Sullivan, Alexander Martin (1830–84), nationalist, journalist, and politician, was born 15 May 1830 at Bantry, Co. Cork, the second of seven children of Daniel Sullivan, house painter, and his wife, Catherine (née Baylor), a teacher. As a teenager he led a lively group of young men who organised excursions, went yachting, sang in the catholic church choir, and participated in O'Connellite demonstrations. Father Theobald Mathew (qv) inspired his lifelong commitment to temperance. After a local education, Sullivan became a clerk of famine relief works in the Skibbereen district; the suffering he witnessed led him to become active in the Young Ireland movement. He organised a reception at Bantry for William Smith O'Brien (qv), and attempted unsuccessfully to join the 1848 rising. He contributed occasional letters and verses to Cork newspapers. In 1853 Sullivan went to Dublin as an illustrator on the Dublin Expositor (a weekly founded to publicise Dargan's International Exhibition), and also wrote occasionally for the Nation. After the exhibition he became a draughtsman in the general valuation office while learning shorthand.
In June 1854 Sullivan was engaged by the Nation staffer Maurice Leyne (qv) as subeditor on a new paper at Thurles, the Tipperary Leader, intended to counteract the local influence of John Sadleir (qv). After Leyne's sudden death, Sullivan joined the Liverpool Daily Post. In 1855 he became assistant editor and part owner, with Cashel Hoey (qv) and the Dublin businessman Michael Clery (qv), of the Nation when Charles Gavan Duffy (qv) emigrated to Australia. He was chosen as one of the few younger journalists who sympathised with the conservative Young Ireland faction of Duffy and O'Brien (as distinct from the Mitchelite radicals). In 1858 Sullivan bought out his partners, becoming editor and sole proprietor of the Nation. Under Sullivan the paper moved towards equating nationalism with catholicism. ‘In the history of our country nationality and catholicity are inextricable’, Sullivan declared. ‘She bled for both.’ This statement reflected Sullivan's personal views (as well as his oratorical talents, which were often employed in appeals for catholic charities) but was also a defensive tactic against ‘whig’ catholic lay and clerical elites, which sought to advance catholic interests in alliance with the British Liberal Party. Sullivan saw this as short-sighted when it was not downright dishonest. ‘What would be the use of catholic education if there were no catholic people in Ireland to educate?’ (T. D. Sullivan, 97).
Sullivan campaigned for the establishment of a constitutional nationalist mass movement in association with Daniel O'Donoghue (qv) and several former Young Irelanders, mounting various stunts as a focus for their appeal. In January 1859 he started the penny daily Evening News, followed in April 1859 by the Morning News (and from August 1860 the Weekly News), to rival the ‘whig’ Freeman's Journal of Sir John Gray (qv); the Freeman retaliated by price-cutting. Despite the launch of a limited company in 1862, Sullivan's two daily papers closed in 1864; the weekly survived as an adjunct to the Nation. In 1860 Sullivan organised the presentation of a sword of honour to Marshal MacMahon, the victorious French commander of the 1859 Italian campaign, a thinly veiled hint that nationalists desired French intervention. He responded to British liberal declarations on Italian self-government by petitioning for a referendum on Irish self-government. He also promoted Irish recruitment for the papal army.
On 1 December 1862 Sullivan was elected to Dublin corporation, where he worked with John Blake Dillon (qv) and blocked Gray's proposal to erect a statue of Prince Albert (rather than Henry Grattan (qv)) on College Green. Gray and his ally Peter Paul McSwiney (qv) regained ground by organising the placing of a statue of Daniel O'Connell (qv) in Sackville Street; unable to oppose this project, Sullivan joined the committee while denouncing attempts to ‘cut O'Connell in half’ by celebrating the emancipator but not the repealer.
In October 1858 Sullivan publicly dissociated himself from the proto-Fenian Phoenix Society. Although the authorities already knew of the group, many Fenians blamed him for the subsequent arrest and trial of Phoenix activists (though Sullivan assisted them by promoting the Fair Trial Fund to pay for their defence). Thereafter Fenians regularly accused Sullivan of ‘felon-setting’ (betraying nationalist activists to the authorities). Sullivan's public meetings were disrupted by Fenians, which crippled his plans for a mass movement, and he received death threats.
