O'Sullivan, Donal (1904–77), priest and arts administrator, was born Daniel Joseph Sullivan on 27 July 1904 in Donemark, Bantry, Co. Cork, the only son among two children of John Sullivan, a national school teacher, and Mary Anne Sullivan (née Keohane). After receiving primary and secondary education locally, he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Tullabeg (Rahan), near Tullamore, Co. Offaly (1923). He pursued undergraduate studies at UCD till 1928, then studied philosophy in Eegenhoven, Belgium. He taught at Clongowes Wood college, Co. Kildare (1931–4), before studying theology for three years in Innsbruck, Austria, where he was ordained a catholic priest (24 June 1937). He completed his theology studies at Milltown Park, Dublin (1937–8). After a brief period spent giving missions and retreats, he became rector of the philosophate at Tullabeg (1940–47); during these years he ministered to republican prisoners in Portlaoise prison, with whom he enjoyed some credibility owing to his family having supported the anti-treaty side during the civil war. He was rector and novice master at Emo Court, Portarlington, Co. Laois (1947–59). Thereafter he belonged to the Jesuit community at St Ignatius Residence (House of Writers), 35 Lower Leeson St., Dublin.
Anticipating the reforms of the second Vatican council, O'Sullivan promoted among fellow clergy a more sensitive and artistic presentation of the liturgy, especially the mass. Through encouragement and facilitation of patronage, he contributed to the mid-twentieth-century revival in standards of catholic ecclesiastical art in Ireland. Enjoying a long friendship with stained-glass artist Evie Hone (qv), he arranged the placement of her work in churches and religious houses throughout the country, and commissioned one of her most notable achievements, the five windows for the new community chapel at Tullabeg (1946). After Hone's death, he helped organise the major memorial exhibition at UCD, Earlsfort Tce (1958). Appointed to the Arts Council in 1956, he served for thirteen years as the body's director (1960–73). Overseeing a redefinition of the council's responsibilities based on an appraisal of needs and resources, he directed activities and expenditure away from support for music, drama, and dance, to a concentration on the fine visual arts, his own area of primary interest and expertise. At the suggestion of council member C. S. ‘Todd’ Andrews (qv), he initiated a scheme whereby the Arts Council purchased paintings and sculptures by Irish artists for resale at half-price to public institutions and state-sponsored bodies, including schools, CIÉ hotels, and local authorities. Securing the appointment of an Arts Council exhibitions officer, he attracted important travelling exhibitions to Ireland, including the influential ‘Art: USA: Now’ exhibition (1964). His encouragement of the preparation of carefully researched catalogues to accompany such exhibitions helped stimulate the emergence of art history as a discipline in Irish universities. He brought to Dublin an exhibition of works by the controversial Irish-born artist Francis Bacon (qv) (1965), and encouraged the highly successful Rosc exhibitions of 1967 and 1971 at the RDS, which introduced Irish audiences to a large selection of contemporary international art. His foremost achievement was the formation (1961) and development of the Arts Council collection of contemporary Irish painting and sculpture, comprising some 800 purchases by 1969; the initiative stimulated the establishment of similar collections by private interests, and thus proved an important catalyst of patronage.
Through such initiatives, O'Sullivan dynamically promoted an understanding and acceptance of modern art in Ireland, thereby helping effect a revolution in public taste. However, in exercising his personal preference for abstract works in the prevalent international hard-edge style, he controversially neglected not only artists practising more conservative styles, but also the emerging school of expressionist figurative artists, leading to accusations of confusing artistic merit with private taste, and failing to represent and support the full range of contemporary painting styles in Ireland. Accused of practising an autocratic style of leadership, early in his tenure he led the council into two highly contentious decisions on planning issues, by advising the relevant local authorities to approve demolition of a row of Georgian buildings in Lower Fitzwilliam St., Dublin, to allow construction of a modern office block for the Electricity Supply Board (ESB), and to approve location of a nitrogen factory on an historic and scenic site near Arklow, Co. Wicklow; both decisions embroiled the Arts Council in febrile public rows. He excluded various popular and traditional forms from the range of art eligible for Arts Council support, favouring the fine and applied arts over genres that he regarded as primarily participatory. Ignoring the important 1960s revival of folk and traditional Irish music, he was also accused of inadequate support for artistic activity outside of Dublin, and for work in the Irish language. His approach implied an elitist concept of art as an activity of professionals producing work of a high standard (as determined by presumed experts) for the aesthetic appreciation of a consuming audience that was largely middle-class and urban, and ran against the demotic spirit of the 1960s and prevailing international trends in arts policy.
O'Sullivan was a founding director of the Kilkenny Design Workshops (1965–77) and of the stamp design committee. He served on the editorial board of the Jesuit periodical Studies, to which he frequently contributed. Intimidating to some associates, inspiring to others, he concealed a fundamentally withdrawn, contemplative nature beneath an opinionated, supercilious persona. Recent biographers of the English writer Graham Greene have alleged that over many years from the late 1940s O'Sullivan was involved in a sexual relationship with Catherine Walston (1916–78), the beautiful, impetuous American-born wife of a millionaire British financier, whose overlapping relationship with Greene inspired the latter's novel The end of the affair (1951). After retiring from the Arts Council, O'Sullivan was superior to the Jesuit residence on Leeson St., where he died on 19 November 1977 .