Sullivan, Alexander Martin (1871–1959), barrister, was born 14 January 1871 at Belfield, Drumcondra, Dublin, second son of Alexander Martin Sullivan (qv) (1830–84) and Frances Genevieve Sullivan (née Donovan). His father, who commenced practice at the English bar shortly before his death, was a home-rule nationalist publicist and parliamentarian whose scrupled opposition to violence rendered him a Fenian bête noire; Sullivan's uncle, Denis Baylor Sullivan, was a prominent member of the Irish bar.
Sullivan was educated at Ushaw, Belvedere, and TCD. At the age of 14 he participated in the campaign of William Redmond (qv) in Fermanagh North at the general election of 1885. Born into the ‘Bantry band’ and a kinsman of T. M. Healy (qv), Sullivan's nationalism had a particular genetic slant. The mistrust with which C. S. Parnell (qv) was regarded by a dynasty that considered itself usurped was exacerbated in Sullivan's case by youthful ardour. Aged 20 at the time of the schism in the Irish party, he was part of the anti-Parnellite contingent that invested the offices of United Ireland in Abbey St., Dublin, famously to be expelled the next day (11 December 1890) by a siege party captained by Parnell. Sullivan thereafter worked in the Healyite organs, the Insuppressible and the National Press.
Called to the Irish bar in the Trinity term of 1892, he practised on the Munster circuit. He was called to the English bar (1899) as a member of the Middle Temple, and took silk in Ireland (1908) and in England (1919). In Ireland he also attained the position of king's serjeant in law, an office by that time largely honorific, which had originated as that of the retained pleader of the sovereign. He was third serjeant in 1912, second serjeant in 1913, and (with poor timing) first serjeant in 1920.
Politics, as Sullivan's obituarist in the Irish Times observed, always held a certain attraction for him, something of ill omen in the case of Irish barristers whose professional exceeded their political judgement. What rendered Sullivan's life more than a relatively rapid and assured ascent to discreet professional eminence was the abrasiveness of the intersections between a rigid temperament and the shifting course of Irish nationalist politics.
Even within the tight confines of the Healy–Sullivan connection, Sullivan's relations were fraught. He supported Healy till the collapse of the Healyite party at the 1900 election, after which he defected to the Irish party. Healy did not, however, quite break with Sullivan, whom he observed with a kind of infuriated fascination: he observed that if Sullivan heard his laugh as others heard it, he would never laugh again. Sullivan was equally the object of dislike within the ranks of the Irish party: John Muldoon (qv) wrote to John Dillon (qv) characterising him as ‘a public ruffian worse than Tim Healy and Maurice Healy [qv] put together and combined’ (Callanan, T. M. Healy, 477, 709).
Sullivan accepted the brief for the defence of Roger Casement (qv) on the charge of high treason. The trial took place at the Old Bailey from 26 to 29 June 1916, and the appeal (the subject of the sombre painting by John Lavery (qv)) on 17 July. Sullivan was not the first choice, and was professionally somewhat miscast in terms of his temperament and strengths as an advocate. He was also only a junior counsel in England. His relations with his client were mutually exasperating: ‘Tell him to stop scribbling’, Sullivan wrote to his solicitor George Gavan Duffy (qv) weeks before the trial (Callanan, ‘Between treason and blood-sacrifice’, 132).
The principal defence was that Casement's activities in Germany had not rendered him ‘adherent to the king's enemies in his realm’, in the terms of the treason act of 1351, enacted in the reign of Edward III, under which he was indicted. This argument was met with repeated judicial interruption, and the motion to quash the indictment dismissed.
Sullivan was markedly ill at ease in his closing speech, as he essayed an essentially political argument that represented a concession to the wishes of his client, and which drew on a comparison between Casement's actions and the preparations by Ulster loyalists and their allies in England for armed resistance to home rule. Interrupted by Lord Chief Justice Reading, Sullivan broke down. Artemus Jones, whom Sullivan led, finished the address the next morning. Casement was convicted by the jury and sentenced to death. The defence strategy owed much to not prejudicing the prospects for a reprieve, but following the appeal Casement was hanged on 3 August. Sullivan had, before the trial commenced, declined to look at the ‘black diaries’, furnished by the attorney general, F. E. Smith (who led for the prosecution), apparently to enable a plea of insanity to be advanced on Casement's behalf.
Sullivan was implacably opposed to Sinn Féin and – with a rigidity untempered by his father's sense of history – fearlessly and outspokenly critical of any recourse to arms in the pursuit of independence. He appeared for the crown in prosecutions in Ireland in 1919–21, and was appointed a temporary high court judge for the southern circuit. An attempt was made on Sullivan's life at Clonalour near Tralee, Co. Kerry, in January 1920, and again as he travelled by train from Cork to Tralee, where he was to give evidence against eleven young men from Ballymacelligott who were charged with the attempt to murder him.
Following the establishment of the Irish state, Sullivan took up practice in England. He had a distinguished career at the English bar. He was made a bencher of the Middle Temple in 1925, and served as treasurer in 1944. After the enactment of the republic of Ireland act (1948), he quixotically pronounced himself disqualified from practice on the grounds that he had been rendered an alien in England. Sullivan retired to Ireland and his tall, gaunt figure, strolling in the vicinity of his home at Greenmount Road, Terenure, became a familiar sight.
In 1956 the journalist René MacColl published a biography of Casement. He quoted Sullivan, to whom he had spoken at length two years before, as saying that Casement had not only admitted to him that he was a homosexual but ‘gloried in it, saying that many of the great men of history had been of that persuasion’ (MacColl, 283–4). In the controversy that ensued Sullivan qualified this, stating that in the course of instructing him in ‘the history of genius’, Casement ‘had told me nothing about the diaries or about himself’ (Irish Times, 27 Apr. 1956).
In the wake of the review of MacColl's book in the Irish Times of 7 April, two senior members of the Irish bar wrote to the Irish Times demanding that Sullivan establish that he had Casement's express consent to the disclosure of his ‘confidential instructions’. Quite possibly they had been lying in wait. Sullivan had already written, in The last serjeant four years earlier, that Casement was ‘not completely normal and one of the abnormalities of his type is addiction to lamentable practices’ (271, 267). Sullivan in response disagreed as to what the rule of the Irish bar relating to confidentiality required, and protested that there ‘had been raised, I know not why, a public controversy about what is now a matter of ancient history’ (Irish Times, 16 Apr. 1956).
Sullivan was an honorary bencher of the King's Inns in Dublin. Thirty-four members of the bar presented a memorial to the benchers for Sullivan's removal on the grounds of ‘gross and dishonourable professional conduct’. Ethical controversies coloured, however faintly, by politics are rarely edifying. Having previously adopted a maximalist formulation of the obligation of confidentiality, the benchers on 5 July 1956 resolved (John Henry Grattan Edmonde (qv), Thomas Paul McCarthy, and Frank Fitzgibbon dissenting) that Sullivan had been guilty of conduct deserving of censure, whereupon Sullivan requested that his name be removed from the roll of benchers.
Sullivan left Ireland in July 1958, and died 9 January 1959 at his house at Beckenham, Kent. With him was extinguished, after almost seven centuries, the office of king's serjeant at law in Ireland.
Sullivan features in Lavery's painting of the appeal in Casement's case, which hangs in the King's Inns, Dublin, on loan from the Royal Courts of Justice, London. There is a portrait of Sullivan in the Middle Temple, London. A cartoon of the king's serjeants, including Sullivan by Charles Norman Kough, is reproduced in A. R. Hart's history of the office. Portrait photographs appear as frontispieces to Sullivan's two books of memoirs.