Patty’s Day Parade — Frank McNally on Patty Hearst, the Hibernia Bank and the ‘Singing O’Sullivans’

An early example of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’

It is 50 years ago this weekend since Patty Hearst, teenage granddaughter and heiress to the real-life Citizen Kane, was kidnapped by left-wing militants from her apartment in Berkeley, California.

She then became an early and famous example of “Stockholm Syndrome”, a presumed condition named for a bank robbery in the Swedish capital the previous August, after which hostages refused to testify against the robbers, instead raising money for their defence.

In Hearst’s case, sympathy with the kidnappers inspired her to turn up in a San Francisco bank three months later, in April 1974, wearing a beret and wielding a semi-automatic rifle, while ordering customers: “Up, up, up against the wall, motherf***ers!”

For this and other crimes, she was later sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment. But thanks in part to her family’s influence, she got off lightly in the end. Jimmy Carter eventually commuted her sentence to the 22 months already served. Another Democratic president, Bill Clinton, pardoned her altogether. Hearst’s subsequently life has been somewhat less controversial, her notable achievements including success with what a Daily Telegraph report called “Frenchies”. No, readers of a certain age, it’s not what you think. These ones are more formally known as French Bulldogs, and Hearst has won many prizes for exhibiting them.


There was an Irish angle to her moment of infamy because it took place in a branch of the Hibernia Bank, itself the product of a remarkable success story dating back to the mid-19th-century San Francisco in which Hearst’s publishing magnate grandfather was born.

Founded by emigrants from Ireland in 1859 as the Hibernia Savings & Loan Society, the business became California’s biggest bank within 40 years. Vestiges of its success today include the former headquarters on Jones Street, a Beaux Arts masterpiece from 1892, long a San Francisco landmark.

But more than a century before the Hibernia’s Sunset District branch would be held up by Hearst and her friends, one of the Hibernia’s future founders himself had to survive an encounter with a notorious Californian outlaw.

Cornelius J O’Sullivan had emigrated from Skibbereen in the Famine year of 1845, working as a clerk in New Orleans for a time before the 1849 Gold Rush lured him out west.

Speculating with Irish friends in dire conditions, he caught scurvy before finding any gold and, having collapsed, had to be abandoned with meagre provisions for a period while the others walked to Sacramento for help.

A day later, O’Sullivan found himself staring down the barrels of a brace of pistols held by Joaquin Maurietta, a much-storied bandit of the period, romanticised by many as a Robin Hood.

Seeing O’Sullivan’s condition, Maurietta was supposedly moved to mercy of a kind, although we must take the word of a 20t- century columnist from the Berkeley-based Gazette newspaper for the precise wording of the bandit’s parting message to the Corkman, viz: “El senor ees mucha seek. Manana perhaps him die. Joaquin no waste bullet. Adios!”

O’Sullivan did not die mañana. He survived to see his companions return with provisions, later opened a store in San Francisco, and later still became one of the five founders of the HSL Society.

He also lived to be the patriarch of a pair of brothers, Denis and John, who became known as the “Singing O’Sullivans”, as the same Gazette columnist noted in 1948, when John Beare O’Sullivan, a noted baritone, died in 1948.


I don’t know if that John O’Sullivan was related to the one, also of Cork (and Kerry) origin but a tenor, who was lionised by James Joyce as having a voice greater than John McCormack’s.

Either way, the author of Ulysses did his best to immortalise the name of the slightly later John O’Sullivan (1877-1955), with sometimes notorious results.

By then writing Finnegans Wake, Joyce was especially exercised for a time by the rivalry between his man and an Italian tenor called Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, who were both known for singing the extremely challenging part of Arnold in Rossini’s William Tell.

When Sullivan (as he was also known) triumphed at the Paris Opera in 1930, Joyce leapt to his feet and acclaimed him, while damning the Italian, in language worthy of Patty Hearst: “Bravo Sullivan! Merde pour Lauri-Volpi! (Bravo Sullivan! “Shit for Lauri-Volpi!”).

Some in the audience laughed and cheered, while one of Joyce’s neighbours demurred: “Il va un peu fort celui-là” (“That’s putting it a bit strongly”). But it wasn’t the strongest claim he made on behalf of this singing Sullivan.

Joyce had recently undergone successful surgery on his troubled eyes. And according to one newspaper account, he reacted to another of Sullivan’s tours de force by ostentatiously removing his dark glasses with the exclamation: “Merci, mon Dieu, pour ce miracle. Après vingt ans, je revois la lumiére.” (“Thank you, God, for this miracle. After 20 years, I can see again.”)