Carmel O’Sullivan 1936 – 2023

Carmel O’Sullivan 1936 – 2023

February 19, 2023 Off By Conor Walton
Carmel O’Sullivan, Dean of Women Students 1990 – 2001
oil on linen, 120 x 80cm, 2002, collection of University College Dublin

I was saddened to hear of the passing of Carmel O’Sullivan who I painted on her retirement as Dean of Women Students, University College Dublin, back in 2002.

She was a marvelous character with a lively intelligence and a singular sense of style. The jacket she chose to wear for her portrait caused me an aesthetic crisis that changed the course of my art! There was always a sparkle and a slightly mischievous glint in her eyes.

Originally from Miltown Malbay in West Clare, Carmel first came to Dublin in the early 1960’s to work in Dunlops. She studied in UCD in the evenings after work, eventually graduating with a Degree in Philosophy, and went on to work for thirty years in the university, rising to positions of Assistant Dean and finally Dean of Women Students. Although a formidable character, a trail-blazer and a feminist in her way (her title was sometimes misread as ‘Dean of Women’s Studies‘) she was decidedly old-school in her politics and Catholicism.

The opening/closing door in the portrait was intended both to indicate her welcome and support for the many students she took under her wing, but also her departure from this office. The book with Rembrandt’s ‘Prodigal Son’ on the cover signified her Christian ethos and determination to be there for her students in their hour of need.

Close-up of Carmel’s portrait with Rembrandt book in her hand

According to Kieran McDermott, who as Chaplain of UCD worked with her for many years and officiated at her funeral, “Carmel made her mark on university life especially with students. She had the great skill of accompaniment, especially those who were not sure or who were struggling or stressed in some way or bereaved by a family member or friend.”

My portrait of Carmel, which was commissioned by Kieran McDermott and gifted to UCD, is in part a testament to their long friendship. It hung in Newman House until a new policy was introduced that only portraits of the deceased could hang in public areas. I hope that with Carmel’s passing her portrait will once again find a place on UCD’s walls and her memory preserved within the institution.

Although I didn’t hear of her death until shortly after the she was buried, I was heartened to hear that a print of the portrait was placed on her coffin at the funeral and praised by those who knew and mourned her as capturing her ‘spirit’.