Joseph Tomelty (1911-95)

Quotations


Life
b. Portaferry, Co. Down, youngest of seven; became house painter after his father from 12; his father was a folk musician; went to work in Harland and Wolff shipyard; member of St Peter’s Players amateur group; became author of extremely popular The MacCooeys, a highly popular Ulster radio series, 1948-54, pioneering vernacular drama; his first piece, Barnum Was Right (1940) [revived as Right Again, Barnum, for record run, Opera House 1946 [var. sequel], performed at the Ulster Hall;
 
his next, Idolatry at Inishargie (1942), and Poor Errand (1943), performed by Ulster Group Th.; served as General Manager of the Group Theatre to 1951; Right Again, Barnum enjoyed a record-breaking run in 1946; plays include The End House (Abbey, 1944), written in response to Special Powers Act, not staged in Belfast; and Is the Priest At Home (Group Th. 1954; Abbey, Spring 1956; and revived in an eightieth anniversary celebration at Lyric Theatre, Belfast, 1991);
 
appeared in Shiels’s The Passing Day in London, leading to roles in plays and films; also acted in Tyrone Guthrie’s company and was cast by Guthrie as Fibbs in Shiels’s The Passing Day during Festival of Britain, giving a celebrated performance; appeared with Gregory Peck in Moby Dick; badly injured in car accident while playing starring role with Ava Gardner in Bhowani Junction (1954) [var. 1955]; his novels are Red is the Port Light (1948, rep. 1983) and The Apprentice (1953; rep 1983); MA from QUB for services to Northern Ireland Theatre; bronze head by Carolyn Mulholland commissioned 1991;
 
d. West Belfast; survived by actress dgs. Frances and Roma, and wife Lena; funeral service at St Peter’s, Falls Road; bur. St Patrick’s Church, Ballyphillip, Portaferry; the rock musician Sting is m. to one of Tomelty’s dgs. IF2 DIW DIL MAX OCIL

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Works
Plays
  • Right Again, Barnum (Belfast: H. R. Carter [1950]), 65pp.;
  • Mugs and Money [Barnum was Right] (Belfast: [H. R. Carter 1953]), 88pp.;
  • Is the Priest at Home? (Belfast: [H. R. Carter 1954]), 88pp.;
  • All Souls’ Night (Belfast: H. R. Carter 1955), 68pp.;
  • The End House (Dublin: James Duffy 1962), 88pp..
 
Novels
  • Red is the Port Light (London: Jonathan Cape 1948); and Do. [rep. edn] (Belfast: Blackstaff Press 1983, 1997), 210pp.;
  • The Apprentice: The Story of a Nonentity (London: Jonathan Cape 1953), 264pp., and Do. [rep. edn.] (Belfast: Blackstaff 1983), 264pp.
 
Collected Editions
  • All Soul’s Night and Other Plays, ed. Damian Smyth (Belfast: Lagan Press 1993) [contains “All Soul’s Night”, “The Singing Bird”, “April in Assagh”, “and The End House”].

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Criticism
Robert Hogan, After the Irish Renaissance (London: Macmillan 1968), p.273ff; J. W. Gracey, ‘Introductory Bibliography’, Irish Booklore, 1. 2 (Aug. 1971), pp. 226-34; Damian Smyth, ‘An Introduction to the Plays of Joseph Tomelty’, in Honest Ulsterman (Autumn 1994), pp.10-19.

See also remarks in J. W. Foster, Themes and Forces in Ulster Fiction (1974) [remarks on The Apprentice and Red is the Port Light], and Foster, ‘Strangford Lough and Its Writers’, in Between Shadows: Modern Irish Writing and Culture (Dublin: IAP 2009), espec. p.136f. [extract].

