequate support for artistic activity outside of Dublin, and for work in the Irish language. His approach implied an elitist concept of art as an activity of professionals producing work of a high standard (as determined by presumed experts) for the aesthetic appreciation of a consuming audience that was largely middle-class and urban, and ran against the demotic spirit of the 1960s and prevailing international trends in arts policy.
O'Sullivan was a founding director of the Kilkenny Design Workshops (1965–77) and of the stamp design committee. He served on the editorial board of the Jesuit periodical Studies, to which he frequently contributed. Intimidating to some associates, inspiring to others, he concealed a fundamentally withdrawn, contemplative nature beneath an opinionated, supercilious persona. Recent biographers of the English writer Graham Greene have alleged that over many years from the late 1940s O'Sullivan was involved in a sexual relationship with Catherine Walston (1916–78), the beautiful, impetuous American-born wife of a millionaire British financier, whose overlapping relationship with Greene inspired the latter's novel The end of the affair (1951). After retiring from the Arts Council, O'Sullivan was superior to the Jesuit residence on Leeson St., where he died on 19 November 1977
Jesuit Year Book (1974), 145–6 (photo.); Ir. Times, 21 Nov. 1977 (obit. and photo.); Irish Province News [Jesuit], xvii, no. 1 (1978), 28–32; Brian P. Kennedy, Dreams and responsibilities: the state and the arts in independent Ireland (c.1990) (photo., 131); Michael Sheldon, Graham Greene: the man within (1994); William Cash, The third woman: the secret passion that inspired The end of the affair (2000), 209–13
◆ Irish Province News
Irish Province News 51st Year No 2 1976
Since the last issue of the Province News, our Superior, Fr Donal O’Sullivan, was the recipient of a signal honour from the French Government. This, l’Ordre National du Mérite, was conferred on him in recognition of his services in promoting French culture, especially in artistic fields. At the presentation the Ambassador, M Pierre du Menthon, mentioned the keen pleasure it gave him, a past pupil of the Society, to confer this order on Fr O’Sullivan
Irish Province News 53rd Year No 1 1978
Fr Paul Leonard has been appointed Superior and his immediate predecessor, Fr Donal O’Sullivan died. For quite some time Fr O’Sullivan’s health had been deteriorating steadily. During a visit to Cork in the summer he was taken to hospital with heart trouble and on his return to Dublin he spent a long and tedious period in the Mater Hospital, suffering from several serious complaints. He longed to return home to his room in Leeson street and his doctor finally gave him permission to re-join the community at the end of October. But he became steadily weaker and on 19th November he died unexpectedly but very peacefully. May he rest in peace.
Fr Donal O’Sullivan (1904-1977)
Father Donal O’Sullivan SJ, died unexpectedly, although after a long illness, in Dublin, on Saturday, 19th November.
He was born in Bantry (Cork) on July 26th, 1904 and entered the Noviceship in Tullabeg on August 31st, 1923. Of the normal Jesuit studies he was at Egenhoven, Belgium for Philosophy (1928-1931) and studied three years of Theology at Innsbruck where he was ordained on June 24th 1937: he completed his theology course at Milltown Park 1937-1938.
He was Rector of the Philosophate at Tullabeg from 1940-1947; and went to Emo in 1947 where he was Rector. He was Master of Novices there from 1947-1959. He was in Leeson Street from 1959 until his death on December 19th, 1977. For some of these years he was Spiritual Father to the students at University Hall and was Director of the Arts Council (a State Body) 1960-73. Father Ó Catháin, a contemporary, helps us more fully to understand the great interests and achievements of Father Donal.
Father Ó Catháin writes: Father Donal O’Sullivan is probably best known for his work as Director of the Arts Council from 1960-73. Mervyn Wall, who was Secretary to the Council in those years, has written about that side of his work. He was also a director of the Kilkenny Design Workshops, as Mr. Wall writes, until June of this year. In addition he was a founder member of the Stamp Design Committee and was active on that Committee up to his death.
