Taking note – Brian Maye on pioneering traditional music scholar Donal O’Sullivan

A profound influence on Irish folk and traditional music

Donal O’Sullivan, civil servant, politician, lecturer and scholar, was a man of many parts and talents, who made an enormous contribution to Irish folk and traditional music scholarship. He died 50 years ago on April 15th.

He was born in Liverpool on Christmas Eve, 1893, son of James O’Sullivan, a civil servant, and Mary Hudson, both of whom were from Kerry. Educated in Liverpool and London, from an early age his parents inculcated in him a love of Ireland; he attended Gaelic League meetings in London and learned Irish in the Kerry Gaeltacht. He became a civil servant and during the first World War was a naval signals officer on a minesweeper accompanying shipping convoys.

Resuming his civil-service career, he requested transfer to Ireland, became an Irish barrister in 1922 and was clerk of the Irish Free State Seanad until 1936.

Childhood holidays in Kerry had developed in him a deep love of Irish folk music and song and he was editor of the Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society 1920-39. “The Bunting Collection of Irish Folk Music and Songs” was published serially in the journal by him, based on the pioneering works of the collector Edward Bunting that appeared in 1796 and 1809. He annotated these in great detail, included Irish song texts omitted by Bunting, and provided copious information on people, places, musicians and poets associated with the songs.


De Valera’s abolition of the senate in 1936 caused O’Sullivan to retire from the civil service and devote himself to historical research and to folk-music scholarship. He published The Irish Free State and Its Senate in 1940, described by Lawrence White, who wrote the entry on him in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, as “a rigorously factual historical record and a tendentious apologia”. It was a defence of the Irish Free State and an attack on what he saw as de Valera’s attempts to undermine its legitimacy and institutions.

O’Sullivan himself served one term (1943-44) in the new senate, elected on the cultural and educational panel. He wrote many articles on folk music and poetry for publications such as Dublin Historical Record, Éigse, Studies, the journals of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland and of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

He served on the International Folk Music Council and led Irish delegations to its congresses, lectured in Trinity College Dublin on international affairs (1949-65), was Director of Studies in Irish Folk Music and Song in UCD (1951-62) and a life member of the Royal Irish Academy from 1929. Trinity awarded him a master’s degree in 1951 and an honorary doctorate in 1952 and he was a research fellow in Irish folk music there from 1965.

Under commission, he published Irish Folk Music and Song in 1952, “the first general survey that was both scholarly and accessible to the general reader”, according to Lawrence White; it was updated as Irish Folk Music, Song and Dance in 1961.

White regards his Carolan: The Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper (1958) as his “masterwork”; its two volumes cover the life, times and music of the blind harper, with the scores of and exhaustive notes on all of the 213 attributed tunes, including details on the patrons for whom they were composed. “The book established the centrality of the person and music of Turlough Carolan to the subsequent revival of Irish traditional music, exerting a profound influence on such artists as Seán Ó Riada and Paddy Moloney and The Chieftains,” Lawrence White has written.

O’Sullivan’s final book was Songs of the Irish (1960), featuring 65 folk songs, their scores, Irish text and English verse translation, and covering a wide variety of song type: laments, lullabies, patriotic ballads, as well as songs of work, love, religion and drinking.

He began work on Bunting’s third published collection of 1840 but failing memory meant he wasn’t able to finish; Micheál Ó Súilleabháin completed it and it was published as Bunting’s Ancient Music of Ireland in 1983.

Lawrence White credits O’Sullivan with laying the scholarly foundation for the 1960s’ revival of Irish traditional music; he commanded great respect and general authority. He “possessed a photographic memory, which facilitated his tracing of duplicates and variants of airs and texts in various collections, and his recall of contextual information, which he freely shared when consulted,” according to White.

For this enormous contribution to Irish cultural life, he deserves to be remembered.

He married Jennie Horgan (née Coyle), a widow, in 1925 and it’s not recorded if they had children.

They lived in Foxrock, Co. Dublin, for many years and then on Anglesea Road, Ballsbridge. He is buried in Deansgrange Cemetery.