Joseph Tomelty

Joseph Tomelty was born in 1911 in Portaferry, Co Down. A major figure in cultural figure, he was a playwright, novelist and actor. He was also a pivotal figure in the seminal Ulster Group Theatre.

Leaving primary school at the age of twelve, he was apprenticed to the trade of housepainter and moved to Belfast, attending Belfast Technical College.

Drawn to the drama, he first acted with St Peter’s Players and with others in 1937 and 1938 took part in discussions which led to the formation of the Northern Ireland Players on a more professional basis.

This was quickly followed up by two radio plays: Radio plays Barnum was Right (1938) and Elopement (1939).

The Northern Ireland Players chose the stage version of Barnum was Right for their first major commercial venture at the Empire in June 1939. The play was a huge hit with local audiences, catapulting Tomelty to the forefront of local public life.

In 1940 Northern Ireland Players joined forces with the Ulster Theatre and the Jewish Institute Dramatic Society to form the Group Theatre. Tomelty was to act as the Group’s General Manager until 1951. Much of his early work premiered at the Group Theatre – Idoltary at Innishargie (1942), Poor Errand (1943) and Right Again, Barnum (1943). 

His The End House (1944) premiered at the Abbey Theatre as its subject matter – the Special Powers Act and by implication the whole of Northern Ireland – was considered too controversial for the Bedford Street Theatre.

Meanwhile, his career as a character actor was advancing rapidly, with Tomelty working in many classic British films of the period, most notably Odd Man Out (1947), Hobson’s Choice (1954), Bowani Junction (1956) and Moby Dick (1956). In 1948 he was commissioned by BBC Northern Ireland to write a weekly radio comedy drama The McCooeys. The series was an incredible success and he continued to write the show for a further seven years. 

Also that year his first novel, the classic Red is the Port Light, appeared from Jonathan Cape. Always committed to writing imaginative prose, he published a further novel, drawn from his experiences as a housepainter, The Apprentice (1953).

Despite his burgeoning acting career, he continued to write for the stage and his most famous play, All Souls’ Night, a poetic bleak tragedy set against the fishing community of his native Portaferry, was premiered in 1948. Further plays included April in Assagh (1954) and his greatest commercial success Is the Priest at Home? (1954).

A serious car accident in 1954 effectively ended his writing career. However, he continued to be a presence on the Northern Ireland stage for many years with occasional film work. In 1956, he was the first actor to be awarded an MA for services to theatre by Queen’s University, Belfast.

He died in 1995.