William Wall: Cork's Poet Laureate on capturing the Covid era and teaching Cillian Murphy 

The city's first ever Poet Laureate will write a poem every month to document the times we live in 
William Wall: Cork's Poet Laureate on capturing the Covid era and teaching Cillian Murphy 

William Wall, Cork Poet Laureate.   Picture: Denis Minihane

As Cork's newly appointed Poet Laureate, William Wall is tasked with writing a poem every month for the next ten months. This Munster Literature Centre initiative, conceived in a time of upheaval, will see Wall responding personally to issues affecting Cork city and county, such as sporting events, current affairs, social issues or anything that the poet feels is of concern to Cork people. 

The poems will be collected into a chapbook to be launched at next year's Cork World Book Festival. They will also be in libraries around the city and county.

Wall, 65, has no problem writing on demand, saying he thinks of the project as producing 'public poetry.' In the early days of Covid-19, he realised that the virus was going to stay.

 "I had been doing a lot of studying on pandemics and decided I would write a poetic diary of the year," says the former English teacher at Presentation Brothers College, Cork.

The diary will be published by Doire Press in October, entitled Smugglers in the Underground Hug Trade - Journal of the Plague Year.

"Even though a lot of writers are saying they're avoiding writing about the pandemic, I think it's an important thing to do. I thought of the Great Flu of 1918 and there's very little literary record of it. On the plague, you have a chapter in The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio and there's a few other references to it in various places. You have to go to the nineteenth century Alessandro Manzoni who wrote The Betrothed. He has written a superb and brilliantly researched description of the plague in Milan. But there are few enough literary descriptions of the plague."

Brought up in Whitegate, Wall started writing at just twelve years of age as a way of dealing with the tedium of being in hospital for six months followed by bed rest for another six months at home. He had contracted Stills Disease, a form of rheumatoid arthritis that affects young people. Wall still has the auto-immune condition but says it is now milder than when he was a boy and he is healthier now than he was in his twenties.

Wall's parents bought him a typewriter when he was fourteen. "By the time I was fifteen, my mother collected all my stories and poems and sent them off to John B Keane. He replied almost by return of post and said 'you're definitely a writer.' He sent me a cheque for £10 which was a fortune in 1969. He published one of my poems in his column in the Evening Herald."

While teaching, Wall used to get up at 5.30am to write before going to work. He is prolific with four collections of poetry published as well as six novels and three collections of short fiction. His 2005 novel, This is the Country, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

Wall taught Peaky Blinders star Cillian Murphy and encouraged him to get involved in drama. "He did a school play. I could see he was a natural. It just jumped out at you that this guy can act. He didn't need training of any kind. And he's a lovely person as well who despite his fame has retained his affection for Ireland and Cork."

As well as his talent for writing, Wall has a good ear for languages and is fluent in Italian. He does some translating from Italian and has started writing in the language, "just simple lyrics at this stage." 

He and his wife, Liz Kirwan fell in love with Italy on honeymoon in 1979.

"The cheapest holiday we could find was in Rimini on the Adriatic coast. It was like Blackpool in England but transferred to Italy. The beaches were mobbed. It wasn't the kind of place you'd imagine falling in love with. We couldn't afford to go back to Italy for years."

When their children were young, they started going to France on holidays. "Then we got to a certain point when we could go back to Italy and we fell in love with it all over again. We went to Rome and then down to the island of Procida where the film Il Postino is set. We went back to Italy every year and signed on for a course in Italian at the Dante Society in Cork." 

Between his writing life in Cork and regular forays to see friends in Italy, Wall and his wife are clearly leading la dolce vita.

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