Tuesday 13 June 1995
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.
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.
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