Tragedy of the fighting Sullivan clan with Cork ancestry

This week, JO KERRIGAN is reminded of the story of the five Irish-American brothers who died in World War II, and who have a memorial in West Cork
Tragedy of the fighting Sullivan clan with Cork ancestry

The five Sullivan brothers who have a memorial at Kilfrask.

WE’RE had a missive from New York this week!

Ray O’Shea, originally a Cork city lad, writes to say: “I really enjoy reading your Throwback Thursday columns. One of your readers recently recalled seeing the movie The Fighting Sullivans that was about five Irish-American brothers who were killed while serving on the USS Juneau during World War II.”

That event, and the ship commissioned to mark the tragedy, have a special place in the hearts of Irish Americans, he says.

The memorial to the Sullivan brothers at Kilfrask. The five died in World War II and there was a film made about them, as well a warship named in their memory
The memorial to the Sullivan brothers at Kilfrask. The five died in World War II and there was a film made about them, as well a warship named in their memory

And indeed here too, Ray. A memorial stone stands on the beach at Trafrask, near Adrigole in West Cork, ancestral birthplace of the Sullivans, remembering both the sacrifice made by the brothers and also those earlier Sullivans who left their home to seek a better life in the New World.

Tom and Bridget Sullivan, as well as Tom’s brother Owen, were among the migrants who crossed the Atlantic to New York in 1849, later heading west to settle in Iowa.

The USS warship, The Sullivans, was built and named to honour the five brothers, Joe, Frank, Al, Matt, and George, and was christened by their mother, Alleta Sullivan. The ship saw action in World War II and the Korean War, and after decommissioning went to the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park in upstate New York.

It is now in bad condition, Ray tells us, and the New York Ancient Order of Hibernians is fund-raising to restore this memento of Irish-American gallantry. Here is the link if any of you want to know more:

Thank-you for that information, Ray. But how about your own childhood in Cork? Tell us all!

“I was one of 11 children - six sisters and four brothers - and lived on Clarke’s Road in Ballyphehane. I attended the Holy Family primary school and then went on to the ‘Tech’ (The Crawford Municipal Technical Institute, now the School of Art on Sharman Crawford Street)."

Large family, Ray? 

“Not unusual. There were many large families in Ballyphehane at the time. My O’Shea cousins on Pearce Road and my neighbours, the O’Sullivans, had equal amounts of kids.”

The great thing about growing up in Ballyphehane, says Ray, was that in 20 minutes you could be in the countryside - Lanes Wood, the trout hole, the Furry Glen, or in the City centre.

“I do recall money being tight, but my mother always somehow managed to find the money to send us to the pictures on Saturday, which I loved!”

Great memories there then of cowboys and Indians, Tarzan and Jane, horror and comedy, adventure and suspense, all to be played out later in schoolboy games around the fields and laneways of old Cork.

“My first job was in MNC (Merchants National Cooperative) on the South Douglas Road when I was 16,” continues Ray. It was a wholesale groceries company, but unfortunately closed in the early 1980s.

“I met my good friends Pat O’Mahoney and Tim Murphy there, and we can still say we are friends to this day.

“Then my friend Pat got a job in Smurfits in Togher, and I followed him, starting there a year later.

Times were really hard here on Leeside in the 1980s, as many will remember all too well.

“As there were no jobs to be had in Cork in the mid-’80s, I asked the Plant Manager, Brian Cunningham, if I could have six months’ leave of absence while I tried to make a go of it in the States. He was very supportive and even wrote a letter that he and the Union signed, stating I would have a job if I came back within six months.

“Needless to say, I did not return, but that gives you an insight into the great group of people who worked there at Smurfits.”

Romance beckoned when Ray met his wife, Patricia, who grew up in New York City and is of Italian descent.

“Patricia and I have great kids, Brandon and Laura, and live a nice life in NYC . But Ballyphehane and my friends will always hold a special place in my memory.”

Well, isn’t that nice, Ray? Thank-you for sharing, both about the Sullivans, and about your own childhood and teenage days in Cork, and we are delighted to hear that you are enjoying life in the New World. Come back and see us some time!

Tipsy cake, sometimes called Russian Log, can still be bought in Cork. Picture: Richard Mills
Tipsy cake, sometimes called Russian Log, can still be bought in Cork. Picture: Richard Mills


Now, remember a few weeks back (July 7) we mentioned ‘tipsy cake’, as Jerry Holt had written in to say that this ambrosian delight far outshone the better-known Donkeys Gudge?

