Mervyn Wall, novelist and playwright who writes under the pseudonym of Eugene Welply, is born in Dublin on August 23, 1908. He attends Belvedere College and works as a civil servant from 1934-48. He is a member of the Irish Academy of Letters.
Wall is probably the last survivor of the remarkably gifted generation which emerged from University College Dublin (UCD) in the 1930s. It includes Brian O’Nolan, Donagh MacDonagh, Cyril Cusack, Liam Redmond, Denis Devlin, Niall Sheridan, and the shortlived poet Charles Donnelly who dies in the Spanish Civil War. Brian O’Nolan/Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds contains portraits of many of these people, under fictitious names, and evokes the whole ambience of intellectual student life in Dublin at the time.
Like other literary civil servants of the period, Wall often takes a satirical view of bureaucracy. Unlike Brian O’Nolan, however, he can play the bureaucrats at their own game and by most accounts he is a highly efficient public servant in his own right. His late novel Hermitage (1982) has some sharp sidelights on the world of Green Tape.
Wall makes his mark mainly as a novelist, but he begins as a playwright and has at least two works performed in the Abbey Theatre. His first real success comes in 1946 with The Unfortunate Fursey, in which he creates a mythical monk who is tormented by the Devil. The picaresque humour and fantasy of the story are enjoyed by the public as essentially good-natured farce, but it is possible that he also intends it as oblique satire on the Irish clergy in general, at a time when any open criticism of them might invite trouble. Fergus Linehan later turns it into a successful musical.
The first Fursey book has successors, and all of them are published in a single volume in 1985, entitled The Complete Fursey. During the 1950s Wall writes two “serious” novels of social criticism, Leaves for the Burning and No Trophies Raise, in which his satirical sense takes a more direct route. They are praised at the time by respected critics and are still well worth rereading.
Apart from his writing, Wall has a distinguished career in Radio Éireann, where he and his colleagues, the novelist Francis MacManus and the poet Roibeard O Farachain, make up a literary and administrative trio nicknamed “Frank, Incense and Mer” by a staff wit. He later becomes secretary of the Arts Council, a sometimes difficult job which he handles with tact and fairness.
Wall is himself a witty, observant, sometimes catty man in a generation famous for its wit. He and his wife Fanny, who is known as a leading music critic, are for decades an almost indispensable duo in Dublin cultural and social life, although Wall, in spite of his various public roles, is at heart a home loving and industrious man who never seeks publicity.
If and when a fullscale cultural history of Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s comes to be written, Wall’s place in it should be assured. As a successful, long term civil servant, he learned how to work the system in favour of literature and the arts in an age when patronage of them was thin on the ground.