Collected Plays

Joseph Tomelty

About the book…

Joseph Tomelty was one of the first playwrights of note to emerge from post partition Ireland. 

Writing directly from his early experiences of his native Portaferry and working-class Belfast, his plays gave memorable voice to a distinctly Northern Irish sensibility. 

Tomelty was, in some ways, the backbone of the celebrated Ulster Group Theatre and the plays encompass the broad comedy of Right Again, Barnum and Mugs & Money  ­ still providing the template for the 'Ulster comedy' ­ to the darker, more intensely psychological explorations of Poor Errand, The End House, All Souls' Night and The Singing Bird.

Taken together, the plays produce a compelling and multi-faceted portrait of a playwright fully engaged with the people of his native place and the life of his time.

Produced to mark the centenary of his birth, Joseph Tomelty: Collected Plays gathers together his nine major stage plays and three radio plays with many being published here for the first time.

Introduced by the poet and critic Damian Smyth, it brings to the fore once again a formidable body of work, and one key to understanding contemporary Northern Irish theatre. 

The Elopement - Idolatry at Innishargie - Poor Errand - Right Again, Barnum - The End House All Souls' Night - The Singing Bird - The Drunken Sailor - Down the Heather Glen Is the Priest at Home? - Mugs & Money - April in Assagh..

Photo of the author, Joseph Tomelty

About the author…

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.