Tomelty, Joseph (1911–95), actor and playwright, was born 12 March 1911 in Portaferry, Co. Down, son of James Tomelty, house painter and keen traditional musician, and Mary Tomelty (née Drumgoole). Apprenticed to his father's trade from the local school Ballyphilip at the age of 12, he moved to Belfast to finish his training and attended classes at the city's technical college, where an English teacher, a Mr Tipping, encouraged him to write. Employed in the Harland & Wolff shipyards, he lived in lodgings on the Lower Falls road and began to act in 1937 with an amateur company, the St Peter's Players. They produced the first of his thirteen plays, ‘Barnum was right’ (1938), which was also broadcast on BBC radio in December that year. With others in his company, he helped found the Northern Ireland Players in the winter of 1938–9. They staged his play again in the Belfast Empire Variety Theatre in June 1939, with great commercial success. In 1940 the Players joined the Jewish Institute Dramatic Society – under the direction of Harold Goldblatt (qv) – and the Ulster Theatre to form the Group Theatre, resident in the Ulster Minor Hall in Belfast's Bedford St. Tomelty was an actor and the general manager of the company from 1941 to 1952; he was also booking clerk, usher, doorman, and cleaner. His plays brought the vernacular life of the north to the stage; ‘The end house’ (1944) is a protest against the special powers act, with the idealist republican Seamus MacAstocker killed by police who think he is trying to escape custody. It was first performed at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on 28 August 1944. The audience, unsure of the play's relevance, reacted to it as comedy; to add further insult, newspaper critics felt that it was not funny enough. Tomelty avoided explicit political commentary thereafter. ‘All souls' night’ (1948) is a haunting tragedy first performed by the Group Theatre in September 1948. Its author played the lead role of John Quinn, the fisherman who loses two sons to the sea.
Red is the port light (1948) was his first novel and is the psychological drama of another sailor, Stephen Durnan, who survives a shipwreck only to marry the widow of the foundered vessel's captain. A dark tale that ends in murder, it is entirely opposite to the radio serial ‘The McCooeys’ (1948–54), which he wrote and acted in for the BBC Northern Ireland Home Service. Requiring a script of 6,000 words every week, ‘The McCooeys’ played to huge audiences; Sam Hanna Bell (qv) remembered walking through the Co. Antrim village of Waterfoot on a summer evening and following that week's story from house to house through open windows. Tomelty played the central role of Bobby Greer, the grocer who tells the family's story. The apprentice (1953) is a Bildungsroman that concerns the growth of Francis Price, who shares the author's trade – painting – and his stutter. Well-written, the novel is lyric and erotic; it brings the young urbanite Price to an appreciation of a wider life beyond the constricted Belfast he first knew. Tomelty left the Group theatre in 1951 to take the part of John Fibbs in a Tyrone Guthrie (qv) production of ‘The passing day’ (1936), by George Shiels (qv), for the Festival of Britain. The director David Lean noticed him, and a film career that had started with his role as the cabbie in Odd man out (1947) prospered. He played Doctor Brannigan in The gentle gunman (1954) with Dirk Bogarde and John Mills, and Dooley in Happy ever after (1954) with David Niven. Disaster struck when he took screen tests in 1954 to star with Ava Gardner in Bhowani junction. He suffered near-fatal injuries in a car crash that left him unconscious for weeks and unable consequently to write or act, with rare exceptions. But his earlier work did have continuing influence; John B. Keane (qv) wrote ‘Sive’ (1959) after seeing a production of ‘All souls' night’ (1948) by the Listowel Drama Group in the late 1950s.
He lived in retirement after his accident for the remaining half of his life and died on 7 June 1995 in Belfast; he is buried in St Patrick's cemetery, Ballyphilip. Contemporaries remembered him as a good-humoured, generous man whose career was prematurely ended. He married (1942) Lena Milligan and left two daughters. Recipient of an honorary MA from QUB in 1956 for his services to acting, he was the subject of a bronze bust by Carolyn Mulholland, commissioned by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, in 1991.