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Phillip O’Sullivan

12 Mar 2021 / People Print

End of the beginning

A century after the Gazette’s obituary for Philip J O’Sullivan, shot by the IRA during the War of Independence, Eamonn Carney and George Brady reflect on his death.

The January 1921 Gazette carried the following obituary: “Mr Philip J O’Sullivan, solicitor, was killed, being the victim of a murderous assault in Henry Street, Dublin, on 17 December 1920. Mr O’Sullivan was apprenticed to his father, Mr Florence O’Sullivan, Kinsale, was admitted in Michaelmas Sittings 1919, and practised in Kinsale. He subsequently joined the Royal Irish Constabulary. During the War, Mr O’Sullivan served in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve [RNVR] and was awarded the Military Cross.”

Philip John O’Sullivan was born on 6 August 1899. He was the only son of Florence O’Sullivan and Margaret Barry. Flor O’Sullivan was a native of Skibbereen, a Kinsale solicitor (1893), author of The History of Kinsale (published 1916), co-founder of The Southern Star newspaper in 1889 (with his brother John) and its co-editor. Margaret Barry was a daughter of District Inspector Dominick Barry, RIC, Wicklow.

The Barry family had strong connections with the RIC – notably, Dominick’s uncles, James and Robert, had been chief constable of Carbery East, Cork, and Tipperary coroner/Munster constabulary inspector, respectively.

Philip had a sister, Kitty, and (save attending boarding school in Blackrock College, Dublin, from 1911-1913) was educated in Kinsale.

Red roses for me

On 8 June 1918, aged 18, Philip joined the RNVR. He served in the Mediterranean and Adriatic on Motor Launches 386 and 530. In recognition of his bravery during the Second Battle of Durazzo on 2-3 October 1918, Philip was awarded the Military Cross, a distinction rarely conferred on Royal Navy members.

Philip received commendation from the King of Italy and Admiral of the Italian Fleet. In July 2019, Lieutenant Philip O’Sullivan was demobilised. He came home to work in his father’s solicitor’s practice in Kinsale and, in October 1919, was recorded as the 11th of 15 candidates who passed their final Law Society examinations.

On 7 November 1919, he was enrolled as a solicitor. Being a West Cork solicitor, Philip knew its people, townlands, highways and by-ways, and the local customs and practices.

The Law Society Gazette, in February 1920, reported Philip’s admission as a solicitor; the same issue also reported that the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act had received royal assent, opening the legal profession to women (and two women had lodged application for apprenticeship). 

Within the gates

In the War of Independence, the British Government recruited and mobilised the RIC Auxiliaries and ‘Black and Tans’, whose experiences in the trenches of Northern France made them unsuitable for police duties. This policy created a military force with a reputation for unnecessary and excessive violence, drunkenness, and poor discipline.

In a notably short period of time, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) ceased to be perceived by many as ‘community guardians’. RIC members became targets of the Irish Republican Army.

In June/July 1920, assizes failed all across the south and west of Ireland. Trials by jury could not be held, because jurors would not attend.

The collapse of the courts system demoralised the RIC, and many resigned or retired.

However, perhaps Philip’s maternal family background and sense of civic duty and service compelled him to take action – which would lead to his death.

On 24 July 1920, the then 22-year-old Philip joined the RIC, becoming a district inspector (DI) in Cork County on 1 October.

The late-1920 escalation of hostilities is well known: Bloody Sunday (21 November) was followed by the Kilmichael Ambush on 28 November; martial law was declared in Cork, Kerry, Tipperary and Limerick on 10 December and, the next day, Cork city centre was burnt by Black and Tans, who shot firefighters attending the fires.

The shadow of a gunman

On Friday 17 December, Philip was in Dublin. Shortly after 6pm, he met his fiancée, Alice Moore.

In her evidence at his inquest, Alice recounted that they met outside ‘The Fancy Fair’ on Henry Street. Philip apologised for being late; Alice took Philip’s hand, telling him he was not late, when a man near them pulled a revolver from his coat and fired a shot.

Philip fell to the ground, shot in the head.

Alice reached down and bent over Philip, to lift him and turn him over; the gunman pointed his revolver at Philip as he lay on the ground. Alice caught hold of the revolver and wrestled with the gunman.

The gunman overpowered Alice, as another gunman fired a second shot into Philip before they made their escape, leaving him mortally wounded in Alice’s arms.

A crowd gathered; people called for a priest; prayers were recited.

A lorry stopped to take him to hospital. The Cork County Eagle reported that, along the way, Philip opened his eyes towards Alice but could not speak.

He was anointed by a priest and died within five minutes of his arrival at the hospital.

His funeral took place on Monday 20 December 1920. The Christmas Day edition of the Cork County Eagle reported that Alice Moore was in tears throughout, and she collapsed at the graveside as the RIC buglers sounded The Last Post.

After the burial, Alice and Philip’s sister Kathleen knelt and prayed, before being overcome with grief as they left the graveside.

The plough and the stars

Testimony given to the Bureau of Military History in 1957 by Ned Kelliher, Joe Byrne and Joe Leonard indicates that they were members of Michael Collins’ ‘Squad’.

