O’SULLIVAN, MICHAEL, lawyer, militia officer, politician, jp, office holder, and judge; baptized 4 May 1784 in Clonmel (Republic of Ireland), son of John O’Sullivan and Eleonora O’Donel; d. 7 March 1839 in Montreal.
Related to the élite in Tipperary County (Republic of Ireland), Michael O’Sullivan was brought to Montreal at a young age and in 1799 enrolled in the Sulpician Collège Saint-Raphaël. Seven years later he graduated at the top of a class that had included at least three budding nationalists, Hugues Heney, Jean-Moïse Raymond, and André Jobin*. In December 1805 O’Sullivan had begun articling with the brilliant young Montreal lawyer Denis-Benjamin Viger*. Perhaps to broaden his knowledge of English law and improve his prospects in private practice, he left Viger in March 1808 to finish his studies under the influential Stephen Sewell*. On 6 April 1811 he was commissioned a lawyer.
O’Sullivan’s contacts in college and with Viger seem to have inspired him, about 1806, to write articles for Le Canadien, the mouthpiece of the nationalist Canadian party. His marriage on 1 June 1809 to Cécile Berthelet, daughter of the businessman Pierre Berthelet* and Marguerite Viger, had strengthened his ties with the Canadian bourgeoisie in Montreal; among the witnesses were Louis Guy, Pierre-Dominique Debartzch, and the lawyer Benjamin Beaubien, along with Sewell and Dr George Selby*. Unfortunately, Cécile died in 1811. The following year O’Sullivan was commissioned a lieutenant and adjutant in the Beauharnois battalion of militia. He was aide-de-camp to Lieutenant-Colonel Charles-Michel d’Irumberry* de Salaberry at the battle of Châteauguay in 1813 and was cited in dispatches for bravery. O’Sullivan published an account of the battle in the Montreal Gazette of 9 Nov. 1813 in order to ensure to Salaberry “the justice that belongs to you” at a time when several, including Lieutenant-Colonel George Richard John Macdonell*, were claiming credit for the victory. O’Sullivan asserted that, with few exceptions, “the 300 men engaged together with their brave commander, were all Canadians,” and exhorted, “Let this be told wherever mention is made of the battle of Châteauguay, and prejudice must hide its head.” O’Sullivan’s account became the cornerstone of all subsequent French Canadian interpretations of the battle.
Meanwhile, O’Sullivan had developed an important practice in Montreal and had acquired a reputation as an outstanding legal authority. William Walker as well as Charles-Elzéar* and Dominique* Mondelet articled under him, and in 1818 he was associate counsel with his friend James Stuart* and with Samuel Gale* for Lord Selkirk [Douglas*], who had been charged with offences at Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.). James Charles Grant became O’Sullivan’s law partner about 1822, and their firm maintained a prominent role in Montreal’s legal community until Grant’s death in 1836.
As a bright and well-connected lawyer with a reputation for bravery, O’Sullivan seemingly had had no trouble being elected to the House of Assembly for Huntingdon County in 1814. In the assembly he was a close associate of Stuart and focused his attention on judicial and administrative measures. His politics were reformist, but he appears not to have taken a prominent role in the numerous battles between the assembly and the colonial administration that marked the period, and he attended fewer than one-half of the sessions during his ten years in the house. However, his outspoken opposition to government support for a non-denominational hospital in Montreal – which he feared would attract patients from the Catholic Hôtel-Dieu – led him into a duel with a principal promoter of the project, Dr William Caldwell*. Wounded twice, O’Sullivan thereafter endured frequent bouts of agonizing pain and walked with a pronounced limp because one of the bullets had lodged against his spine and could not be removed. He resigned his seat in 1824 and was replaced by former classmate Jean-Moïse Raymond. Possibly he had begun to distance himself from the nationalism of the Canadian party, which dominated the house. As late as about 1822 he had hosted a gastronomic dinner for which Jacques Viger* had composed a patriotic song, but in January 1823 Hugues Heney accused him of seeking a “pointless quarrel” with Denis-Benjamin Viger over a judicial bill.
