Joseph Tomelty

Author, Actor, Playwright

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Joseph (Joe) Tomelty was born in Portaferry, Co Down, on March 5th 1911. The eldest of seven children, he left the local primary school at 12 to be apprenticed to his father’s trade of housepainter. He then moved to Belfast and attended classes at Belfast Technical College. His acting debut was in 1937 with St Peter’s Players, and in the following year the Northern Ireland region of the BBC broadcast his first play Barnum Was Right, which became a record-breaking stage success as Mugs and Money.

In 1940, Tomelty was one of the founders of the Group Theatre, where he became general manager from 1942 until 1951. He wrote eleven stage plays, rich in vernacular language and metaphor, of which his masterpiece All Souls’ Night (1948) is the most often revived. That same year saw the publication of Red is the Port Light, a novel set in his native Co Down. A second novel The Apprentice was published in 1953. His career as a character actor was also developing, and Tomelty appeared in feature films from 1947 to 1963, including Odd Man Out (1947), Hobson’s Choice (1954), Bhowani Junction (1956) and Moby Dick (1956).

The BBC commissioned Joe Tomelty to write a weekly radio serial, The McCooeys, which was first broadcast in 1949. This comic drama ran for seven years, with a 6,000-word script written for each episode. Popular memory informs that the streets of Northern Ireland were empty when the Saturday evening broadcasts kept thousands indoors listening to the wireless. Other writing includes the two novels, short stories for the BBC Home Service, and The Singing Bird (1971); the first drama in colour broadcast by the BBC in Belfast.

Recognised as one of the most important cultural and artistic figures in Northern Ireland since the Second World War, in 1956 Tomelty was the first actor to be awarded MA for services to theatre by Queen’s University, Belfast, a fitting recognition in the city whose character and people he depicted so vividly in his writing. In 1954 Joseph Tomelty was injured in a car accident while working in England, and although he recovered, this restricted his career. He died in Belfast on June 7th 1995, and is buried in Portaferry.

Location of plaques: 22 Shore Road, Portaferry    Date of unveiling: 5 March 2011

Report of Plaque unveiling available HERE
Clip from the documentary “The Northern Irish in Hollywood