Sullivan, William Kirby (1820/21/2–1890), chemist, Young Irelander, and president of QCC, was born in Cork, the son of James Bartholomew Sullivan (O'Sullivan) (d. 1829), an industrialist in Cork. James Bartholomew, known locally as ‘Jimmy Batt’ or by his nickname ‘Talleyrand’, was also born in Cork, the son of Bartholomew O'Sullivan or Sullivan (fl. 1784–1815), a member of a catholic family of papermakers. His brothers or cousins moved to Dublin to establish important papermills in Co. Kildare and at Rockbrook, Co. Dublin. Bartholomew remained in Cork, went bankrupt in 1789, but afterwards operated an iron foundry and papermills in several locations in the county. His son James Bartholomew Sullivan was apprenticed in Bagnall's papermill in Glanmire, Co. Cork, and became foreman there. From about 1801 he owned a large papermill at Dripsey, on the Dripsey river, where he developed an industrial village. He also owned other smaller papermills and a five-storey flax-spinning mill in Blarney, and tried cotton and sailcloth manufacture as well.
He was the largest paper manufacturer in Ireland, and one of the first major industrialists in Munster, employing over 2,000 people. He was acquainted with a London-based entrepreneur, Henry Fourdrinier, associated with the development of a machine which revolutionised papermaking. In 1807 Sullivan was the first manufacturer in Ireland and probably the second in the world to use the Fourdrinier machine in papermaking, in his Dripsey mill. It cost at least £5,000; Sullivan later claimed that he had invested £50,000 in his various concerns. He won a contract to supply the Bank of England with paper for banknotes, but he had difficulties with his workforce; workers attempted to form ‘combinations’, prototypes of trade unions. Some sabotage and threats to non-local workers took place, and he also encountered financial and supply problems caused by the war against France. In 1810 he laid off most of his workforce and sought assistance from the government, but was declared bankrupt. An extravagant advertising stunt, a huge ploughing match on his Dripsey estate on 2 May 1813, must have contributed to his financial difficulties; he organised a competition for 847 ploughs, watched by 12,000 spectators. In the evening 740 guests sat down to dinner, at tables covered with 7 ft wide (2.13 m) sheets of paper each over 200 ft (61 m) long. The papermills and other concerns had to be sold. The new owners lost heavily in July 1823 when the Dripsey mill was attacked by a gang of ten or twelve men; more than £1,000 worth of machinery was destroyed, possibly by fire. James Bartholomew Sullivan was attempting to raise capital from English backers to reopen his businesses in Cork when he drowned in the River Thames at Mile End, London, in September 1829; the inquest found that the quay was dangerous, and rescue attempts failed because of poor lighting.
Nothing is known of his wife or of his family, except that his son, William Kirby Sullivan, was born in Dripsey sometime between 1820 and 1822; William remembered being taken to safety, wrapped in a blanket, during the attack on the neighbouring mill in 1823. He was educated by the Christian Brothers in Cork city, and showed a great aptitude for chemistry. After he left school he gave lectures in the Mechanics’ Institute in Cook St., Cork. He travelled to Germany, where he studied under the renowned chemist Justus von Liebig at the University of Giessen, and was awarded the degree of Ph.D. (date unknown). Returning to Ireland, he was appointed (1845) assistant to Sir Robert Kane (qv), director of the Museum of Economic Geology of Ireland (later known as the Museum of Irish Industry) in Dublin. In 1846 Sullivan became assistant chemist, and later held the post of chemist, to the Museum. Like Kane, he fervently believed that science, particularly chemistry, could contribute greatly to the utilisation of natural resources in Ireland, and thus to the country's prosperity. He and Kane were particularly interested in the production of sugar from varieties of beetroot, and Sullivan carried out many experiments and cultivation trials to prove its suitability as an Irish crop and as a sugar producer, though what later became known as sugar beet was not widely grown in Ireland until the twentieth century. In 1851 he published The manufacture of beetroot sugar in Ireland. He was also convinced of the importance of peat, and in 1873 was a director of the newly founded Irish Peat Fuel Co., set up to investigate pulverised peat as an industrial fuel. He advocated the use of fish by-products as a fertiliser. He founded, wrote for, and edited the Journal of Progress, which appeared for one year (1854). He was expert on a wide variety of subjects, particularly geology, and published scores of journal articles on economics, science education, philology, language history, and ethnography. One of the last of the polymaths, he deplored and actively opposed the increasing compartmentalism and specialisation of his time; he revived the Cork Scientific and Literary Society as its president, and was a founder of the Munster Dairy School.
