To those who passed by her charming but inconspicuous antique and collectibles shop on Nicholas Street, Limerick, Ann Sullivan, who has died aged 76, might have seemed just another small trader struggling to make a living in an unfashionable part of an Irish provincial city.
Little did they suspect that here was, in fact, a renowned dealer with a client list that ranged from Hollywood stars to the White House and who dealt on a first-name basis with the cream of New York society. That this was achieved without any particular drive, but rather by the force of a memorable personality, made it all the more notable.
The renowned American interior designer Carleton Varney was one of these. Describing her as “a long and cherished friend”, he said she was always there to help him find anything he needed, including, on one occasion, a traditional Irish Traveller wagon.
Varney sourced material from Sullivan’s shop for President Carter’s White House, for the US Naval Observatory’s offices, and for vice-president Dan Quayle’s residence.
Later still, she was his contact when he was designer at the American embassy residence of ambassador Richard Egan and his contact when he invited groups to perform at a July 4th event to “thank the Irish people for their kindness and sympathies and unity to Americans after the 9/11”.
Actors who visited Sullivan's premises included Peter O'Toole and Russell Crowe. Her strong US connections can be traced back to her time working in sales and public relations at Ireland House on New York's Fifth Avenue in the 1960s.
A legend at Sfadco
She had been sent there by Brendan O’Regan of the Shannon Free Airport Development Company (Sfadco), for whom she also worked on her return in the late 1960s. Patricia Haselbeck-Flynn, a longtime friend, who worked with Sullivan in Sfadco, recalled that after her work in New York “she was an absolute legend… she performed extraordinarily well”.
Back from New York, she persuaded Sfadco to allow her to open an antique business in the Shannon free trade shop and afterwards established her own business in Ellen Street in Limerick. Subsequently there were another three locations before she settled in Nicholas Street under the banner “Once Upon a Time”.
Sullivan had an almost instinctive artistic flair, honed by her studies at the then Dublin Metropolitan School of Art in the 1950s (now NCAD), after schooling at Miss Meredith’s on Pembroke Road.
It was in the milieu of Dublin bohemian life in the late 1950s and early 1960s that she made many of her lifelong friends in the Irish cultural world, including the artist Brian Bourke and Ronnie Drew of the Dubliners, who used to refer to her as "Twinkletoes".
Sullivan’s parents were Cyril “Bing” Sullivan, an English businessman, and Mai Tarrant, from a family long established in the Dublin hotel trade. Cyril Sullivan, a commodity trader, was a millionaire with a string of racecourses in the 1930s, but had lost his fortune by the time his daughter became, very willingly, her parents’ carer in the 1980s and 1990s.
Ann Sullivan never married, and is survived only by cousins. A brother, Jimmy, predeceased her.