O'Sullivan, Donal Joseph (1893–1973), civil servant, university lecturer, and folk-music historian, was born 24 December 1893 in Liverpool, son of James O'Sullivan, a civil servant, and Mary O'Sullivan (née Hudson), both natives of Co. Kerry. Educated in Liverpool and London, under his parents' influence he developed an early interest in Ireland, learned Irish in the Kerry gaeltacht, and attended Gaelic League activities in London. Entering the civil service in London as a first division clerk, during the first world war he was a British naval signals officer on a minesweeper accompanying convoys. Returning to the civil service, he was transferred at his own request to Dublin. Called to the Irish bar (1922), he became clerk to the senate of the Irish Free State (1922–36). Combining his career in administration with a deep interest in Irish folk music and song, which derived from childhood holidays with his grandparents in Kerry, while still based in London he succeeded Charlotte Milligan Fox (qv) as editor of the Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society (1920–39). Over eight numbers of the journal (xxii–xxix (1927–39)) he published serially an edition of the first two volumes of ‘The Bunting collection of Irish folk music and songs’. Assisted by A. Martin Freeman, he compared each of the 130 tunes published with piano accompaniments in the 1796 and 1809 collections of the pioneering field collector Edward Bunting (qv) with the more authentic versions recorded in Bunting's original manuscripts, housed in the library of Queen's University Belfast (QUB); restoring the Irish song texts (omitted by Bunting), O'Sullivan also supplied copious annotations dealing with alternate versions of the songs appearing in other collections, and the musicians, poets, people, and places associated with the songs. Including variations provided by O'Sullivan himself, his edition comprised 175 airs and over 3,000 lines of verse.
On the abolition of the senate by the Fianna Fáil government (1936), O'Sullivan retired from the civil service and concentrated on research into contemporary Irish political and constitutional history, and folk music and song. He wrote The Irish Free State and its senate: a study in contemporary politics (1940), a rigorously factual historical record and a tendentious apologia. As a cogent delineation of the treatyite case, arguing the legitimacy of the state and the integrity of its institutions, and alleging its steady subversion by political, but undemocratic, means, owing to the machinations of Éamon de Valera (qv), the work is a counterweight to another contemporary polemical history, The Irish republic (1937) by Dorothy Macardle (qv). O'Sullivan served one term in Seanad Éireann (1943–4), having been elected on the cultural and educational panel. The spice of life and other essays (1948) brought together articles published over some years in the Times Pictorial under the pseudonym ‘Outis’. He contributed articles on folk music and poetry to Dublin Historical Record, Éigse, Studies, and the journals of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (RSAI) and the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Active from its inception (1947) in the International Folk Music Council, as vice-president of the body in 1949 he led an Irish delegation to the international congress of folk music and dance in Venice; his report on the congress to the minister for external affairs is a model of such writing. Accepting academic appointments at both of Dublin's universities, he occupied the newly established post of lecturer in international affairs at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) (1949–65), and was director of studies in Irish folk music and song at University College Dublin (UCD, 1951–62). A life member of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) from 1929, he was conferred by TCD with the degrees of Master of Arts (MA, 1951) and honorary Doctor of Letters (Litt.D.) (1952), and from 1965 was research lecturer in Irish folk music at TCD.
Commissioned by the advisory committee on cultural relations to write a booklet for its Irish life and culture series, he published Irish folk music and song (1952), with illustrations by Muriel Brandt (qv); though a brief treatment, it was the first general survey that was both scholarly and accessible to the general reader. The work was revised and updated as Irish folk music, song, and dance (1961). He contributed a lengthy article on Irish folk music to the fifth edition of Grove's dictionary of music and musicians (1954), including a bibliography of published and manuscript collections. O'Sullivan's masterwork was Carolan: the life, times, and music of an Irish harper (1958), published in two volumes, the first comprising ‘The life and times’ and ‘The music’, and including the scores of 213 attributed tunes; the second volume comprises exhaustive notes to all the tunes (including biographical accounts of the patrons for whom they were composed), and the memoirs of harper Arthur O'Neill (qv), a prime source for the period. The book established the centrality of the person and music of Turlough Carolan (qv) to the subsequent revival of Irish traditional music, exerting a profound influence on such artists as Seán Ó Riada (qv), and Paddy Moloney and The Chieftains. O'Sullivan's last book was Songs of the Irish (1960), an anthology of sixty-five folk songs, including for each the musical score, the Irish text, an English verse translation by O'Sullivan or another, and O'Sullivan's literal prose translation; the book is divided into fifteen categories of song, including lullabies, laments, patriotic and historical songs, and songs of work, love, religion, and drinking. In 1965 he commenced editing Bunting's third published volume, that of 1840, against the manuscripts and within the context of the broader source material. His memory failing, he left thirty-four of the 151 tunes unedited, and lacunae in his manuscript text. The work was completed, revised, and expanded by Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, and published as Bunting's ancient music of Ireland (1983).
O'Sullivan 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. His research laid a scholarly foundation for the 1960s revival in performance and recording of Irish traditional music; in a field long flawed by limited and imprecise data, he was the first Irish scholar to command general authority and respect. O'Sullivan married (5 August 1925) Jeannie Horgan (née Coyle), a widow; it is not recorded that they had children. They resided for many years at Cairn Hill, Foxrock, Co. Dublin, and latterly at 40 Anglesea Rd. He died suddenly in Dublin on 15 April 1973, and was buried in Dean's Grange cemetery. His papers are held in the Irish folklore archives, UCD.
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).