O’Sullivan’s continuing close relations with his erstwhile mentors, the Sulpicians, whom he frequently advised on legal matters, would not have endeared him to the Canadian party after 1820. The following year the consecration of a Canadian, Jean-Jacques Lartigue, as auxiliary and suffragan bishop in Montreal of Joseph-Octave Plessis*, archbishop of Quebec, was perceived by the predominantly French Sulpicians as a threat to their spiritual domination of Montreal. Under Jean-Henry-Auguste Roux* they intrigued in the colony, in London, and in Rome to undermine Lartigue’s authority and to force him to take up residence outside the town; meanwhile Plessis persuaded leaders of the Canadian party, principally Lartigue’s cousins Denis-Benjamin Viger and Louis-Joseph Papineau*, to come to the suffragan’s assistance. O’Sullivan supported the Sulpicians and provided advice on canon and civil law to Augustin Chaboillez*, a Canadian priest sympathetic to them, who in 1823–24 publicly contested the legality of Lartigue’s appointment. In the same period O’Sullivan may have been influential in having a relation, James O’Donnell*, named architect for a large, new Notre-Dame church, built in part to forestall construction of a cathedral for Lartigue. In 1824 O’Sullivan toured England, France, and Italy, ostensibly on vacation, but in fact partly to lobby on behalf of the Sulpicians; his movements were closely followed by friends of Lartigue and Plessis. Although his efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, they probably contributed to rendering Lartigue’s position uncomfortable for many years.
O’Sullivan’s profile in the colony and in his profession rose steadily. He had been appointed major in the Beauharnois battalion of militia in 1821 (before transferring to Montreal’s 1st Militia Battalion in 1830), and in 1832 was named a commissioner for the civil erection of parishes. Elected president of the Advocates’ Library and Law Institute of Montreal in 1831 and 1832, he began giving courses in law, as did Sewell, Viger, and other eminent lawyers; in December 1831 he delivered public lectures on the history of Roman law down to Justinian I. In 1829 he had been appointed a commissioner for receiving evidence and in 1831 was made a king’s counsel and a justice of the peace. Following the promotion of Charles Richard Ogden* to attorney general, O’Sullivan was appointed solicitor general in April 1833 by Lord Aylmer [Whitworth-Aylmer], on the basis of his past legal performances and his standing “in Public Estimation in this Province for probity, Professional ability & sound constitutional principles in politics.”
O’Sullivan now moved in different social circles. On 17 May 1831 he had married Jeanne-Marie-Catherine Bruyères, widow of Dr David Thomas Kennelly and granddaughter of John Bruyères*, former seigneur and governor’s secretary; the witnesses included Toussaint Pothier, legislative councillor, and Charles William Grant, Baron de Longueuil and legislative councillor, as well as O’Sullivan’s old friend Dr Selby and, surprisingly, Joseph Papineau. O’Sullivan also professed different politics: his reformism had entirely given way to toryism. In 1835 Louis-Joseph Papineau felt that the political crisis in Lower Canada would be resolved if Aylmer could find the courage to mortify certain office holders, “but,” he wrote to his wife, “the policy of O’Sullivan will prevail, that of temporizing . . . then will the great débâcle come at last, which it would have been so easy to prevent.” When the colony did explode into rebellion in 1837–38, O’Sullivan proved his worth as an efficient solicitor general. He was rewarded on 25 Oct. 1838 with the post of chief justice of the Court of King’s Bench, Montreal district, but his tenure was cut short by his death on 7 March 1839, after only one term.
Despite substantial revenues from a flourishing legal practice and his judicial offices, O’Sullivan had accumulated significant debts, some dating back to 1815. He did not believe that he would leave an extensive estate, and it is doubtful that even the liquidation of his holdings, including four properties in Montreal and an extensive library, was sufficient to pay off his debts. His premature and debt-ridden end notwithstanding, O’Sullivan had made himself a leading member of the legal profession in Lower Canada. A man with undoubted abilities and with personal connections to the principal political, clerical, and social figures in 19th-century Montreal, he must be seen as a major Catholic figure of his time.
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