In the rich history of Ireland and Irish emigration to the United States, few surnames have been as prevalent as Sullivan or O’Sullivan. Both spelling variations are associated with County Tipperary, Cork, and Kerry, but can be found across Ireland.
Birth statistics show that O’Sullivan is the eighth most common surname in Ireland. It has declined in ranking from third at the start of the twentieth century.
In the United States census records, Sullivan has consistently ranked third in Irish last names since 1870 to modern times.
Read on for an exploration of the Sullivan surname from the mid-19th century to the present day. Census records, birth registrations, and passenger lists uncover the patterns in Ireland and America of this very Irish last name.
How Common Is The Sullivan Surname In Ireland?
I’ve researched the population statistics from current times back to the late 19th century. Sullivan has slowly declined in relative popularity to other names:
- 2022: 8th most common name
- 1990s: 5th most common name
- 1911: 3rd most common name
- 1890: 3rd most common name
Let’s look into these numbers for more context…
Sullivan In Recent Years
Ireland’s Central Statistics Office published the ten most common surnames of babies born in 2022.
O’Sullivan was 8th on the list. Here are the positions of the 6th to 10th names to put this into perspective.
Population Estimates In The 1990s
Irish genealogist Seán J. Murphy studied surname numbers in Ireland between 1992 and 1997 based on entries in telephone books.
The Sullivan family name was the fifth most common in this decade. This bar chart shows the top five:
You can read more about the other names here:
Sullivan In The Early 1900s
The Irish government archives hold full censuses for 1911 and 1901.
As you can see from this table, Sullivan was the third most common name in Ireland at the beginning of the twentieth century.
There were approximately 40,000 bearers of the name Sullivan on the island of Ireland in 1901. Another 7,400 residents used O’Sullivan as their name.
The numbers dropped a little by 1911 when about 27,000 people named Sullivan were recorded. A further nine thousand went by O’Sullivan.
Population Estimates In The 1890s
In the early 1900s, the civil registration office published a “Special Report on Surnames In Ireland” that covered the year 1890.
O’Sullivan is the third highest ranking name in the survey.
How Common Is The Name Sullivan In The United States?
The United States publishes census details up to recent decades.
For privacy reasons, the 2010 census only provides high-level totals of surnames in the entire country. But that’s exactly what we need for this article.
Sullivan has consistently been the third most common Irish surname in the United States since 1870.
Sullivan In The 2010 U.S. Census
Based on the 2010 U.S. census, the name Sullivan is the third most common Irish name in America with 220,990 bearers.
And what about alternate surname spellings? Well, the O’Sullivan version is much rarer. It only had 11,818 bearers in 2010. The total of both variants is still behind Kelly and Murphy.
Here are the top five Irish surnames in this census:
Sullivan In The 1940 U.S. Census
The pattern was repeated in 1940 in the census taken the year before America entered the Second World War.
Sullivan was again the third most common name in 1940 in the U.S. with 139,075 bearers. O’Sullivan had just 4,283 bearers.
Sullivan In The 1870 U.S. Census
Let’s jump back another seventy years to the first census taken after the end of the American Civil War.
Sullivan was the third most common Irish name in this census too. There were 57,842 bearers.
O’Sullivan had 1,296 bearers.
Sullivan Emigration After The Irish Famine
Traditionally, Irish people have emigrated to England, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States.
The largest wave of emigration to the United States occurred during the 19th century. The peak was in response to the Great Irish Famine, which took place between 1845 and 1852.
Sullivan is the fourth most common name among Irish emigrant passengers arriving by ship to New York between 1845 and 1854. It’s behind Ryan, Kelly, and Murphy (in that order).
The line chart below shows the pattern during the famine years. It tells a story of hardship and hunger prompting the departure for new shores.
Sullivan Surname: Meaning And Origin
Sullivan comes from the Gaelic surname “Ó Súilleabháin”.
In Irish, Ó means “descendant of”. “Súilleabháin” is a combination of three words: “súil-dubh-án”:
- “súil” means “eye”
- “dubh” means “black”
- “-án” is a diminutive suffix (it means “little” after a word)
The overall meaning is debated among scholars. Some say it means “little dark-eyed one”, others say “hawk-eyed”, and others say “one-eyed.”
The Anglicization of names in Ireland led to “Ó Súilleabháin” becoming “O’Sullivan” and later often just “Sullivan.”
Family Coat Of Arms And Motto
There are several versions of a Sullivan family crest. This is one example:
The upper half of the Sullivan coat of arms shows two lions on opposite sides of a sword. In heraldry, each animal is known as a “lion rampant” due to the standing pose on its hind legs. The lions symbolize strength.
The sword represents valor while the snake entwined around it represents wisdom.
The lower half shows a stag and a wild boar. The stag indicates a clan that is ready to fight when provoked. The boar indicates a sturdy fierceness.
The family motto is often found written beneath the crest. The Gaelic phrase is:
Lámh foistenach abu
This means “the steady hand to victory”.
Historic And Famous Sullivans
These are some of the most famous people with the surname Sullivan in the last five hundred years:
- Colonel John O’Sullivan (about 1700-1760): Quartermaster General of the Jacobite army that fought in 1745 to take back the British throne for the House of Stuart.
- Francis Stoughton Sullivan (1715-1766): Irish lawyer who became professor of law at Trinity College. A descendant of the O’Sullivan More clan, he was renowned for his lectures on feudal law.
- Sir Edward Sullivan (1822-1885): Irish lawyer and politician who became Attorney General and then Lord Chancellor of Ireland.
- Alexander Martin Sullivan (about 1829-1894): Irish politician, newspaper editor, and prominent trial lawyer.
- Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900): English composer who worked with William Gilbert to create comic operas including The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado.
- Maxine Sullivan (1911-1987): American jazz singer who popularized swing versions of traditional folk songs.
- Dennis Sullivan (1941- ): American mathematician who formulated the “Sullivan conjecture” (I’m not going to attempt to explain it!)
This Irish surname is so prevalent that we’ve written a separate history of the Sullivan clan. The Sullivan ancestors start with a 3rd-century King of Munster.
His descendants included the O’Sullivan Mor clan of County Kerry and the O’Sullivan Beare clan of the Beara Peninsula of County Cork.
Sources For This Article
The top ten birth numbers in Ireland for 2022 are published by the Central Statistics Office.
The Ireland 1990s estimates are from Seán J. Murphy’s research paper.
The population estimates of 1890 are based on the “Special Report on Surnames in Ireland“, originally published in 1909.
The population figures for the 2010 U.S. Census come from a file provided by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Some of the population numbers are based on my own research and calculations using online archives. I’ve rounded those numbers to the nearest 50 to account for transcription errors and other technical issues with online databases of this type.
The Irish census estimates for 1901 and 1911 are my calculations based on the Irish National Archives.
I plotted the emigration figures from 1845 to 1854 based on calculations from the archives of the New York Passenger Lists (1820-1957).