The McCooeys' return: I'm so proud to carry on this legacy says Tomelty granddaughter Hannah
Ahead of a revival of what was once the most listened-to radio show in Northern Ireland, The McCooeys, actress Hannah Carnegie tells Gail Bell why playing Sally in a new stage play of the her ‘Grandpa Joe's' creation is her most important role yet
HANNAH Carnegie might not share many similarities with spiky Sally in The McCooeys – the fictional family invented by her renowned playwright grandfather, the late Joe Tomelty – but, in many ways, it was a role she was born to play.
Now, more than seven decades after the first episode of the long-running radio drama aired, the Belfast-based actress is settling her radio headphones neatly on her head, script in hand, and is just a “little nervous” about recreating the magic and mayhem that crackled through the airwaves and kept thousands of listeners agog on a Saturday night in homes across the north.
The revival of The McCooeys, the hilarious Belfast working class family of indeterminate religion, in a new radio-style play – being performed at The Portico of Ards in Portaferry and streamed online next month – is a project of unapologetic sentimentality for the 32-year-old, having been originally been planned by her mother, the acclaimed stage and screen actor, director and producer, Roma Tomelty, who passed away following a long-term illness last April.
“It was all meant to happen in June 2020 to mark the 25th anniversary of Grandpa’s death, but with the passing of my mother last year and the pandemic, it was put back,” explains the graduate of Dublin's Lir Academy who starred in 2004 hit film Mickybo and Me alongside Julie Walters and in Sunset Heights (1999) with Toby Stephens when she just seven. “It has been hugely important and emotional at times, but legacy is something that has really come to the fore for me.
“Since the passing of my mother, we have been talking about legacy a lot, about Grandpa Joe and mum and what they’ve given to the Ulster arts scene, and of course, my aunt Frances [actress Frances Tomelty], so yes, I am very aware of the pressure and having the family baton now passed to me.”
Produced by Centre Stage Theatre Company – co-founded by Roma and husband Colin Carnegie – the play is, fittingly, “going home” to Portaferry where its creator grew up before “hitting the big time” as an actor, playwright and novelist and moving his family to Belfast.
Directed by former BBC radio drama producer Michael Quinn, The McCooeys project was funded by The Community Foundation of Northern Ireland and features the acting talents of Maria Connolly, Christina Nelson, Patrick McBrearty and Dan Gordon, with Hannah’s actor father Colin [High-Rise, Game of Thrones] taking on the role of announcer.
And to ensure those early fans who followed the ups and downs of ‘Granda’, ‘Maggie’, ‘Sammy’, ‘Aunt Sarah’ (a role originally played by Hannah’s great-grandmother, Min Minnigan), a special free-of-charge performance is being streamed to care homes.
“Many older people nostalgically recall listening to the original McCooeys series [which ran on the BBC’s NI Home Service from 1949 until 1955], so we wanted to make sure they didn’t miss out,” Hannah says, speaking from her boyfriend’s home in Co Kildare. “We thought it would be good to do that, because there is so much love and nostalgia out there for The McCooeys and whole generations of people who remember them.
“When we first reached out to the care homes, a lot of staff who work on reminiscence projects told us that many residents talk about the McCooeys regularly, so I think it’s so important that this generation, who are the last to remember the show live on air and who have been so isolated for the last year, are able to relive some happy memories.”
She gives full credit to director, Michael Quinn, who sifted through “boxes and boxes of scripts” given to him by Roma, eventually arriving at Hannah’s door with his top six episodes, later narrowed down to three.
“There is one where the characters talk about sweets they remember as a child, so that is all about the nostalgia,” Hannah enthuses. “It made me remember Grandpa buying me rainbow drops from a travelling shop which came to his house in Andersonstown – and then eating most of them himself!
“In another episode, there is panic over a missing raffle ticket – the McCooeys think they have won this holiday in Newcastle, but the granda can’t find the ticket – there’s no difference, really, to someone today saying they’ve won 20 quid in the lotto and then finding themselves in the same position. The scripts are remarkably fresh, funny and, at times, very contemporary-sounding.”
That might be due in no small measure to Joe Tomelty’s ability to sustain a crowd-pleasing storyline over the course of seven years without ever broaching the divisive territory of religion, sectarianism or politics and the fact – as stressed by his daughter, Roma, in a talk given to residents at Tiermann Fold on Belfast’s Andersonstown Road as part of Féile an Earraigh in 2011 – that its success was based purely on the observation of “an ordinary, working class family” that belonged to everyone.
“I grew up with my mother talking about The McCooeys, giving talks about them and hearing a few episodes she had as recordings; she was such a champion of my grandfather’s work and I feel really proud that I can carry on this legacy,” adds Hannah, who recently followed another family tradition by writing her first play, The Only Way, with friend Fiona Coughlan, the pair performing it in Dublin before the pandemic hit home.
Yet despite success in film, TV and theatre – and now dipping into writing – the reprisal of the “spiky but caring” Sally McCooey might just be one of her most exciting roles yet.
“I think I see in Sally the same, age-old conflict of how much your parents can drive you mad – even though you love them,” she laughs. “Sally is very similar, really, to what a woman in her late 20s, early 30s goes through – she’s looking to settle down and find ‘The Man’ but she’s in an on-again, off-again relationship which keeps things interesting. Generally, all the characters in The McCooeys are people you will recognise and that’s what’s so great about it.”
Although from a family described as theatrical royalty, Hannah says she never felt any pressure to emulate a similar career trajectory and, instead, the "unglitzy" realities of a life on the stage were pointed out to her from an early age.
“Mum and dad never pushed me into performing but it was a completely natural progression for me and I count myself very, very lucky that I got the opportunities I did,” she says. “The film and TV stuff I did as a child were great and I was very lucky to get to train at the Lir Academy as one of the first intake of students – all of these experiences were wonderful and you learn a lot, but working on this has been something special.
“I think my grandpa would be proud to know that The McCooeys were still alive and still relatable and I would like to think that mum would be proud that I had brought them back in a way that, hopefully, people will remember and enjoy.
“She always used to tell the kids we taught at our summer drama school, that whatever happens, just keep going. I have tried to keep that mantra going.”
The McCooeys will be live streamed from The Portico of Ards – free to residential, nursing and care homes on March 17 and March 20. To register, contact Hannah Carnegie at email@example.com. Public performances run on March 20 (tickets: £10), with the live recording available to view online until March 27. Visit porticoards.com