Many political figures of interest from the past are forgotten with the passage of time and one of the objectives of this blog is to ensure that significant politicians from the past, from Kerry at least, are remembered for what they achieved in their own political era.

One such person, who I came to learn more about during research for my books on Kerry politics, is Professor John Marcus O’Sullivan, who was an innovative Minister for Education in the 1920s and 1930s and whose political and educational legacy has been largely forgotten.

O’Sullivan was a Cumann na nGaedheal/Fine Gael TD for Kerry and Kerry North for many years and he is responsible for the vocational education system we have in Ireland today.

John Marcus O’Sullivan

A native of Killarney, where he was born in 1881, he was a student at St Brendan’s College. O’Sullivan served as a TD for Kerry from 1923 and Kerry North between 1937 and 1943. Before he entered politics however, O’Sullivan had built up an illustrious career in academia. He entered University College Dublin in 1898 and won a philosophy scholarship to Bonn and Heidelberg Universities, being awarded a doctorate in philosophy in 1908. He continued to excel in academia thereafter.

O’Sullivan returned to his old alma mater in UCD and was appointed Professor of History in 1910, a post he held until his death. He published numerous dissertations on philosophy and history and was widely regarded internationally as an expert in both fields.

Within a year of his election to the Dáil in 1923 as a Cumann na nGaedheal representative, O’Sullivan was appointed as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance, the first ever holder of that office.

John Marcus O’Sullivan (left) with colleagues in UCD

Two years later, W.T. Cosgrave appointed his as Minister for Education, making him the second Kerry person to serve in the Executive Council of the Irish Free State (along with Fionán Lynch) O’Sullivan succeeded Eoin Mac Neill in the department.

In Education, his most significant political achievement was the passage of the Vocational Education Act of 1930. He also sought to increased investment in primary schools, many of which were dilapidated and underfunded. He oversaw the amalgamation of a large number of smaller primary schools but met opposition from the Catholic bishops who feared this would lead to more co-education which was “very undesirable.”

O’Sullivan lost his Dáil seat at the 1943 general election and died five years later. The archives at University College Dublin hold a large collection of his personal and academic papers. Every year, the annual John Marcus O’Sullivan Summer School, supported by the Kerry Education Board celebrates his contribution to vocational education in Ireland.

As a member of the Executive Council (Cabinet), for six years, O’Sullivan was a critically important figure in the history of the 1920s and 1930s.

For more on his life and times see: A Century of Politics in the Kingdom: A County Kerry Compendium | Irish Academic Press

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