O'Sullivan, Seumas (1879–1958), writer, editor, and publisher, was born James Sullivan Starkey 17 July 1879 at 7 Charleston Avenue, Ranelagh, Dublin, third son among three sons and two daughters of William Starkey, physician and pharmicist, and Martha Starkey (née Sullivan). His father, an amateur poet who contributed verse to nationalist magazines under an undisclosed pen-name, had had one book published, Poems and translations (1875). From an early age James knew the poetry of Milton, Cowper, and Herbert and had embarked on his library of rare books, which was to reach gargantuan proportions. Educated at home by a governess until the age of 12, he then attended Wesley College, Dublin, before studying medicine at the Catholic University, Dublin. He was not, however, academically proficient and after a year he left without a degree and never resumed formal study. He became an apprentice at his father's pharmacy, 30 Rathmines Road, Dublin, enabling him to earn his living while devoting himself to literature.
About 1901 he met AE (George Russell (qv)), becoming a member of his Hermetic Society, and through him met W. B. Yeats (qv) and other members of the Irish literary renaissance. He began contributing poems (1902–3) to the Irish Homestead, Southern Cross, and United Irishman; it was in the latter that he first used, at the suggestion of Padraic Colum (qv), the pseudonym ‘Seumas O'Sullivan’ which he took from his mother's maiden name, and by which he is more commonly known. When Russell compiled an anthology of poems by up-and-coming writers, New songs (1904), he included a number by O'Sullivan; among these was ‘Twilight people’, which Yeats liked. As a member of the Irish Literary Theatre society, O'Sullivan played small parts in many early productions, including the first performance of ‘Riders to the sea’ and the performance of ‘On Baile's strand’ which marked the opening of the Abbey (1904).
Although always diffident and shy, O'Sullivan built up his career single-mindedly and was from youth well known and well connected as author, editor, and publisher. His first collection, Twilight people (1905), was published by Whaley & Co., a firm which he and his friend the poet and actor George Roberts (qv) had revived during the previous year. These melancholic poems, delicate, slight, exquisite, and imbued with an air of undefined mystery, reflected an interest in the natural world. The impact of Yeats and the ‘Celtic twilight’ was obvious, although later O'Sullivan fell out with Yeats and preferred to play down this influence. He resented Yeats's failure to encourage his work and was among those led by Edward Martyn (qv), who left the Abbey and founded (June 1906) the Theatre of Ireland, which, however, boasted only one production.
O'Sullivan knew most of the Irish literary set. He contributed regularly (1903–18) to papers edited by Arthur Griffith (qv), and supported Sinn Féin. He was on good terms with George Moore (qv), who removed a projected section from Hail and farewell that focused on O'Sullivan. Seumas O'Kelly (qv) was a friend who dedicated his first novel, The lady of Deer Park (1917), to O'Sullivan. Oliver St John Gogarty (qv) was a close friend: O'Sullivan lived at the Martello tower in Sandycove for periods in 1904, Gogarty gave Twilight people an enthusiastic review, and O'Sullivan dedicated Mud and purple (1917) to Gogarty. When James Joyce (qv) left for the Continent, O'Sullivan gave him a pair of trousers and shoes.
Between 1906 and 1908 he co-edited the Tower Press booklets, an ambitious series of verse, sketches, and essays by living Irish writers, known and unknown. With the exceptions of those by AE and Moore, the booklets sold badly. O'Sullivan's next book, Verses sacred and profane (published under this imprint, 1908), concentrated on the themes of human and divine love, and includes ‘A piper’, probably his most anthologised poem. The following year he established a new company, the New Nation Press, which he used to publish his third volume, The earth-lover and other verses (1909), under a one-off pseudonym, ‘J. H. Orwell’. For the first time, and unusually for an Irish revival poet, he turned to the street with direct, simple poems about a rag-and-bone man and an organ-grinder. His collected Poems (1912) was called by Emmet Boyd, in his comprehensive Ireland's literary renaissance (1916), one of the finest books of contemporary Anglo-Irish verse. Requiem and other poems (1917) was full of elegies to the 1916 leaders, rather more simplistic than Yeats's. In The Rosses and other poems (1918) he experimented with shorter verse forms and revealed his nationalism in poems such as ‘Traitors' gate’. On two occasions volumes of his selected poems were published in America (1923, 1946), and his Collected poems were published in 1940. O'Sullivan was constantly well reviewed and was particularly championed by AE. His work was included in the Oxford and Penguin books of Irish verse, but was left out of the Cambridge book of modern verse, edited by Yeats. The pair had a poor relationship: Yeats was referring to O'Sullivan, among others, when he said ‘When did the wild dog ever praise his fleas?’ O'Sullivan's retort was ‘When did the wild dog ever know his sires?’ (Russell, 85). In all, he published twenty-one volumes of poetry and two volumes of very entertaining short prose pieces, Essays and recollections (1940) and The rose and bottle (1946).
In later life, however, his major concern was the Dublin Magazine (1923–58), which he founded, edited, and ran virtually single-handed until his death. From 1923 to August 1925 it was a monthly; after a brief interval, it was relaunched in January 1926 as a quarterly. Finance came from O'Sullivan's partner, the painter Estella Solomons (qv). Most leading Irish poets, short-story writers, and critics – it coincided with a new generation of writers such as Samuel Beckett (qv), Austin Clarke (qv), Padraic Fallon (qv), Patrick Kavanagh (qv), Mary Lavin (qv), and Liam O'Flaherty (qv) – appeared in its pages, and some began their careers there. Although O'Sullivan turned down some early Beckett poems on grounds of possible obscenity, the magazine was a regular outlet for Beckett when he had few others. In 1936 O'Sullivan offered Beckett the job of editor, but he turned it down. The Dublin Magazine was neither radical nor risk-taking, but it provided an important forum for many literary hopefuls and established names.
O'Sullivan's generosity towards new talent may have meant neglecting his own. Although his verse continued to be delicate, disciplined, and beautifully modulated, he made few advances. He was a bibliophile, having an estimated 20,000 books – among which the minor poets whom he preferred were particularly well represented – at 2 Morehampton Road, the home he shared with Estella Solomons. They married (5 August 1925) when both were in their late forties; they would have married much earlier, but she did not want to offend her Jewish parents by marrying a gentile while they lived. An entire number of the journal Neuphilologische Monatsschrift (1938) was devoted to O'Sullivan's poetry. He was awarded an honorary degree by Dublin University (1939) and the Gregory medal (1957). He died 24 March 1958 at Mercer's Hospital, Dublin.
Described by Padraic Colum as ‘slight, tall, dark, with much that is fastidious about him, one who could easily look the part of a cavalier poet’ (Retrospect, 50), O'Sullivan was reserved and possessed of a quietly devastating wit. His bons mots were repeated round Dublin. Recent studies and biographies have made the case for his poetry, with some critics blaming Yeats's animosity for his comparative lack of renown. However, although his verse is sometimes excellent it is neither ground-breaking nor remarkable. His lasting achievement lies in running single-handed for thirty-five years a serious, avant-garde, and discerning literary journal.