These were what might be called his external, public, activities. In addition, or even of greater importance, though parallel with them, was what he did in two areas of the spiritual life of this country. Long before the modern post-Vatican stress on the liturgy became fashionable, he did all he could, by example and encouragement, to promote a seemly and beautiful presentation of the liturgy, of the Mass in particular. In this way he influenced not only the young Jesuits whose novice-master he was for twelve years, but also many lay-people whose spiritual life he directed.
In addition he encouraged artists, both young and well-established, to give of their talents to the glorifying of God's house. His friendship with Evie Hone resulted in the appearance of many of her best works in churches throughout Ireland. Probably the most striking collection of them is the windows in the Community Chapel in what is now the Jesuit Retreat House near Tullamore, commissioned by him when he was Rector there in the years 1940-47.
One little-known activity of his was his work among the political prisoners in Portlaoise jail in the early mid-forties. Coming as he did of a family which had chosen the Republican side in the civil War, he had what would now be called “credibility” with many of these men. He would not wish any details of that work to be known; but there must be many still alive of those men he helped who will remember him with gratitude when they see the announcement of his death.
Mervyn Wall writes: many years ago Fr O’Sullivan helped in setting up an Evie Hone exhibition in University College, Dublin. So successful was this exhibition that he was appointed a member of the Arts Council in 1957. On the death of his predecessor, Mgr. Pádraig de Brún in 1960, he was appointed by the President to the post of Director of the Council. He was twice re-appointed and served as Director for thirteen years until the Arts Council Act of 1973 extended the powers and membership of the Council.
During his term of office his particular interest was the promotion of contemporary art. He was interested in Swedish design and cooperated in the visit of some of its experts on a visit to Dublin which resulted in a valuable report on commercial Design in Ireland. This report led to the establishment of the Kilkenny Design Workshops of which he was one of the founding Directors; he remained on the Board until June of this year. He also acted as Chairman of the committee on Stamp Design, set up as an advisory body by the Minister of Posts and Telegraphs.
While he was chairman of the Arts Council many important exhibitions of contemporary Art were brought to Dublin under the auspices of the Council. These included an exhibition of German church architecture and exhibitions from the Netherlands, Norway, Germany, and from the U.S.A. and Britain. More recently, he had the courage to bring to Dublin an exhibition of the work of the controversial English Artist, Francis Bacon. He was active in giving all the help he could to the Rosc exhibitions and in building up the Arts Council's collection of Contemporary Irish Paintings which he accompanied on a tour of the Scandinavian countries. A valuable scheme which he initiated was the purchase of paintings and sculpture by Irish artists for re-sale at half-price to public institutions and hotels.
In an appreciation in the Press by James White we read: “His closest collaborator and friend in the Arts Council was Michael Scott the architect for whom he had unbounded admiration. Together they could sway opposition and dare projects that others might find forbidding. But those who came close to them have been inspired by the conviction that when faith is well anchored, then nothing should deter one.
The Rosc exhibitions are a typical example. The first two mounted in the RDS in an unsuitable setting somehow achieved the impact of a major international success which has put Dublin on the record of every Art institution in the world. More important from a native point of view, was the impact which they had made on our national consciousness. They gave our complacency a jolt from which we will never recover”.
Father Ó Catháin concludes: “He also tried to help, within the limits of the government grant to the Council and in a quiet and private way, struggling young artists in whom he recognised the promise of talent. He did not always receive the thanks he merited, but it can be said of him that, - fortunately, perhaps - he did not work for thanks. He was interested rather in bringing Ireland out of a sterile academicism into the life of European and World Art.”
From 35 Lower Leeson Street, Father Peter Troddyn writes concerning Father Donal O’Sullivan’s Collaboration with editors of “Studies”:
For many years Father O’Sullivan was a valued collaborator with successive editors of STUDIES. His name was signed to many book reviews over a very long period. Those reviews were always readable, well-judged in length according to the worth of the books under review, and giving just the right account for a reader of that worth, For an editor, he was the ideal reviewer: he never accepted a book without delivering his review of it on time, no matter how busy he might be: and the review was always ready for printing just as it came from his typewriter, requiring not even minor editing. He was a member of the STUDIES editorial board. In this capacity he read many articles sent for publication, and would give a shrewd - and again prompt - assessment of them. His advice helped to shape the contents of many issues of the magazine. That advice was always well-balanced and constructive, objective and solidly-based on his own wide reading in many fields. Such collaborators for any magazine are not easily found, nor easily replaced.
