Ó Súilleabháin, Amhlaoibh (O'Sullivan, Humphrey) (1783–1838), diarist, seanchaí (storyteller), schoolteacher, and draper, was born 1 May 1783 in Glenfesk, near Killarney, Co. Kerry, probably the eldest of several children born to Donncha Ó Súilleabháin (1738–1808), schoolteacher, and his wife Máire Ní Bhuachalla (1748–1827). The family migrated to Waterford in 1789 and then headed (March 1790) for the neighbourhood of Callan, Co. Kilkenny, where his father taught in a bothán (cabin) at Killaloe crossroads. Educated to proficiency (presumably by his father) in modern and classical Irish, Latin, English, mathematics, and the techniques of the scribe, Amhlaoibh and his brother were brought up to their father's trade, and from the late 1790s taught at Killaloe and in a bigger school at Ballykeefe nearby. Some years after his father's death, he opened a school in Moat Lane, Callan, later moving to a building in Green St., Callan, where he gave a grounding to infants and adolescents in various subjects according to age-group ón aibitír suas go fluxions (‘from the letters of the alphabet right up to the differential calculus’) (de Bhaldraithe, Cin Lae, 52). Teaching was sufficiently remunerative to enable him to set aside his school and open a shop in Green St. by 1821. In the census of May that year his mother is categorised as a ‘huggster’, so the family had two outlets. Leasing land in conacre outside the town for the cultivation of potatoes and oats, and trafficking in meal and pigs, he managed to expand the business during the depression of the early 1820s. He obtained retail merchandise (hardware etc.) in Kilkenny, Clonmel, and Dublin. In late September 1831 he records one such trip by mail-coach to Dublin: ‘chruinníos mo chuid earraí i dteannta a chéile ag tigh taisce Dhubhtaigh . . . agus do chuireas suas i bpucaíbh nó i málaíbh móra iad ceangailte le téadaibh crua cnáibe’ (I gathered my goods together at Duffy's warerooms . . . and packed them in big bags tied with hard hempen ropes’) (ibid., 91).
He initiated his diary in January 1827, making the first entry in English. It was introduced as a journal of ‘observations on the weather, herbs, plants, trees etc.’ (ibid., p. xxix). Succeeding entries were in Irish, and the diary included within its horizon notes on social conditions, customs, agriculture, prices, and political events; it is not confessional. Evidence internal to the diary suggests that its birth may have owed something to the onset of illness in his wife. It was clearly intended for public readership, though never deadened by the usual devices of literary construction. Influenced seemingly by the letters of Gilbert White of Selborne, such a journal would have been revolutionary in concept in contemporary Irish letters, which at the time were confined largely to poetry and song. It remains one of three or four examples of the genre in the language. The diary is at its most copious between 1827 and 1831, petering out in the summer of 1835. In May 1827 Ó Súilleabháin served as juror at the baronial presentment sessions. In June that year he helped distribute cheap min bhuí (yellow meal) (ibid., 10) in Callan. Appointed (January 1828) parish warden in the Catholic Association, he collected the ‘catholic rent’ monthly till 1830. Between May and October 1828 he and other local catholic activists attempted to safeguard the benighted hole-dwellers of Callan commonage from novel exactions proposed by the 2nd Viscount Clifden (1761–1836), the town proprietor. He was one of a coroner's jury inquiring into the death of a man at the June fair of 1828 in Callan, which found a verdict of homicide against two police constables. At the July assizes in Kilkenny he seems to have assisted in their prosecution. Dreading protestant reaction to raucous O'Connellite marches, he exerted himself in late 1828 to get enthusiasts to walk without héadaíbh uaine ná le deilbh Uí Chonaill agus le ceol (without green clothes nor with O'Connell's image nor with music) (ibid., 46).
In November 1829 the household (including one maidservant) moved into a spacious house on Green St. At the close of 1829, some months after the death of his wife, Ó Súilleabháin undertook the lack-lustre courtship of the sister of a local priest, feeling his children now needed mothering; the priest later threatened legal proceedings for his failure to ask for her hand in marriage. In late 1830 he was involved in controversy arising out of the erection of a Lancastrian school in the town. If for some reason he resumed teaching from May 1829 to September 1831, and again between May and August 1833, the shop did not lose custom; in August 1832 he purchased £200 worth of stock. Though he continued to assume civic responsibility for care of the town poor, his role in local politics diminished. His last act of participation seems to have been the delivery of a speech in Irish against tithes and for repeal at a huge O'Connellite meeting in Ballyhale, near Callan, on 8 July 1832.
The diary reveals the lineaments of catholic nationalist ideology as they took shape in the mind of a sensitive, literate, newspaper-reading member of the catholic rural middle class; Irish forests were burned by the invader to flush out fugitives; taxes went to finance the destruction of the catholic faith; taking tithe cases to court was futile – ‘is beag an chabhair dul chum dlí leis an diabhal agus an chúirt in Ifreann’ (there is no point going to law with the devil if the court is in hell) (ibid., 81). His companions were the local doctor, Callan shopkeepers, and the priest, and he viewed local customs as an outsider, not as a participant, tending to take a stern clerical line on public drinking and conviviality. The core of the diary is, however, its lucid rendering of the life cycles of flowers, birds, trees, and animals in the Callan countryside. The tone of the writing does not falter – there is nothing (or very little) laboured or meretricious in his descriptions. His interior life is refined into small actions sharply recorded and the account is always believable. He died 20 November 1838 in Callan and is buried in the family plot in St Brigid's graveyard.
He married Maire Ni Dhulachta (1785–1829); they had six or seven children, four of whom survived into adulthood.