One of the most prominent figures in Northern Irish theatre over the last six decades
Roma Tomelty followed her actor-playwright father Joseph Tomelty into a career on the stage (as did her sister, Frances) with a gusto and momentum that saw her become one of the most prominent figures in Northern Irish theatre over the last six decades.
Widely admired for her resourcefulness as an actor, her abilities were matched by her tenacity in pioneering vocational training in the region and by her stamina, continuing to work on stage and screen until her sudden death on April 22, aged 74.
Born in Belfast, she joined the Junior Drama League in her early teens where she met the actor Stephen Rea, with whom she co-founded the Young Irish Theatre Company. Spotted by Ulster Television at the age of 18, she became an onscreen continuity announcer in 1963.
She performed regularly with the city’s Arts Theatre, Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, her appearances there, beginning with Molly in Patrick Kavanagh’s Tarry Flynn in 1968, marked by always memorable vivacity.
Mayo Simon’s two-hander The Old Lady’s Guide to Survival saw her deliver a masterclass in comedy and pathos alongside Maggie Jordan at the venue in 1992. More recently she was seen as Rebecca Nurse in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the inaugural production of the newly rebuilt theatre in 2011, and in Marie Jones’ Sinners in 2017.
Spending five years in San Francisco from 1969, she acted with and directed several local companies including an all-male version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the Boarding House Theater.
A lifelong champion of her father’s plays, in 1986 she directed the first staging in Belfast of his masterpiece All Souls’ Night at the Arts Theatre. There, in 1993, she was seen in The End House and at the time of her death was planning a revival of his hugely popular 1950s radio comedy The McCooeys at the Portico Arts Centre in his native Portaferry in County Down.
In the early 1980s, Tomelty was the first artistic director of the Newry Arts Centre. Later in the decade, with her actor-director husband Colin Carnegie, she formed Centre Stage to offer drama classes for young people, the first such in Northern Ireland – she was planning its annual summer gathering before the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions – and later a professional theatre company of the same name.
At the Glasgow Citizens in 1985 she was seen in Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, The Stage noting: “The best performance of all is Roma Tomelty as the fiercely protestant Bessie Burgess.”
Her last stage performance was in Laurence McKeown’s Something in the Air with Brassneck Theatre Company in 2019.
An accomplished writer, her celebration of Irish poet Thomas Moore, The Wind and the Sleeping Harp, was seen at the Riverside Studios, London in 1990.
A Sublime Discord, her portrait of the novelist George Sands and composer Chopin (in which she also played Sands) at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1997, was “a gem well worth seeking out [for its] virtuoso performances”.
On screen she was seen in Dr Finlay’s Casebook, The Frankenstein Chronicles and Game of Thrones. She recently completed filming Brian and Domhnall Gleeson’s Frank of Ireland.
Boasting an encyclopaedic knowledge of theatre, she was a raconteur of wit and wisdom. Lyric Theatre artistic director Jimmy Fay described her as a “force of nature as an actor, producer and teacher”.
She published two novels for children (co-written with the actor Sybil Allen) and had been a drama adjudicator working throughout Ireland and Scotland since the 1980s.
Roma Tomelty was born on May 30, 1945. She is survived by her husband and three daughters, all of whom work in the theatre.