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Blue plaque honour for Belfast actor JG Devlin who starred alongside Connery and Cruise in career spanning 60 years

By Ivan little

Published 04/08/2015

Actor JG Devlin
Actor JG Devlin
An Ulster History Circle blue plaque at the Falls Road Library for JG Devlin, who came from the area
Lord Mayor Arder Carson with members of JG Devlin’s family, including his daughter Fiona Coyle (right of Lord Mayor), at the unveiling yesterday of an Ulster History Circle blue plaque at the Falls Road Library for the actor, who came from the area

One of Belfast's most fondly remembered actors - whose admirers include Sean Connery and Tom Cruise - has been honoured in his backyard with a blue plaque on the Falls Road.

At the unveiling ceremony yesterday, actor Dan Gordon said JG Devlin, who appeared in everything from the Belfast radio series The McCooeys to blockbuster movies including Far And Away, opened up the path for modern stars such as Liam Neeson, James Nesbitt and Adrian Dunbar.

"I think they're doing so well because they have sat on the shoulders of giants, and JG Devlin was certainly a giant," Dan added.

JG, whose career spanned 60 years, also starred in a huge number of TV dramas, including the comedy Bread and in episodes of Z Cars.

The actor, who never lost his gravelly Belfast accent, might have been an even bigger star of the small screen. After he stole the show in an episode of Steptoe And Son, the writers Ray Gault and Alan Simpson revealed it had been a toss-up between the west Belfast man and Wilfrid Brambell to play Albert Steptoe.

JG started his career in amateur theatre with the Oranmore Players in 1931. He also produced plays for staff at Mackie's engineering works, where he was employed as a clerk. It was at the Group Theatre and through The McCooeys that he really made his name in the 1940s and 1950s. Later, in 1955, he made his film debut alongside Rock Hudson in Captain Lightfoot, which was shot on location in Co Meath.

Four years after that he was cast in the Disney film Darby O'Gill And The Little People alongside a young Connery. His last film was Far And Away with Cruise and Nicole Kidman, which was released after he died. On the internet he is listed as having appeared in no fewer than 75 films and TV shows from 1955 until his death.

Yesterday scores of people, including his children, grandchildren and great-granddaughter, watched as Belfast Lord Mayor Arder Carson unveiled the blue plaque on the wall of the Falls Road Library, where the actor nurtured his love of novels and plays while growing up in nearby Oranmore Street.

One of his daughters, Fiona Coyle, said her father would have loved the ceremony and its location because of the library's importance in his life.

James Gerard Devlin was born in October 1907 and died in October 1991.

Chris Spurr, the chairman of the Ulster History Circle, which erected the plaque, said he had been known throughout his life as an inspiration to younger actors.

One of them, Dunbar, sent a message saying that JG was a talisman for people who wanted to act. He added that his favourite story about him was from the launch of the National Theatre in London in the 1960s, when director Peter Hall opened the floor for questions and Jimmy replied: "Is there any chance of getting draught Guinness in the bar?"

Actor and director Sam McCready told how he first worked with JG in the 1940s on a radio show for children, and later at the Group Theatre, where he took great pride in having discovered Stephen Boyd, who went on to become a Hollywood star.

Mr McCready said he was absorbed by JG's stories of his early life in Belfast and how he once slept under the Ormeau Bridge when he was unemployed.

He also told how JG had asked a caretaker at the National Theatre in London to bring him a cup of tea, only realising afterwards he had been talking to acclaimed stage and film actor Frank Finlay.

Actress Roma Tomelty, whose father Joe wrote the The McCooeys, also paid tribute, saying that JG had played the role of Granda for six of the seven series, where his distinctive voice made him an instantly recognisable star.

And Gordon told how he often heard actors in Belfast like Mark Mulholland, John Hewitt and Louis Rolston talk in hushed, reverential tones about JG's skills.

He said it was proper that Jimmy Ellis had been credited with being an ambassador for the Ulster dialect on Z Cars, but he added: "JG was doing it for many years before."

The Ulster History Circle has now put up more than 190 blue plaques since the early 1980s.

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