Margaret Sullivan – the Irish Mother of New England  

When it comes to impact of the Irish on America, it’s hard to top Margaret Sullivan — mother to two governors of three states.


John and James Sullivan portraits

Margaret Sullivan came to America from Ireland in 1723 along with her future husband, Owen. Owen had been stripped of his family estate due to British intolerance of Irish Catholics. Settling in Berwick, Maine, Owen became a school teacher and Margaret set about running the family farm.

The couple’s stormy marriage created five sons and a daughter — among them were two governors of three states.

Perhaps apocryphally, Margaret is said to have joked in her old age that she can remember working the fields of her farm carrying the governor of Massachusetts while the governor of New Hampshire and Vermont toddled along behind her.

John, the oldest son and a lawyer, would win favor with New Hampshire’s colonial governor, but as Massachusetts radicals began protesting against British rule, Sullivan began to shift his sympathies.

He was chosen to represent New Hampshire in the Continental Congress. He would become a general in the Continental Army. The high point of his military career would seem to be his participation in the Siege of Boston.

Later efforts on the battlefield were not so successful and he struggled to meet Congress’ expectations. Sullivan was disappointed when Congress frequently criticized his actions.

Upon returning to New Hampshire, Sullivan rebuilt his fortunes and his ego. Viewed in New Hampshire as a hero, he became governor of the state.

James, meanwhile, would develop the finest mind of the family. His foot was injured during work on the farm and he never fully regained use of it.

In addition, he suffered from epilepsy. With military service out of the question, James applied himself to studying and preparing for a legal career.

Sullivan earned himself a small fortune acting as agent for Boston traders and he would go on to become governor and attorney general of Massachusetts. Much of his time in office was spent in wrestling property away from loyalists after the end of the Revolution.

As for the claim that Margaret raised governors of three states. The third state is probably a reference to Vermont. Both New Hampshire and New York claimed ownership of Vermont prior to 1790, when it was known as the New Hampshire Grants, though John Sullivan likely had little to do with actually running the state.

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