Actress Hannah Carnegie will have a lump in her throat as she takes part in a revival of one of Northern Ireland’s oldest and most enduring radio dramas — a new initiative which will pay tribute to her late mother and grandfather in the town they loved.
Hannah’s mum Roma Tomelty had been planning to transform her dad Joseph’s popular McCooeys plays into a stage show with her Centre Stage company in June last year to mark the 25th anniversary of the playwright’s death.
But Covid-19 scuppered the project and tragically she passed away aged 75 in April.
Now, however, Hannah and her dad Colin Carnegie are fulfilling Roma’s dreams of bringing three classic episodes of the McCooeys to the stage of the Portico of Ards venue in Portaferry.
In the absence of an audience because of coronavirus restrictions, the productions will be streamed online.
Just as Joseph Tomelty was part of the very fabric of his beloved Portaferry, so his McCooeys radio series was a Saturday night must-listen for tens of thousands of people across Northern Ireland between 1949 and 1955 as they tuned in to hear about the latest exploits of a working class Belfast family including characters like Granda, Maggie, Sammy, Bobby Greer and Aunt Sarah.
Given the passage of time, only people of a certain age will remember the McCooeys actually being aired on the old BBC Northern Ireland Home Service.
For that reason the new productions will be streamed into care homes first on St Patrick’s Day, but the general public will also get the chance to see them later next month.
Hannah is hoping the streams of the McCooeys will introduce a whole new generation to the work of her grandfather who was born 110 years ago.
She said: “Obviously I’m too young to have known the McCooeys but I grew up listening to stories about the radio series from my mother. I know how popular they were back in the day. People still talk about them.
“It will be particularly special for us to give older residents in care homes something of nostalgic value to enjoy despite facing months of isolation from their loved ones.
“My mother was really looking forward to the revival but with the impact of the pandemic and after losing her so suddenly it was decided to postpone it.
“The new production will, I hope, also let people learn a bit about the huge contribution that my grandfather and my mother made to developing the vibrant arts community here.”
Hannah’s dad Colin will also be in the cast along with popular actors including Dan Gordon, Maria Connolly and Christina Nelson, who will all be socially distanced as they recreate a radio studio from the 40s and 50s wearing costumes of the time.
It had been hoped that Roma’s actress sister Frances would have been able to be involved but Covid travel restrictions stopped her flying over from her home in England.
Legendary comedian James Young was in the cast of the radio play, which first aired in May 1949 and ran for seven years with Joseph Tomelty writing a 6,000 word script for every weekly episode.
An article in the Catholic Standard newspaper in December 1953 said that the BBC’s audience research department reported that every Saturday evening between 6.55pm and 7.15pm around 294,000 people in the ‘six counties’ listened to the McCooeys and were joined by another 70,000 from outside the province.
It said for repeats of the show on Tuesdays at 6.40pm the listening figures topped 180,000 bringing the total number of people who heard the McCooeys every week to a staggering half million which the Standard said was ‘phenomenal for this region,’ and was only surpassed by news bulletins.
A lengthy analysis of the popularity of the McCooeys said: “It is an Irish programme, concerned with the vicissitudes of an Irish family, a true Ulster family, with wide connections in town and country. It bears no resemblance to any of the families so popular on the radio across the water. It does not achieve its effect by smart wisecracks, double-meaning jokes or unkind wit. It is popular because we like the people the programme and because it holds up the mirror to many of our foibles.”
Hannah said that picking just three episodes of the McCooeys was a challenge, adding: “We have boxes and boxes of seven years of my grandfather’s scripts and our director Michael Quinn had to go through them to decide on the three episodes which felt right for the new project.
“The episodes concern a missing raffle ticket, a wedding and a romantic break-up.
“As far as we know only three recordings of the McCooeys are still in existence and my mother used to take them along with her to play at talks she was giving on the series.”
Hannah, who lives in the Republic and who like her two sisters is involved in the theatre, said she and her siblings Ruth and Rae were still trying to come to terms with her mother’s death last year which was not Covid-related.
“I have good days and bad days,” she said. “One of the best ones was getting the funding to put down on record the songs that she wrote for Centre Stage’s Christmas shows down the years. It was wonderful but it was bitter sweet because she wasn’t there for me to say that we had done it.
“But you know, I think she’s always with me, and she’s for ever having a word in my ear here and there.”
For more information about the McCooeys streams go to www.porticoards.com