The Morelli Family
The extraordinary story of an Italian immigrant family
Morelli’s ice-cream parlours are a familiar and mouth-watering sight for visitors to the north Antrim coast. The shops in Portrush and Portstewart are known far and wide for their delicious sundaes and creamy ice-cream, but most are unaware of the extraordinary history of the Italian immigrant family.
The first family member to arrive in Northern Ireland was Joseph Morelli. He opened a small cafe in Ballymena in 1907, and was joined by his brother Dominic who opened a fish and chip shop in Coleraine. When Dominic returned to Italy, his business was taken over by a third brother, Peter, who quickly added an ice-cream parlour and taxi service to the emerging empire. In 1929, he branched out further, opening The Ice Palace in Portstewart.
Around the same time, nephew Angelo Morelli arrived in Northern Ireland. Great Uncle Peter was opening a cafe in Portrush and agreed to sell Angelo the Portstewart shop. After marrying in Italy, Angelo came back to the province and worked hard to build up his business.
In 1937, Angelo’s sons, five year old Nino and four year old Corrado, were sent to their grandparents in Italy to learn about their Italian heritage, ancestry and language. However, the outbreak of the second world war in 1939 saw family scatter far and wide, only reunited at their Portstewart home by luck and a series of incredible coincidences.
After Italy declared its support for Hitler in 1940, Angelo Morelli was one of many Italian immigrants interned in a camp on the Isle of Man. He was put on a deportation ship to Canada, but taken off board at the last minute. The ship was sunk by a German U-boat in the Atlantic with total loss of life.
Meanwhile, Angelo’s wife and youngest son, Guido, were ordered to stay with another Italian family in Portadown. Because of Portstewart’s coastal position, they were deemed to be a threat to naval traffic. Other local Italians, who had been born on British soil, took over the running of the business.
For Nino and Corrado in Italy, news of their family was scarce. When the Allied forces reached Italy, they fled their home alongside their grandparents. The brothers had no idea if their parents were still alive, nor did their parents know anything of their sons’ fate.
By a remarkable coincidence, an army officer from Portstewart recognised the Morelli name in a Red Cross camp in Italy, and made sure that the two young boys were well looked after, eventually receiving news of their family back in Northern Ireland. The same officer then helped Nino and Corrado get back to Ireland in 1945. The Morelli family were reunited in Portstewart once more.
The family did not let their wartime experiences hold them back, and their businesses developed rapidly. Aside from shops in Portstewart and Portrush, a franchise means that famous Morelli ice-cream can be now be enjoyed throughout Northern Ireland.
Nino married a local girl, and the couple had four children, three of whom now work in the family business. Nino’s eldest son, Angelo, has spread the Morelli name worldwide, and he is now a social worker in Australia.
Corrado’s son Dino made his name as one of Britain’s best young racing drivers. Now professionally retired, he owns thriving bingo businesses north and south of the border. Angelo senior returned to Italy with his wife in the early 1990s.
© Naomi Holland 2004