Young, James (‘Jimmy’) (1918–74), comedian and actor, was born in Ballymoney, Co. Antrim. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to Fernwood St. in the Ormeau district of Belfast, where his father had secured a job looking after the stables for Inglis's bakery. On leaving school at 14 he took up employment as a rent collector for an estate agent in Shaftesbury Square, and his encounters with colourful characters in the Crumlin, Shankill, and Falls districts of Belfast formed the basis of many of his later comic creations.
His theatrical career began when he joined the amateur drama group of the Youth Hostel Association, and he had his first taste of success when he was awarded best male actor for his role in a play by Jack Loudan, ‘Story for today’. He turned professional soon after this and shared in the great success of the Ulster Group Theatre in the 1940s and 1950s. It was his role as ‘Derek, the window-cleaner’ in the popular radio show ‘The McCooeys’, however, which ensured that he became a household name in Northern Ireland. This exposure guaranteed packed houses at the Group Theatre and he subsequently began broadcasting his own radio shows such as ‘The Young idea’ and ‘Young's way’. Recorded in the old Empire Theatre, these shows meant that he increasingly forsook drama for variety-based performance, and it was during this period that most of his classic comic characters were developed. These included ‘Wee Ernie’, the shipyard worker, ‘Mrs O'Condriac’, the affluent lady from Cherryvalley, and ‘Orange Lily’.
Together with his business partner, Jack Hudson, he took over the management of the Group Theatre in 1960 and quickly turned its fortunes around. Plays were carefully crafted to appeal to local audiences and ‘House full’ notices soon became the hallmark of the theatre. The keynote of its success was the comic genius of Young himself, and in 1966 he began solo performances. His ‘Comedy tonight’ show, which ran from April 1969 until May 1970, featured in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest run of any one-man show in the world, and the eleven albums emanating from these performances outstripped the Beatles’ sales in Northern Ireland.
Due to increasing violence in the centre of Belfast the Group Theatre was forced to close in May 1971. In spite of the Troubles, however, Young was able to take his humour, with its strong political content, to every part of Northern Ireland without being threatened for his views and opinions. In one week, for example, he performed the same show, with the same jibes at a range of politicians, in the loyalist club on the Shankill Road and a community centre in the Bogside. In 1973 the BBC invited him to star in a series of shows for television including ‘Saturday night’ and on 17 March that year he was presented with a silver disc, acknowledging that his gramophone records had sold a quarter of a million copies. An institution, not just in Northern Ireland, but also in the USA and Canada, he conducted a number of international tours. In 1973, for example, he made a guest appearance at the St Patrick's Eve ball in Edmonton, Canada, where he was presented with an award from the Ulster Society for his outstanding endeavour in the field of Irish entertainment and community relations. He then fulfilled a lifetime ambition by playing for one night at the Wilshire theatre in Hollywood. His final US show was at the Irish American club in Detroit, where the mayor presented him with a key of the city.
On 5 July 1974, not long after his return to Belfast, he suffered a fatal heart attack while driving along the Shore Road to the funeral of an actor friend. He was survived by his sisters, May and Peggy, and his lifelong friend, Jack Hudson. As an indication of his continuing popularity, the BBC many years later released a video compilation of sketches from his ‘Saturday night’, and Emerald Records CDs of his recordings continued to feature on best-seller lists. At the opening of a tribute show entitled ‘James Young lives’ in 1999, the lord mayor of Belfast unveiled a gold plaque beside the entrance to the Group Theatre, which reads: ‘The citizens of Belfast gratefully acknowledge the contribution made by Ulster comedian James Young to the life and humour of the city.’