At the height of his career in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s Joseph Tomelty was widely assumed in working class areas of Belfast to be running the BBC. Even today, after more than a decade living in semi-retirement in Blackrock, Co Dublin, his periodic forays north prove that he is not forgotten. Passers-by spot that enduring Tomelty hallmark, the shock of silver hair, and while some search their memories and ask, ‘Is that Tomelty?’ others are more certain and greet him in the street.
Of these most will perhaps remember him for the McCooey’s, a weekly radio saga of working class life. It was in 1948 that BBC Northern Ireland, influenced by the success of a similar series based in Glasgow, commissioned scripts from Tomelty. Once the McCooey’s were born they took on a life of their own that was to last seven years, years in which Tomelty provided 6,000 word scripts for each episode, a prodigious 800,000 words in all. It was a commitment which in the somewhat disparaging terms of an Irish Times profile in 1953, would ‘sign the death warrant of most would be serious dramatists’; however they added that ‘with Tomelty there is no such implication’.
While Tomelty’s reputation for critics of the day and for those considering him in a literary tradition stands or falls on his plays or novels, the cultural significance of the McCooey’s can be too easily overlooked. Here, for the first time outside the field of documentary, the still relatively new medium of radio enjoyed an unprecedented success in which ordinary Ulstermen and women heard their own voices, rather than distant and more anglified tones. Sam Hanna Bell recalls the impact of this – how walking down the main street of Waterfoot in the Glens of Antrim on a sunny day one could follow an entire episode of the McCooey’s emanating from doorway after doorway.
Concern for our ordinary speech has been a central feature of Tomelty’s endeavour. Why, he might well ask, should it not be? He himself was born in Portaferry in 1911; his school days were neither prolonged nor particularly happy – he still recalls as a small boy with a conspicuous stutter being asked to recite ‘Friends, Romans and country men’ with the evident humiliation intended on the initial ‘F’. He left at the age of 12 to follow his father’s trade as a house painter, early background made good use of in his novel The Apprentice (1953).
It was following a move to Belfast that he had his first experience of theatre with visits to the Grand Opera House where he saw ‘frightfully English’ touring companies, that is until he was inspired by the Abbey Theatre Company playing O’Casey’s ‘Juno and the Paycock’, for him ‘the first time I heard natural dialogue on the stage’. This in itself is an interesting reflection on the state of the Belfast theatre in the early thirties. The founders of the Ulster Literary Theatre had themselves been inspired by the Abbey Players in the years before the First World War, but by the late twenties their drive to provide a distinctive Ulster drama had largely died the death. It was from the ranks of the amateurs amongst whom Tomelty was soon active that a new and more lasting development was to come.
As an actor Tomelty was involved first with St Peter’s Players and along with others in 1937 and 1938 took part in discussions which were to lead to the formation on a more professional basis of the Northern Ireland Players. At the same time, encouraged by HL Morrow, he wrote the radio play Barnum is Right which was broadcast in December 1938. A tragedy – Elopement – was to follow in February 1939, but the Northern Ireland Players chose Tomelty in lighter vein with the stage version of Barnum is Right for their first major commercial venture at the Empire in June of the same year.
When the Northern Ireland Players joined forces with the Ulster Theater and the Jewish Institute Dramatic Society in 1940 to form the Group Theatre, Tomelty was close to the centre of events. It was not necessarily a glamorous role; in an article in Drama in March 1953 he was to describe how for ten years he was manager but also ‘booking clerk, ticket collector, cloak room attendant, sweeper up, scene painter, programme seller, chucker out and actor’.
As a playwright too he made a significant contribution to the early viability of the theatre; indeed Right again Barnunm (1943) ranked alongside St John Ervine’s Boyd's Shop as a box office success and pointed the way to later Ulster comedies.
At the time less attention was paid to Tomelty’s more serious plays. One, Idolatry at Innishargie, enjoyed a short run at the Group in 1942, but the End House did not even appear there. This play, which Tomelty had begun writing as far back as 1932, was as he describes it clearly controversial dealing as it did ‘with the inhumanity that resulted from the Special Powers Act’. It was however performed at the Abbey in 1944 an experience which gave Tomlety a strong sense that those then concerned with the Abbey could not comprehend the concerns of Northerners for to his horror the End House was treated as comedy, and added injustice, reviewers found it insufficiently humorous. Tomelty did not feel that he was alone in this experience; Lewis Purcell with The Enthusiast and St John Ervine with Mixed Marriage, both plays with serious intent, had been trivialized in the same way.
Tomelty’s own essentially humane and optimistic outlook certainly, on occasion, tempers his handling of potentially grave themes. In The Apprentice (1953), Frankie the adolescent hero starts out with limited talents in oppressive circumstances, but his entry into the decorating trade, where as elsewhere apprentices were readily exploitable, does not carry us into the territory of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, rather it leads to a touching, even sentimental resolution of the boy’s personal dilemmas, and diminishing tension as he escapes from the one real menace of the book, his mother.
It is no accident that the same sinister mother figure, one drawn from early memories of a real character in Portaferry, re-appears in what is indisputably Tomelty’s best play All Soul’s Night (1949). Indeed in this, and to a lesser extent in his first novel Red is the Portlight published in the same year, there is no ready escape from the narrow confines of family and community, and tragedy is fully played out against a background to which Tomelty could give almost poetic expression.
With these achievements behind him the Irish Times in 1953 looked to Tomelty as ‘the man who may some day deliver the Ulster theatre from its present strait-jacket of the knock on the farm kitchen door and the ping of the grocery bell’. There were others at the Group Theatre who wished to do so in a way different to Tomelty and he saw directors ‘whose tendency was to do the non-Ulster play; the Conrad, the Maugham, at the expense of the native author’. He himself saw a future for the ‘folk play’ and felt that there was a need for two separate theatres in Belfast because ‘he could see little hope of two distinct types of acting flowering on the same stage’.
Tomelty’s arguments were not put forward in a purely parochial context for his convictions had been strengthened by the success of the 1951 Festival Company which under Tyrone Guthrie had brought George Shiel’s Passing Day to London with notable success to which Tomelty, as actor, had contributed. Indeed recognition beyond Irish shores now gave Tomelty less time to devote to the Ulster theatre. By 1955 his film career which began as the taxi driver in Odd Man Out (1946), and subsequently brought parts in some twenty other films appeared on the point of liftoff into the big time when he was called for screen tests for Bhowani Junction.
A disastrous car accident brought all these hopes to an end. Tomelty fought back, but his injuries left lasting effects and his main writing and acting days were over. Now the typewriter rests easy and he reckons that ‘Manana’ would be a suitable telegraphic address. In his 1953 Drama article he did not define what he meant by a theatre dependent on the ‘folk play’, and fate denied him the opportunity to make a further contribution to the vision in practice.
Today’s playwrights would dismiss some of Tomelty’s writing as ‘pandering’ to the natural appetite of Ulster audiences for undemanding ‘local crack’, but if he did so Tomelty as much as anyone else helped establish a theatre in our own idiom, an essential feature of his own more enduring work, and one which others build on today. For himself Tomelty now wishes for ‘nothin’ but it is the misfortune of those who have made a special contribution that they do not escape so easily. With the republication by Blackstaff Press last year (1983) of The Apprentice and Red is the Portlight Tomelty is in demand again, and this year (1984), with his old friend Sam Hanna Bell received Honorary Membership of the Linen Hall Library.
CultureNorthernIreland wishes to thank John Gray for permission to reproduce this article. Copywright remains with the author.