Leonard’s statement (547) indicates that DI O’Sullivan was under observation that week, noting that he met his fiancée each evening.

The statement records that DI O’Sullivan was targeted as he was “too good at decoding, so our intelligence officer pointed him out in company with his girl.

There were two volunteers present, one of whom was reading the evening paper; the other shot O’Sullivan – when his girl grappled with this man, who shook her off.”

Kelliher’s statement (477) confirms that it was he who followed O’Sullivan that week, and that “he was keeping an appointment with a lady friend of his in Henry Street. I pointed him out to members of the Squad, and he was executed on the spot.”

Byrne’s statement (461) records that he was “instructed, with others, to proceed to Henry Street to assist in the shooting of DI O’Sullivan. About four of us comprised the party.

"A couple of us were detailed not to take part in the actual shooting, but to cover off the men who were to do the job. I saw the DI being shot by a member of the Squad and, when the shooting was over, we returned to Moorelands” [a shop on Abbey Street that the Squad used as its base].

Various lawyers were involved in the subsequent reportage of Philip’s death, which became propagandised and personal.

Philip’s father Flor had established The Southern Star as a rival to The Cork County Eagle. (The Eagle, then known as the Skibbereen Eagle, is renowned in journalistic annals for an editorial in November 1898 that declared it was “was keeping its eye on” the Tsar of Russia.)

In 1906, The Eagle was inherited by a lawyer, Eldon Potter. By 1908, it had two other principal shareholders, both lawyers – RW Doherty (Bandon) and Jasper Travers Wolfe (Skibbereen). Wolfe was born in Skibbereen, qualified as a solicitor in 1893, served as Crown Solicitor for Cork City, and was a West Cork TD in Dáil Éireann (1927-1933).

Wolfe was a progressive man: in 1924, his law clerk Dorothea Mary Browne, daughter of an RIC sergeant, became one of the first female solicitors in Ireland.

After August 1915, the editor of The Eagle was solicitor Philip Sheehy. Initially a supporter of John Redmond (Irish Parliamentary Party), Sheehy did not switch his allegiance to Sinn Féin, and his criticism of Republican strategy resulted in various difficult events (including in September 1917, when The Eagle’s printing machinery was vandalised, and in May 1920, when a group of armed men broke into Sheehy’s home and bound, beat and tarred him).

The Southern Star had nationalist connections. In November 1916, the paper’s plant/machinery was seized and publication suppressed by British authorities.

In December 1917, Michael Collins and his brother John became shareholders in The Star and are credited with putting together the group of investors who acquired the paper. The group included Seán Buckley, Seán Hales (TD, third Dáil) and Seán Hayes (MP for West Cork, December 1918 and 1921).

Notable republicans (including Ernest Blythe, Dick Connolly, barrister James Burke, Peader O hAnnracháin and Seán Hayes) edited The Southern Star prior to late 1920. The Star was suppressed three times during 1918-1919. In total, it was banned for 56 of the 104 weeks  commencing March 1918.

Time to go

Volume 16 (2020) of the Skibbereen Historical Journal recounts not only the lives of barrister James Burke (editor of The Star) and solicitor Philip Sheehy (editor of The Eagle and town councillor), but also reports exchanges at a meeting of Skibbereen Urban District Council on 4 January 1921, when Philip Sheehy proposed a motion of “abhorrence of the foul murder of District Inspector O’Sullivan” (suggesting that the abhorrence was deeper in Skibbereen because of the O’Sullivan family’s connection to Skibbereen, noting Philip’s grand-uncle had been a town commissioner), and to assure the “respected parents of the late District Inspector O’Sullivan our sincere sympathy in the great loss they have sustained and to assure them that the murder of their son is condemned by every citizen of the town”.

Sheehy knew his motion would be deeply embarrassing to James Duggan, the (Sinn Féin) chairman of the council, director of The Southern Star, and friend of Michael Collins.

Duggan knew both Philip O’Sullivan’s father Florence and uncle John very well, and was friendly with many of their family.

With reference to the motion of abhorrence, Sheehy then editorialised a criticism of The Southern Star, Skibbereen Town Council, and James Duggan in The Cork County Eagle.

Approximately 100 metres from Michael Collins’ grave in Glasnevin Cemetery, Philip O’Sullivan lies buried in the same plot as his maternal grandfather, District Inspector Dominick Barry.

Our profession acknowledges the contributions of those who currently put their lives at risk in service of the community.

Perhaps, in time, neither condoning nor diminishing atrocities and brutality, we will better understand the sacrifices made, the selfless service, and the trauma of loved ones, on both sides of the political divide, 100 years ago.

With acknowledgement to Philip O’Regan (Skibbereen Historical Society) and James Herlihy (HARP Society), who kindly provided certain source material and photos for publication.

Read and print a PDF of this article here.

Eamonn Carney and George Brady
Eamonn Carney is sole principal of Carney McCarthy; George Brady is a partner at Matheson. Both are great-grandsons of John O’Sullivan, the uncle of Philip O’Sullivan