Joseph Tomelty

One of Northern Ireland's best-loved actors and playwrights

Joseph Tomelty was one of Northern Ireland's best loved actors and playwrights, appearing on the world stage throughout the twentieth century.

Born in Portaferry in 1911, Joseph Tomelty left school at 12 to be apprenticed in his father's trade of house painting. He then became a painter for Harland and Wolff. Once in Belfast, Tomelty became involved in amateur theatre and helped to found the Belfast Theatre Group, acting as general manager between 1941 and 1951.

Influenced by John Ervine, he pioneered a vernacular theatre rich in language and metaphor. His first play Right Again Barnum (1950) opened to record-breaking audiences, and was swiftly matched by its sequel, Barnum was Right (1954). Emboldened by success, Tomelty sought to widen his horizons and to confront more serious issues. Both The End House (1962), and Is the Priest at Home (1954), looked at domestic violence and religious divides in Ireland.

Tomelty is especially well remembered from the radio series The McCooeys, which he both wrote and acted in. The series ran weekly from 1948 to 1954 and gained the largest audience in Northern Irish history.

When The McCooeys came to an end, Tomelty started working in England with Tyrone Guthrie’s theatre company. This exposure led to offers of film work, and in 1954 he was awarded a starring role in Bhowani Junction. In 1956, he also appeared in John Huston's acclaimed Moby Dick. However, Tomelty suffered a major car accident which curtailed his acting career.

Returning to Northern Ireland, although still appearing in a number of films up to 1964, Tomelty became a father figure to the local theatre scene. His plays were constantly revived, and his importance to local drama was recognised by Queen’s University who awarded him a masters for services to Northern Irish theatre.

The Tomelty’s became an acting dynasty, with two of Joseph’s daughters, Frances and Roma, taking to the stage. Joseph Tomelty died in 1995 and was buried in his hometown of Portaferry after a funeral service in St Peter's pro-cathedral on the Falls Road.