Well, we are glad to report that you can still find it in some of the larger supermarkets, six cakes to a pack, sometimes called Russian Log, but occasionally (and correctly) Tipsy Cake. And it’s as delicious as ever.

Why was it thus called? We don’t know for sure, but would hazard a guess that originally it might have had the tiniest whisper of sherry in it, like a trifle?

Pretty fair bet that it doesn’t now! Dem days are gone, boy!

Pat Kelly, however, does remember alcohol and its uses at Thompson’s, and wrote to tell us so. Pat is, at the moment, recovering from Covid and not feeling great, but determined to get back into sharing his fond memories of old Cork as soon as possible.

Every good wish to you, Pat, and we sincerely hope to see you up and about before long.

Pat says he doesn’t remember tipsy cake individually, but does recall very well being given a chit and tasked with the job of getting bottles of sherry from the stores at Thompson’s for their famous sherry trifles (didn’t they come in nice little stiff pleated paper cases?)

The sherry, when he collected it, was actually already mixed with strawberry jam, Pat reveals, to prevent temptation for a quick snifter on the part of the early morning bakers. Now that is a nice little detail that we wouldn’t otherwise have known - thanks, Pat!

“I also remember sometimes getting a chit for two bottles of Sandeman port, and a bottle of whiskey,” he adds.

Presumably, the port was for Christmas puddings, but the whiskey, he claims, was a perk of the job, for the German manager, who could be spotted ducking down surreptitiously in his office to take a swig.

Ah yes, the manager’s office would have been glass walled on all sides so he could keep an eye on the workers all around, but they, in return, could keep an eye on him, evidently!

Thompsons cake factory in October 1958. A former worker recalls their time there today
Thompsons cake factory in October 1958. A former worker recalls their time there today

“I started working in Thompsons when I was 14,” adds Pat, “First, I was put in the confectionery, and later I transferred to the vans as a bread boy, then an assistant to the driver, and eventually getting a van myself.”

And we can remember another much-loved Cork figure who drove vans for Thompson’s, the late great Billa Connell. He used to tell tales of parking his van on the Coal Quay and going for a coffee. The ladies of the stalls, he said, would come and select their own treats from the back of the van, and leave the correct money for him. He was never out by a penny, he said.

Pat Kelly says that he finally left Thompsons when he was about 24, because of the long hours that were demanded.

Yes, it’s worth remembering that for you to be able to buy your loaf or your cake at ten in the morning, the bakers have had to be up since dawn, sometimes midnight, firing up ovens, mixing batter or dough, getting everything done and out for delivery before your alarm clock ever goes off.

And we have another happy reunion to record! Malcolm Rose, now living in Spain, wrote: “I enjoy your articles in the Echo, but was delighted to read an article sent by John Mooney, a friend from my childhood. May I ask you to pass my email address to John, with my regards, and if he wishes to contact me, I would be delighted. I hope that is not too much trouble.”

Well of course it wasn’t, Malcolm, and we were pleased so to do. As we were to hear that you two are now back in contact again after all those years. Can we ask you to tell us more about those childhood days?

“I moved to Cork in 1950, when I was three,” said Malcolm. “My older brother, Bryan, became friends with Anthony (as John was known then) and another boy, Ian. Bryan and Ian attended the same school, and I think Ian knew Anthony, as they only lived 200 or 300 yards apart. So I think that was how it started.

“I was four years younger, and just the annoying little brat, but Anthony and Ian were kinder to me. By the time I was 10 or 11 I was more friendly with Anthony, I liked making things, and so did he. That is more or less how I remember it.”

Malcolm went to school in Douglas, but his abiding memories of those golden days with Anthony/John, are of the open air and endless games.

“Our fun was in the fields and streams, things were simple in those days, one was safe wherever you were.”

That difference in Christian name is easily explained from the times that were in it. Often a boy was called after his father, but that would lead to confusion in the household, so he was generally known by his second name or a derivative of that.

For example, a boy christened Michael might be known as Barry all his life because his second name was Finbarr. It must make family researchers and genealogists tear their hair out!

Were you christened one name but always known by another? Or does this week’s Throwback Thursday spark other memories in your mind? Let us have them. Email or leave a comment on our Facebook page:

More in this section

Sponsored Content

Add to your home screen - easy access to Cork news, views, sport and more