Sullivan denounced the execution in November 1867 of the Manchester Martyrs and headed a mock funeral in Dublin. In February 1868 he was jailed for six months for seditious libel; he served three months, and devoted a testimonial collection to his project of raising a statue to Grattan on College Green. He subsequently produced (with his brothers T. D. Sullivan (qv) and D. B. Sullivan) ‘Guilty or not guilty? Speeches from the dock (1867), an account of the trials of rebels from 1798 to 1867. The original edition culminates in Sullivan's own trial. The book became a central text of popular nationalism; a revised version, taking in the aftermath of the 1916 rising, was reprinted as late as the 1960s. In 1867 also Sullivan produced The story of Ireland for children. Its ‘emotive, gripping, pictorial and literary narrative’, incorporating Young Ireland ballads and uncritically recycling the idealisations of earlier antiquarians, was immensely popular; it reflects the Young Ireland project of creating patriotic popular history. The book went through innumerable editions, and has been criticised for popularising a simplistic and teleological nationalist narrative.
On 27 April 1861 Sullivan married Frances Genevieve Donovan (d. 1922) of New Orleans. Increasing family responsibilities and the Nation's financial weakness led him to undertake a law career; he enrolled at King's Inns in 1873. He was present at the foundation by Isaac Butt (qv) of the Home Rule Party at Bilton's Hotel, Dublin, on 19 May 1870, and regularly campaigned for home rule candidates; on one occasion priests supporting a liberal landlord in Co. Longford denounced him as a ‘Garibaldian’. Sullivan became home rule MP for Louth in February 1874, defeating the prominent liberal Chichester Fortescue (qv); he soon established a reputation as a parliamentary orator. Despite tactlessly expressed doubts about Isaac Butt's leadership and moral character, Sullivan was generally aligned with the conservative wing of the Home Rule Party; he disliked the aggressive tactics of the obstructionists but opposed any attempt to expel them.
In 1875 he decided to move to London and study for the English bar. He handed over the Nation to his brother and literary collaborator T. D. Sullivan in November 1876. In 1877 he published another very successful book, New Ireland, which combined personal reminiscences with an account of events in Ireland since the famine. He was admitted to the Irish bar in 1876 and the English bar in 1877. In 1880 Philip Callan (qv) campaigned against him in Louth, backed by the drink trade. Sullivan retained his seat but was outpolled by Callan and resigned in protest. He was elected in May 1880 to the Meath seat left vacant by C. S. Parnell (qv), after a delay caused by Sullivan's unwillingness to pledge unconditional loyalty to Parnell. The nomination was also sought by Sullivan's kinsman T. M. Healy (qv), who later married Sullivan's niece; Healy's brother Maurice married one of Sullivan's daughters. Sullivan distrusted Healy's subservience to Parnell and equivocal attitude to violence.
In December 1880 to January 1881 Sullivan defended Patrick Egan (qv) when the Land League leaders were unsuccessfully prosecuted for conspiracy; he delivered a powerful justification of the league at the trial. He also defended the Ladies’ Land League against accusations of unwomanly conduct from Cardinal Edward McCabe (qv). Sullivan, who had developed a severe heart condition, nearly died after a heart attack in mid August 1881. He resigned from parliament early in 1882 to practise at the parliamentary bar, though he remained active in the home rule movement; in 1883 he defended the Parnell tribute against papal condemnation. He suffered another heart attack while on holiday at Bantry in September 1884, and spent his last days with William Martin Murphy (qv) at Dartry, Co. Dublin; Murphy regarded him as a father figure, attributing his success to Sullivan's early advice and journalistic training. Sullivan died 17 October 1884 in Dublin. With his wife, who outlived him by nearly forty years, he had a family of three sons and five daughters. The younger Alexander Martin Sullivan (qv) was the last serjeant of the Irish bar.
Sullivan's sentimental moralism was more congenial to nineteenth- than to twentieth-century tastes, and his reputation was affected by his clashes with the Fenians and his relationship later to the political connection between the Sullivan and Healy families known as the ‘Bantry band’. These factors should not, however, disguise his importance as a political journalist who bridged the Young Ireland and home rule projects. Some of his correspondence is located in the Isaac Butt papers in the NLI.