Northern Ireland

Jamie Dornan: A cleaner from the Short Strand helped inspire my first acting role

Jamie Dornan grateful to father who insisted mother’s death wouldn’t define him (Amanda Benson/ BBC)
Jamie Dornan has described how a cleaner from east Belfast helped inspire his first acting role as ‘Widow Twankey'. PICTURE: AMANDA BENSON/ BBC

A cleaner from east Belfast helped inspire Jamie Dornan in his first acting role as ‘Widow Twankey ‘, the Co Down actor has revealed.

The Holywood-born star has described how, aged 10, he based his performance in a school production of Aladdin on Nellie Morgan, a cleaner from the Short Strand area of the city.

Recalling the influence she had on his first role, he told Desert Island Discs on BBC’s Radio 4 of how Ms Morgan would have walked six miles to work at their family home.

“We had an amazing cleaner called Nelly Morgan, who was a formidable woman,” he said.

“She lived in a place called Short Strand which [in the 1980s] was a very infamous part of Belfast because it’s a nationalist republican estate right on the edge of a predominantly loyalist part of east Belfast.

BFI London Film Festival
Jamie Dornan spoke to BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs about his childhood. PICTURE: IAN WEST/PA)

“It was a dangerous place [back then]. I don’t think Nellie Morgan would have ever been scared in her life – she was just unbelievable – and she used to walk from there, six miles, to clean for us and when you offered her a lift if we were like ‘look we’re heading up the road to Belfast now’ she’d usually say no.

“She was just brilliant – I just loved her – and I said, ‘Look I’m playing Widow Twankey and I’m going to steal some of your traits basically’.”

The Tourist star Dornan (41) also said his performance in the show saw him awarded a prize.

“A big regret is – and I don’t know why or how it happened, they were probably just very stingy with tickets but she didn’t come to see the performing thing, we did two performances of it,” he said.

“But I won the drama prize and I was very smug. I guess it was my first sense of getting a sense of satisfaction from performance.”

Dornan’s fond recollections of Ms Morgan have been shared on Facebook by St Matthew’s Sports and Social Club, which is located in the Short Strand area.

Many social users responded to the post by recalling their own memories of her, including her niece Deirdre Morgan Virgalla.

“Our very own Nellie Morgan. My aunt,” she wrote.

“My dad’s sister. She was loved by everyone. I could not keep up with her so I’m not surprised she walked six miles home.”

Nellie Morgan inspiring Jamie Dornan. How great is that!

Posted by St Matthews Sports and Social Club on Tuesday, 30 January 2024

Another user wrote: “Nellie was a legend who will always be remembered for her charitable work in the Short Strand.

“A great woman with great work ethos.”

A former neighbour of Ms Morgan also said she “was a great wee woman, our old neighbour, never knew a fitter pensioner, she walked everywhere”.

Another woman said: “I remember Nellie well. She was the area warden employed by social services to check on and help the old or vulnerable people in the Short Strand area in the 80s and 90s.

“A great worker and helped so many people.”

She was also remembered as “a wonderful woman who touched so many people’s lives”.

During the Desert Island Discs episode, Dornan also spoke about how he is grateful to his late father for insisting he could live a “fulfilled, positive and happy life” despite the death of his mother during his teenage years.

Actor Jamie Dornan, right, with his sister Jessica Dornan Lynas and father Dr Jim Dornan, during the Pancreatic Cancer charity NIPanC launch at the Mater Hospital in Belfast. Picture by Liam McBurney, Press Association
Actor Jamie Dornan, right, with his sister Jessica Dornan Lynas and father Dr Jim Dornan, during a Pancreatic Cancer charity NIPanC launch at the Mater Hospital in Belfast. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY

He said he was “thankful” to his obstetrician dad Jim, who had told him straight that his mother Lorna “wasn’t going to survive” after being diagnosed with cancer when he was 14 years old.

The actor also broke down as he described being stuck in Australia filming The Tourist when his father died from complications related to Covid-19 three years ago and ‘never got to say goodbye’.

He called 2021 ‘the worst year’ of his life.