One who was a novice under Fr O’Sullivan's period as Master of Novices was Father Michael Sheil, now Deputy Headmaster in Clongowes Wood College. He was a great friend of Father Donal and was at his decoration by the French Embassy with the Légion d'honeur as his special guest.
Father Shiel very kindly found time from among his many duties to send the following tribute: “The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Fr Donal was his breadth of vision and his courage to carry out many of his liturgical 'innovations' at a time when they were not fashionable. He used often to say to us in the Novitiate that the worst enemies of the Liturgical movement were those who were too. enthusiastic' and also "too impulsive and unreflective.
One of his great phrases used to be that ‘grace builds on nature’ and he certainly lived that out in his own life. He is for me an example of a Jesuit ‘Finding God in all things’.
He also gave to us insular and just-our-of-school novices some concept of the world-wide body of the Society - he used always talk of the ‘Company of Jesus’, not the Society!
After the usual ‘anti-Mag. Nov’ feelings which most experienced in the years immediately after the noviceship, it was extraordinary to see the position of respect and affection with which Donal was held by us.
His obvious enthusiasm for the Arts was rubbed off to some extent on us and his attempts to educate us in this field in Emo were not without fruit! I think that he saw the Liturgy as a form of visual art, leading men towards God, and his own reverential attitude at Mass, linked to the majesty of the Liturgy, signified to us the posture of man-in-communion-with-God.
His familiarity with the Constitutions was striking - I remember how much he was opposed to some of the changes proposed in the early 70s. Yet, who can forget his intervention at the first. Province Meeting in Rathfarnham in 1973, when, having done a volte-face after considering further the reasons for such changes, he persuaded the gathering there that it was best to remain in ‘plenary session’ so that ‘the voice of the Province may be heard’. And I will always remember his homily at the closing Eucharist of the '75 meeting in Milltown.
Donal was a ‘Man-before-his-time’. What he sowed others will reap - may we be worthy to follow in his footsteps, as we have walked in his shadow. His death marks the end of an era”
Another former novice under Father O'Sullivan, Father H S Naylor, of Wah Yan College, Hong Kong, wrote an appreciation of Father O’Sullivan's work as novice-master. The appreciation included the following warm words: “I have many friends in the Society, and many more whom I have admired and now respect, but Donal O'Sullivan was the greatest of them all. I had the opportunity to say this to him as we walked up and down the garden in Leeson Street this (1977) June. He was tired of being Superior, which he had been since he left the Tertianship, and though hopeful for the future he was perplexed by the modern Society, and personally anxious about his health.
I had said that I owed it to his formation that I could sail through the changes of the Second Vatican Council and the problems that came with it. He was a man well ahead of his time, and prepared us well for the Society in the Sixties. Time and time again, in retreats and preparation of talks, I have used materials he gave us or was inspired by things he had said”.
2021, Damien Burke notes.
Daniel Joseph Sullivan - educated locally until fourteen, then three years at St Colman's College, Fermoy, Cork on a Rice scholarship. One year at the North Monastery, Cork and then, University College Cork in 1921. Studied 1st Engineering, but took no exam.
Will of Evie Hone, 10 November 1954: 'To Fr Donal O'Sullivan SJ the sum of One Hundred Pounds to be expended by him for artistic purposes or the purchase of livestock for the Order'; 'I Give and Bequeath my Roua Acquitant to Fr O'Sullivan SJ'. Will states the 'I I Give and Bequeath unto my said sister Mrs Nancy Connell and my friend Mrs Harrie Clarke all my paintings being my own work'.
Codicil to the will of Anna Frances Connell, 11 March 1957. 'AND as regards Copy Rights of any of the works of my said sister Evie Hone I DIRECT that the control of the same shall be under, in the hands of and in the sole discretion of the said Father D. O'Sullivan and Mr Leo Smith or such person or persons as they or the survivors of them shall select or appoint.