Sullivan translated Hermann Ebel's German writings on the comparative philology of the Celtic languages and published them with a comprehensive introduction in a volume entitled Celtic studies (1863). After the death of Eugene O'Curry (qv) he edited O'Curry's papers and published them in several volumes as Lectures on the manners and customs of the ancient Irish (1873); he also wrote the authoritative and well-received book-length introduction to this work. In the 1870s, with Prof. Brian Ó Luanaigh (qv), he was involved in an RIA project to publish an edition of the ‘Táin Bó Cuailgne’, though it was not completed. He also contributed six chapters to Two centuries of Irish history (1888), edited by James Bryce (qv) (1838–1922), and wrote for the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
In 1854, still chemist to the Museum, Sullivan was appointed professor of chemistry in the school of science associated with the Museum, and professor of chemistry in the government department of science and art. In 1856 he resigned as Museum chemist, and gave up one of his professorships when he took up appointment as professor of chemistry at the newly founded Catholic University. He became a close associate of John Henry Newman (qv) and collaborated with him in the development of the university's school of medicine in Cecilia St., where a well-equipped chemical laboratory was fitted out for his use. Newman approved of Sullivan's ‘large and bold’ ideas, concerning the introduction of teaching of physiology, pathology, and pharmacy, until then only offered in the UK in the University of Edinburgh (quoted in Wheeler, 25). Also with Newman, Sullivan was a founder (1858) of Atlantis, the journal of the Catholic University, published impressive contributions in it, and served as its editor. During his time with the Catholic University he was dean of the faculty of science and later dean of the faculty of medicine. He was elected MRIA (1857), and became an influential figure in the RIA, serving on its council from 1862, as vice-president (1866), and as secretary (1867–74).
In 1873, pessimistic about the continuing survival of the Catholic University and critical of the attitudes towards science and lay education evinced by the catholic hierarchy, he succeeded his mentor, Sir Robert Kane, as president of the state-sponsored QCC, and moved his family back to Cork, where he embarked on an energetic and successful presidency. He made recommendations for changes in the syllabus, suggesting that lectures be provided in sanitary science and psychological medicine, and he secured a considerable expansion to the college property, enabling major improvements to be made to the site. Thanks to the munificent support of his friend William H. Crawford (qv), the college acquired a unique and well-designed astronomical observatory, a botanic garden, and a herbarium. Sullivan successfully lobbied for increased state funding, disbursed on improved grounds and surroundings and improvements in the library, though other ambitious plans were unrealised during his tenure.
In 1879–80 he opposed the foundation of the Royal University of Ireland, established as an examining body, because he felt that it would threaten the success and even the survival of the queen's colleges; he hoped that catholics would find the university education they deserved in the queen's colleges, free from denominational control. He was progressive enough, even in his later years in the mid 1880s, to support the admission of women to college courses in Cork, though in 1884 some politically inspired student unrest caused him to take an unwontedly severe approach to the ringleaders. Sullivan also campaigned for reform of the intermediate education act. He was involved in the organisation of the Dublin exhibition of 1853 and the Cork exhibition of 1883; both institutions were intended to promote the entrepreneurial and patriotic exploitation of Ireland's resources, and to educate through rational entertainment. In 1885 he gave evidence to a commons select committee on Irish industry.
It is possible to see many of Sullivan's interests and convictions, scientific, linguistic, and political, as having been influenced or even formed by his experiences in Germany. As a young man, like many of his contemporaries throughout Europe, he held nationalist views and joined the Young Ireland movement. In June 1848 Sullivan was a founder and one of five shareholders of the radical Irish Tribune paper, which openly advocated armed rebellion and was suppressed after only five issues. In July 1848 he was taken ill with rheumatic fever and as a consequence did not take part in the rebellion of that year. His illness left him with a weak heart that was to trouble him for the rest of his life. From 1887 he began to suffer increasingly from ill health, and after the death of his wife (1888) his health further deteriorated. He died 12 May 1890, and was buried in St Finbarr's cemetery. A public subscription fund later provided a fine Celtic cross memorial on his grave.
He married (probably in 1849) Frances Hennessy from Cork, daughter of John Hennessy and sister of Sir John Pope Hennessy (qv) and Henry Hennessy (qv); the Sullivans had two sons and three daughters. One son was William Charles Sullivan (d. 1926), criminologist and psychiatrist, who became superintendent of Broadmoor mental hospital in England. One of William K. Sullivan's grandsons was Thomas P. Dillon (qv), professor of chemistry at UCG, and a great-granddaughter was Eilís Dillon (qv). Some of Sullivan's papers are in the F. S. Bourke and Monsell papers in the NLI, and there are letters in the Cardinal Newman collection in the Birmingham Oratory.