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Commentary
John Keyes, review of Colin Carnegie production of Mugs (Civic Arts Th., Belfast, 7-18th Mar. 1995), Mugs [sic. brev.], Tomelty’s first play ... began as The Beauty Competition for St Peter’s Players in 1938 ... later emerged as a three-acter, Barnum Was Right, before its final form as one of the Group Theatre’s greatest successes; Tomelty wrote ‘realistic’ plays but he was a considerable poet; All Souls’ Night, The Singing Bird, and April in Assagh with their vibrant language and startling use of metaphor presage the way his work would have developed ... Without Tomelty, Sam Thompson’s The Evangelist and Over the Bridge would not have happened. (Fortnight, Apr. 1995).

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John Wilson Foster, ‘Strangford Lough and Its Writers’, in Between Shadows: Modern Irish Writing and Culture (Dublin: IAP 2009), espec. p.136f. [as infra]: ‘[Tomelty] was born in Portaferry in 1911. He was a house-painter, playwright and actor, and scriptwriter of the beloved and legendary Ulster radio series, The McCooeys (1948-54). Because he is chiefly known as a dramatist, few are aware that Tomelty wrote two novels, Red is the Port Light and The Apprentice (1953), despite the fact that both have been reprinted. The first is Tomelty’s Strangford area novel. The action, which takes place in the 1920s or 1930s, is an episode in the life of Stephen Durnan, who is an outsider by virtue not only of being a “by-blow” (i.e. he is illegitimate) with an unknown father and an uncommunicative mother whom he has just buried when the novel opens, but also of being a whistle-blower whose testimony as a deckhand at a shipwreck inquiry reduced the career of a Captain Norton to the humble drudgery of coasting. Duman signs on as a deckhand on the barely seaworthy SS Glendry (registered in Portaferry) captained by the man he nearly ruined, and again there is a shipwreck. Norton is drowned (and buried in Ballyphilip graveyard where Tomelty himself was to be laid to rest in 1995) but Durnan survives. He falls for Norton’s widow whom he marries in haste and repents in equal haste. The second half of the novel, which depicts this short, ill-fated marriage as taut melodrama, does not deliver on the promise of the impressive tense realism of the first half, but the book is nevertheless the impressive debut of a novelist.’ (p.136.) Further describes the ‘fictional geography’ of Red is the Port Light, which he calls a ‘at times disturbing novel’. (p.137.)

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Quotations
The Apprentice (1953): ‘Poverty or hard work can do you damn little harm at fifty or sixty; but get it when you are seven or eight or twelve, fourteen or sixteen and by God it leaves its mark. It tears a gap in the soul that you can never heal; it leaves its echo there, Frankie, and the echo is fear; fear of want, of hunger, of no work, of sickness. Poverty, son, is cancer of the mind.’ (Quoted in Blackstaff Catalogue, 1983).

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References
D. E. S. Maxwell, Modern Irish Drama (Cambridge UP 1984), remarks on Ulster Group Theatre and Tomelty, ‘a versatile man’; sardonic temper; ravenous land; 13 plays among which The End House (1944) [political and economic impositions, and mischance, bring Catholic family to grief]; Is the Priest at Home? (1954) [priest meditates on his uneasy role in the peculiar Catholicism of ‘Church Hibernicus’; includes device of scenes inserted to illustrate priest’s speculations]; All Souls Night (1955) [two sons of fisherfolk die as result of mother’s greed, and return as ghosts]; Tomelty does not stray from realism, and is ‘wholly at ease in the manner, in conveying ‘how things are’ (quoted in Sam Hanna Bell, Theatre in Ulster, 1972, p.85). Bibl.: Is the Priest at Home? (Belfast: H. R. Carter 1954); All Souls Night (Belfast: H. R. Carter 1955); The End House (Dublin: James Duffy 1962).

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Notes
The Apprentice, Frankie Price, reared by cruel begrudging aunt, bears marks of early poverty; begins apprenticeship as house-painter, absurdly grateful for small kindness; his halting progress charted; subtitled ‘The Story of a Non-Entity’ [See also under Quotations, supra.]

Red is the Port Light, intro. Benedict Kiely (From Blackstaff Catalogue, 1987), a novel set in Co. Down about relationship between shipwrecked fisherman and the widow who looks down on him.

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