Unesco editor who was central figure among Irish in Paris

Jean O’Sullivan obituary: Born August 25th, 1954 – Died September 8th, 2017

Jean O’Sullivan at the marché d’Aligre in Paris.

Jean O’Sullivan at the marché d’Aligre in Paris.


Jean O’Sullivan, who has died aged 63, was a central figure in the Irish community in Paris for more than three decades, during which she also led a successful career as an editor and educator. With her husband, the Irish language poet Derry O’Sullivan, she organised annual Bloomsday celebrations in Paris and attended virtually every event at the Irish College and Irish Embassy.

O’Sullivan grew up in Glenageary, Co Dublin, the eldest of six brothers and sisters. She attended the Sacred Heart school and Loreto Abbey, spent a year at the National College of Art and Design, then studied French and English at UCD.

Her father, Maurice O’Sullivan, was chief engineer at ESB and a designer of the Poolbeg power station. He taught her to swim and sing, skills she passed on to her brothers and sisters.

After graduating from UCD, O’Sullivan worked as a singing waitress and singing kindergarten teacher in Los Angeles. She had always loved Paris, and decided to give living there a try.

O’Sullivan often joked that her rightful surname should be O’Sullivan O’Sullivan. She met Derry at a Bloomsday party on the bank of the Seine, below the Pont de Sully, in 1982. He was 10 years her senior and had trained as a Capuchin priest, but left the priesthood in 1970. When they danced together for the first time on a prow-like promontory jutting into the Seine, it was, he says, “like being plugged into a nuclear power station”.

He had not written in Irish for 12 years. She reconciled him with Ireland and was, he said, the “creative force” behind his collection bhfuil do Iúdás? (Where is Your Judas?) which is now in Irish language university libraries around the world. She designed the cover.

Tense occasion

Jean and Derry O’Sullivan were married in St Joseph’s Church, Glasthule, in 1983. Their families were large, and the church was filled with O’Sullivans. Because he was a former priest and divorced, they had to obtain special permission. It was, he recalled, a tense occasion, also because Jean was seven months pregnant with their first daughter, Isolde.

When he landed a teaching position at the Sorbonne, she took over his job in the English language section of an international boarding school. She was then recruited by the French publishing house Nathan, where she edited a news magazine for schools and produced a record album and booklet titled Singlish to teach English to French and German children. It is still used today.

After a decade in publishing, O’Sullivan joined the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) at the suggestion of the Irish artist Reginald Gray. She was an editor in the knowledge management department and travelled in Europe, Africa and the US to promote Unesco’s Slave Route Project, which was designed to teach children the history of slavery.

O’Sullivan was a much-loved personality at Unesco, where she choreographed pantomimes, acted, played the guitar and sang blues in a band. “Known for her mastery of the English language, bright spirit and wit, Jean always strove to communicate with clarity in lay person’s terms and to seek out the human story in all programmes,” Unesco’s homage to her said.

When she retired in 2014, O’Sullivan resumed work on a novel set in her beloved Glenageary. She sang with the Latin-American Voces Latinas choir.

An intellectual as well as a talented visual artist, she could quote passages of Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake from memory, and knew hundreds of songs in four languages. O’Sullivan had an extraordinarily sunny disposition, and would break spontaneously into song, like an opera singer.

She loved vintage clothing shops and put together colourful, perfectly co-ordinated outfits including hats, gloves, brooches and shoes. The only non-vintage clothing she purchased was the occasional outfit by her favourite designer, Issey Miyake.

O’Sullivan wrote of her love for the markets, cafes and bookstalls of Paris on The Irish Times website in 2015. She described the Irish College, which will hold a memorial service for her this afternoon, as “a goldmine of Irish culture”.

O’Sullivan is survived by her husband Derry, daughters Isolde and Derval, stepson Dekin, brothers, sisters, extended family and a multitude of friends.