John H Sullivan

Senator John H Sullivan
John Finbarr O'Sullivan
John H Sullivan (seated) with Patrick Kennedy resting his hand on John's shoulder. John's brother Curly is on the far right.
John Finbarr O'Sullivan
John H Sullivan's family home in East Boston.
John Finbarr O'Sullivan

Early Life

John Henry Sullivan, born in Ballinakilla, Bere Island, Co. Cork in 1848 was the eldest of 11 children born to Michael Sullivan (Mickie Barrule of Gortamora Old Post Office) and Mary Kelly (Foildarrig, Eyeries Parish) He was educated at the local National School and would have been knowledgeable in business affairs from a young age given that his father was Postmaster for Bere Island at the time. He emigrated to America in 1866 and was followed in subsequent years by three other siblings namely: Cornelius (Curly), James (Jim) and Katherine (Kate).
He arrived in New York but later moved on to Boston. After arriving in Boston he took a business course at Comer’s Commercial College and became a Stevedore at which he was very successful for over 30 years.


Links with the Kennedy Family

He was a very smart, ambitious man and he founded a Credit Union for Longshoremen, which he later decided to turn into a bank.  A board of directors was needed and as he was friendly with Patrick (PJ) Kennedy (grandfather of John F Kennedy) he (along with John’s brother Curly and others) became one of the directors. The bank was founded in 1895 and John H became President and Manager of the Columbia Trust Company. He was also a Trustee and Chairman of the Investment Committee of the Sumner Savings Bank. It has been said that both of these institutions owe their existence and success to his perseverance and energy. The Columbia Trust Company was Boston’s only Irish owned Bank.


Business  and Becoming a US Senator

He also invested in property and became a large real estate owner. Among the properties owned by him was the well- known Lyceum Hall on Maverick Square. His own home was the biggest at that time in East Boston and still stands today. His brother Curly managed his property portfolio for him. It was quite lucrative and as John H now had some money and influence in East Boston he put his name forward to become a City Councilor for Boston.

He was elected in 1884 by the largest vote ever awarded at that time. He was thus a City Councilman 1884 – 1885, an Alderman 1886 – 1887 and a Senior Alderman 1891 – 1892. Following one of the greatest contests ever held in his district, he was elected to the State Senate of Massachusetts in 1888. As State Senator he served on the Committees on Liquor, Law and Public Service. He was a Delegate at Large to all Democratic state conventions for over 15 years, was a Sinking Fund Commissioner of the City of Boston 1896 – 1898 and was also Treasurer of the Democratic State Committee of Massachusetts and the Democratic City Committee of Boston for many years.

John H was elected to the Executive Council for 1895-6. He should also have been elected for 1897, but because the “cross” on 340 ballot papers was not within the space required he was deemed not elected. He succeeded in being elected again in 1898 by the largest majority for that office ever awarded in that district. During his time in this office John H served on committees on Finance, Pardons, Prisons, Railroads, Warrants, State House, Charitable Institutions and Harbors and Public Lands.

Family Life

John H married Katherine (Kate) Sullivan from Providence, Rhode Island and they had 13 children together but sadly 6 of them died as children. ‘The sea was in his blood’ and he lived beside Boston Harbour where his sailing boat was moored. At one stage, John H sent money home to Bere Island to buy a fishing boat between his siblings who had settled in the Island namely: Mike (Ballinakilla Post Office) Mary who was married to Johnny Sullivan (Barrule) of Cloughland and Margaret who had married Charlie Murphy of Ardagh. The fishing boat was called “The Doodles” and Mary’s husband Johnny was the Skipper.

There was a Boston Ferry called “John H Sullivan” built in 1912. It was a steam ferryboat with a steel hull and propeller. It was 172 ft 3 inches long and 826 GT. It was eventually scrapped in 1953.

Role in John F Kennedy’s Presidency

John H died aged 53 leaving his Bank shares to his wife Kate. Joe Kennedy (President Kennedy’s father) worked summers there while a student at Harvard and saw its potential. In 1914, he organized resistance to a takeover bid and became its President aged 25. With the help of his father and others, he bought the bank. Kate held the remaining shares and eventually sold them to Joe. This was the catalyst for the eventual success of John F Kennedy’s Presidential bid. Who knows how different the history of the United States of America would have been had it not been for a clever Bere Island man becoming so successful in business and setting up The Colombia Trust Company which went on to be known worldwide as ‘The Kennedy Bank’!

Submitted by: His Grandnephew John Finbarr O’Sullivan, April 2012.

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