A quarter of a century after the death of the Northern Irish actor, playwright, novelist and theatre manager, Michael Quinn explores the legacy of a man whose best-loved work brought together communities across the religious and cultural divide
At the height of his fame in the early 1950s, there was no more prominent or popular a figure in Irish theatre than the actor, playwright, novelist and theatre manager Joseph Tomelty, the 25th anniversary of whose death at the age of 84 falls on June 7.
Born the eldest child of seven to a house painter in Portaferry, County Down, Tomelty was a star of the West End, television and Hollywood. But for audiences in his native Northern Ireland, he is best remembered as the creator of the weekly radio sitcom The McCooeys, and for a body of plays that placed Ulster’s distinctive vernacular and experience squarely centre stage.
Hugely popular on the BBC Northern Ireland Home Service between 1949 and 1955, The McCooeys – a Belfast family of indeterminate religion – was the less provocatively cartoonish Mrs Brown’s Boys of its day, with more than a third of the region’s population regularly tuning in.
Still affectionately remembered, a revival of one episode (drawn from more than 130 in all) that I was going to direct was to have marked Tomelty’s anniversary at the Portico Arts and Heritage Centre in his home town this weekend featuring his actor daughters Frances and Roma Tomelty. The venue’s coronavirus-enforced closure and the sudden death of Roma on April 22 has delayed the celebration until 2021.
Apprenticed in the paint shops of Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipbuilders – where the ill-fated Titanic was nearing completion when he was born in 1911 – Tomelty came to prominence as a founder-member of the city’s Group Theatre in 1940, for whom he wrote 11 plays and served as general manager from 1942 until 1951.
The Group fostered a seminal generation of Northern Irish talent, notable among them Colin Blakely, Margaret D’Arcy, James Ellis, Denys Hawthorne and Stephen Boyd (who later found fame as Messala to Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur).
At the Group, Tomelty blossomed as an actor, making his mark as a playwright in 1939 with the comedy Barnum Was Right. A clash between Orange and Green as Belfast urbanites flee a German air-raid to rural safety south of the border in the Boyne valley – site of a defining, schismatic battle in 1690 – it was seen at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre two years later and the Glasgow Citizens in 1948. Thirty years later, a revival at Belfast’s Arts Theatre featured a young Liam Neeson.
First seen at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin – where public and pundits held Tomelty in high esteem – The End House (1944) revealed him to be a writer willing to provoke as well as please. A searing critique of the Special Powers Act that nakedly discriminated against Catholics, it was written for the Group Theatre who, timidly, refused to produce it. First staged in Dublin, it wasn’t seen in Northern Ireland until Roma Tomelty’s Centre Stage company (co-founded with her actor-director husband Colin Carnegie) presented it at Belfast’s Arts Theatre in 1993.
Serious-minded but self-effacing, Tomelty regularly downplayed his gifts as a writer, modestly telling Ulster Television in 1960: “A play comes from the rag-bag of life, you pick up bits and pieces and it’s your job to knit them all together, weave them into a pattern.”
The patterns he wove were deftly threaded. In his introduction to a collection of Tomelty’s plays, the poet Damian Smyth remarked on a core concern in his writing: “His fundamental justice towards, and empathy with, his characters.”
He added: “The range, depth and quality of his work are unrivalled in Ulster theatre before Brian Friel and there are few bodies of work in Irish theatre that can stand comparison with it.”
The McCooeys struck a chord precisely because it articulated the shared, everyday preoccupations and concerns on both sides of the divide
The success of The McCooeys owed much to Tomelty’s masterly exercise of political discretion, social awareness and comic insightfulness. Engaging with the dangerous absurdities of life in a region where religious identity was prime and problematic, his working-class family struck a chord precisely because it articulated the shared, everyday preoccupations and concerns on both sides of the ‘divide’.
Nothing compared with its pioneering cross-community discourse until BBC Northern Ireland’s brasher Give My Head Peace reached television screens in 1995.
Tomelty’s most consistently creative and varied period began in 1949, with the first series of The McCooeys, his powerful and profound play All Souls’ Night – which remains a high-watermark of Northern Irish theatre – and his debut novel, the dark and dangerous portrait of a descent into murderous madness, Red Is the Port Light, which lays credible claim to being his masterpiece.
Spotted by the director Tyrone Guthrie, Tomelty was cast in a revival of George Shiels’ The Passing Day in 1951 – Northern Ireland’s theatre contribution to that year’s Festival of Britain. The Stage said of his appearance at the Lyric Hammersmith that he gave “one of the outstanding performances on the stage today [with] a sureness of artistry that dominates the production”. It subsequently transferred to the Ambassadors Theatre.
The Passing Day made Tomelty a star and raised his cinema profile. He went on to appear alongside Charles Laughton and John Mills in Hobson’s Choice (1954), with Orson Welles in Moby Dick (1956) and in the classic Titanic film, A Night to Remember (1958).
Roma Tomelty remembered her father “always saying he made films to make money to keep him as a writer, although he never earned enough to write the ballad opera he wanted to”.
Aged 43 and at the height of his powers, Tomelty was involved in a car accident while on a break from filming the George Cukor-directed Bhowani Junction. Hospitalised for several weeks, his injuries all but ended his career as a writer although he continued to act, albeit sporadically, until the 1972 television adaptation of his own 1948 play, The Singing Bird.
That rarest of creatures in Northern Irish theatre, a jack of all trades who excelled in all of them, Tomelty’s enforced retirement from writing prompts the intriguing question of how he might have shaped theatre in the region and on the island of Ireland had he been able to continue.
But for its knowing wit and compassion, its easy intimacy with domesticity and ability to spin commonplace banality into timeless insights about the domains of family and fealty and vulnerability to contested identity, The McCooeys remains a fitting and abiding tribute.
Joseph Tomelty’s The McCooeys will be presented by Centre Stage at the Portico of Ards in 2021