Kelly Sullivan named family "chieftain" by Irish relatives

Posted by Pat Kinney on Thursday, November 9, 2023

WATERLOO — The granddaughter and grandniece of Waterloo’s five Sullivan brothers killed during World War II has been named “chieftain” of her entire family’s clan by its leaders in Ireland.
Kelly Sullivan, a third grade teacher in Cedar Falls who is the official sponsor of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS The Sullivans (DDG-68), is the first American and the first woman to receive the honor in the clan’s 1,000-year history, said clan representative Jim O’Sullivan of County Cork in Ireland.

“This comes from the from the people of the area,” he said. “She has been chosen by the O’Sullivans people from the counties Cork and Kerry, where her ancestors came from.”

Kelly Sullivan, granddaughter and grandniece of Waterloo’s five Sullivan brothers killed during World War II, has been named “chieftain” of the Sullivan clan by her relatives in Ireland — the first woman and first American to be so honored. The ceremonial chain she is wearing was bestowed on her by clan members visiting in Boston last month. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Sullivan).

Kelly Sullivan received the honor last month in Boston. She was presented with a ceremonial gold chain with the family crest as part of the recognition. It was bestowed by the mayors of Counties Cork and Kerry in Ireland, from which the clan hails.

Kelly Sullivan, the granddaughter of Albert Sullivan, youngest of the five brothers and the only one who married, said she felt her grandfather’s and great uncles’ presence there.

”Here I am in this amazing city I’ve never had the opportunity to be in, with all these great people that are like an Irish family,” she said. “The thing I kept thinking about is that recording we have at the museum,” the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum in Waterloo, “of the boys singing the Irish songs — you know, ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’ — and I cried. I teared up,” as the ceremonial chain was placed around her neck.

”The Sullivans were really proud of their Irish heritage,” Kelly Sullivan said. “It was a beautiful, sunny day” in Boston. “And I’m just picturing them looking down from heaven.” It’s an honor for the whole family in the U.S., she said.

”I felt very blessed to go and represent the Sullivan family,” she said.

Members of the O’Sullivan clan visited Boston from Ireland to mark the 300th anniversary of clan members’ emigration to Massachusetts and the family’s on that state and in America.

That history, Jim O’Sullivan said, dates back to John Sullivan, who served as a brigadier general in Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army in the American Revolution, continuing on through the Sullivan brothers and their namesake vessel today.

Jim O'Sullivan of the O'Sullivan clan in Ireland. (photo courtesy of Kelly Sullivan)

”The O’Sullivan clan goes back to the 11th century,” O’Sullivan said. With the advent of British control of their area in about 1602, clan members scattered — some to America, some to Spain.
According to the Irish Times, as British rule of Ireland intensified from the 1600s on, Irish surname prefixes such as “O’ “ and “Mc” were dropped by some people because it was easier to find work if one did not have an Irish-sounding name.

”Over the last 50 years, we resurrected the clan chieftain” post, O’Sullivan said, and different individuals have held that post over the years.

“We thought it was appropriate that since some of the original (forbears) arrived in the States 300 years ago, that we would present the chain to Kelly, as an American, and also because of her family history involved with the American military and Navy,” he said.

The trip included a visit to Gen. John Sullivan’s home and to the three-masted wooden frigate USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” which fought in the War of 1812. It is the old commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy. Sullivan met the ship’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Billie June “B.J.” Farrell, the ship’s first woman commanding officer in its 224-year history.

Members of the O’Sullivan clan have maintained ties to Kelly Sullivan and her grandfather and great uncles’ namesake Navy vessel for a quarter century.

Kelly Sulivan is flanked by County Kerry, Ireland Mayor Jim Finucane at left, and County Cork, Ireland Mayor Frank O'Flynn at right. 

A closeup of the medallion bearing the O'Sullivan family crest on the chain Kelly Sullivan received as clan chieftain. (Photos courtesy of Kelly Sullivan)

Clan members, including Jim O’Sullivan’s father, attended commissioning ceremonies for the USS The Sullivans in April 1997 at Stapleton Pier, Staten Island, in New York harbor in New York City.
The ship also visited County Cork in Ireland in 2003, and members of the O’Sullivan clan also traveled to Waterloo in 2008 for the dedication of the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum, part of the Grout Museum District.

Jim O’Sullivan said clan members hope the DDG-68 can once again visit Ireland in the not-too-distant future.

”We’re hoping, if things work out, that well invite the USS The Sullivans in two years back to Ireland, in this area, but we’re not guaranteed anything yet,” O’Sullivan said.

The ship has served several overseas deployments in recent years, including one during which it was attached to the British Royal Navy.

The USS The Sullivans, a guided missile destroyer based in Mayport, Fla. is the successor vessel to the USS The Sullivans DD-537, which Kelly Sullivan’s great grandmother Alleta Sullivan of Waterloo sponsored after her five sons’ deaths. That ship saw service in World War II and Korea, was decommissioned in 1977 and is now at the Buffalo Naval and Military Park in Buffalo, N.Y.
George, Francis, Joseph, Madison and Albert Sullivan of Waterloo died when their ship, the USS Juneau, was torpedoed and sunk on Nov. 13, 1942 following the naval Battle of Guadalcanal. All but 14 of the Juneau’s crew of nearly 700 perished in the actual sinking or at sea on the days the followed. The five brothers’ deaths are considered the greatest combat-related loss of life by one family at one time in American military history.

The brothers enlisted on the condition they be allowed to serve together, a departure from Navy policy. While attempts were made in Congress as recently as the 1990s to adopt a “Sullivan Act” preventing any family members from serving together, no such law was ever formally adopted. For example, multiple family members have served together in Iowa National Guard units in recent years on deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The brothers’ uncle, Patrick Henry Sullivan of Harpers Ferry in Allamakee County in northeast Iowa, served on the USS The Sullivans DD-537 during World War II. The ship earned nine battle stars for its service and was known as “The Good Samaritan” for many rescues of sailors from ships crippled or sunk in battle or storms. Patrick Henry Sullivan narrowly missed serving on the Juneau with his nephews; it set sail before he could report for duty.

The brothers’ sister Genevieve joined the Navy WAVES and she and parents Thomas and Alleta participated war bond rallies.

Kelly’s father, Jim Sullivan, now in his 80s and a toddler when his father and uncles perished, also served in the Navy in the late 1950s and early ‘60s.

The USS The Sullivans DDG-68 is now on deployment in the Middle East. It is the ship's fourth deployment in two years.

Kelly Sullvan is with U.S. Navy Cmdr. Billie June "B.J." Farrell, commander of the USS Constitution, "Old Ironsides." in Boston harbor. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Sullivan)

About The Author

Pat is the Oral Historian for the Grout Museum District.