OBITUARY:Joseph Tomelty

Joseph Tomelty was one of the most important cultural and artistic figures in Northern Ireland since the Second World War; and the first significant literary artist from the northern Catholic community after partition - a status he enjoyed with caution and with a generous skill by which he laid a template for poets and writers from that population.

As an actor, playwright, novelist, short-story writer and theatre manager, over a professional career of only 16 years, Tomelty achieved an enviable success which crossed the borders of popular and critical acclaim, burning the image of his rugged, sensitive features, and distinctive white hair, across the sectarian divide into the common mythology of his chosen city of Belfast.

Tomelty was born in 1911 in Portaferry, Co Down - a small fishing village on the east coast of Ulster, and the setting for his most effective works. His father, James Tomelty, was nicknamed "Rollicking" because of his skill with the fiddle, and music became one of the strongest influences in the playwright's work - three of his plays take their titles from traditional songs: The Singing Bird (1948), Down the Heather Glen (1953) and The Drunken Sailor (1954).

He left the local primary school, Ballyphilip, at the age of 12 and was apprenticed to his father's trade as a housepainter. This involved classes at the Belfast Tech, and living in digs on the Catholic Lower Falls gave a peculiar authenticity to his second novel, The Apprentice, which follows the young Frankie Price out of a harrowing childhood into a chance of life. It remains a vivid and painful document of poverty of spirit and individual resilience; and the ghost of Frankie Price has haunted many of the novels and plays to come out of the north since.

At this time too Tomelty met Min Milligan, who was to create many of his most memorable characters, including Aunt Sarah in his ground-breaking BBC radio series The McCooeys. He married her daughter Lena in 1942 and they had two daughters, both now in the theatre profession - Roma and Frances.

Tomelty had already been instrumental in forming the Group Theatre in Belfast in 1940 and had started writing the plays for St Peter's Players and subsequently the Group, which were to establish him at the very heart of northern culture after the war - Barnum was Right (1938), Right Again, Barnum (1943) and the controversial The End House, premiered at the Abbey in 1944 when northern theatres wouldn't touch it.

Association with what was known as "the Tomelty clique" - actors, painters and writers, including the young Brian Moore, who gathered at Campbell's cafe in the city centre - was a liability in the terms of the Unionist establishments at the BBC and in government. The End House, dealing with a Catholic family under the Special Powers Act, was simply not produced, even at Tomelty's own theatre, the Group. It received its Northern Ireland professional premiere only in 1993 as a highlight of the Belfast Festival at Queen's.

It is here that the extent of Tomelty's commitment to and investment in Belfast is apparent. At the same time as pursuing a successful acting career in British and Hollywood films (like Odd Man Out, Bhowani Junction and Moby Dick), writing plays as diverse as All Souls' Night (1948) and Is the Priest at Home? (1954), and his first novel, Red is the Point Light (1948), he was providing 6,000-word scripts for each weekly episode of The McCooeys - a total in the region of 800,000 words over seven years. It is hard to overestimate the impact of that series. In his hands, an intended middle-class drama became a narrative of working-class life which invented "Belfast" as a popularly conceived city, and so influenced a generation that the death of its author has struck thousands as a personal loss.

If he chose Belfast because Belfast meant life and street comedy - an interesting thought - it was otherwise in his two most enduring works. Red is the Port Light deals with superstition, oppression and murder on the east coast of Ulster; it is beautiful, black and bleak. All Souls' Night is a relentless tragedy of human greed and repression, a classic Irish drama which reaches its several moments of greatness with deep emotional power. It returns Tomelty to the obsessive sadness of his east coast and draws out an awesome bitterness tempered by an achieved poetic vision. There are few Irish plays to match it. Which makes all the more poignant the vicissitudes of his own life. During the run of Is the Priest at Home? in 1955, while filming in England, he was injured in a car crash. He was 43. He was unable afterwards to resume the many commitments of his career.

But it was by no means the end. He was awarded an MA for services to theatre by Queen's University, Belfast, in 1956, the first actor to be so honoured; in the 1980s, his novels were reprinted by Blackstaff Press in Belfast; in 1991, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland commissioned a bronze bust to celebrate his 80th birthday; in 1993, an edition of his plays introduced his work to a new generation; and his plays continue to be produced in both amateur and professional theatre.

At his funeral, which began in the splendour of St Peter's Cathedral, in Belfast, and ended on a windy hill in Portaferry, the people of the city turned out to mark his passing. A piper playing "The Singing Bird" to accompany the burial in his home townland of Ballyphilip marked also the end of an era in northern Irish letters.

Damian Smyth

Joseph Tomelty, actor, playwright, novelist, theatre manager: born Portaferry, Co Down 5 March 1911; married 1942 Lena Milligan (two daughters); died Belfast 7 June 1995.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before