Wall, Mervyn Eugene Welply (1908–97), novelist, playwright, broadcaster, and civil servant, was born 23 August 1908 at 27 Palmerston Rd, Dublin, the third eldest of three sons and one daughter of Thomas Patrick Wall, barrister, and Beatrice Agnes Wall (née Morrissey), both of Co. Kilkenny. After entering Belvedere college, Dublin, in 1922 at the age of 14 he was sent by his father to Bonn, Germany, where he studied music and painting under a private tutor. His experiences there shaped his future literary interests, such as his appreciation of German romantic poetry; he also witnessed the conflict between allied forces and French-backed separatists, who wished to set up a Rhineland republic.
In 1924 he returned to Dublin and completed his studies at Belvedere, before attending UCD (1925–8), where he obtained a BA in literature and philosophy. At university he was friendly with Denis Devlin (qv) and Brian Coffey (qv), and was an active member of the Literary and Historical Society. As director of the UCD dramatic society, he put on performances, such as Shakespeare's ‘Twelfth night’, with Hilton Edwards (qv) as an assistant. After occupying a clerkship in the Agricultural Credit Corporation (1930–32), he worked in the civil service (1934–48).
Wall's first play, ‘Alarm among the clerks’, performed at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin, in 1937, and published in 1940, bespoke the drudgery of office life such as he was experiencing in the civil service. In theatrical terms, the play was a modernist departure that blended realism and fantasy. In 1941 the Abbey Theatre staged ‘The lady in the twilight’ (not published until 1971), in which Wall turned to Chekhovian comic realism to dissect with acumen the Ireland of Éamon de Valera (qv); most notable among the play's few contemporary admirers was Denis Johnston (qv). An unpublished play, ‘The shadow’, based on the assassination of Kevin O'Higgins (qv), was produced by the Players Theatre in the Olympia in 1945. Wall's unpublished radio play ‘Wicklow granite’, concerning the 1798 rebel Joseph Holt (qv), who waged guerilla warfare in the Wicklow mountains, was produced by Radio Éireann in the 1950s. His first published short story, ‘They also serve’, appeared in Harper's in 1940; he also contributed to the short-lived Ireland To-Day, and to American and English magazines such as Collier's and Argosy. A reviewer for The Bell in the 1940s, he later wrote a weekly radio column for the Evening Press.
Wall achieved his widest readership with his first two novels, The unfortunate Fursey (1946) and its sequel, The return of Fursey (1948), which take as central character a hapless lay brother in the medieval Irish monastery of Clonmacnoise who is haunted by the devil and embarks on a series of fantastical adventures, involving witches, catholic clergy, and marauding Vikings. Triumphs of humour and imagination, the novels are also trenchant critiques of the conservative, church-dominated Ireland of Wall's own time; the sequel is both more sombre and more sentimental than its predecessor. A musical comedy based on the first novel was produced at the Dublin theatre festival in 1964. Both novels were reissued in a single volume as The complete Fursey in 1985.
In the civil service Wall was transferred to Manorhamilton, Co. Leitrim (1946–8), before moving to Radio Éireann (1948–57), where he worked as an assistant to Francis MacManus (qv) in the general features department; responsible for the planning of programmes, he also broadcast book reviews and documentaries. His realistic novel Leaves for the burning (1952), which won an award in Denmark for best European novel of the year, bitterly indicts the repressiveness of mid-century Irish society in its depiction of three middle-aged friends attempting a journey to Drumcliffe churchyard, Co. Sligo, where the remains of W. B. Yeats (qv) are to be re-interred, but never reaching their destination. His fourth novel, No trophies raise (1956), expresses a similarly dark vision, its plot based on the influence of the Knights of Columbanus, of which Wall's father had been a member, over business affairs in Ireland.
At the invitation of Sean O'Faolain (qv), Wall became full-time secretary of the Arts Council (1957–75). One of his first acts was to propose the placement of commemorative plaques on buildings throughout Ireland associated with notable personages in the arts; though the council approved the idea, its implementation was vested in Bord Fáilte. In the early 1960s he facilitated the redefinition of policy initiated by the new Arts Council director, Donal O'Sullivan (qv), which favoured increased support for the fine arts at the expense of popular and traditional arts, with overweening emphasis on the visual arts. Formulating arguments to justify the new policy, Wall based the exclusion of support for folk dance on a decision of a British court that defined a fine art as one intended primarily for the aesthetic appreciation of observers, rather than the enjoyment of participants. By the late 1960s he opposed key elements of O'Sullivan's policies and proposals, but, as the council's public spokesman, repeatedly defended practices with which he disagreed.
In 1969 he submitted to the revenue commissioners the initial list of some 180 visual artists, writers, and composers recommended for income-tax exemption under the scheme introduced by the finance minister, Charles Haughey (1925–2006); over ensuing years he established the liberal interpretation pursued in considering applications from creative artists for tax-exempt status. On appointment of the new Arts Council under the Fine Gael–Labour coalition government's 1973 Arts Act, Wall remained as chief executive under the revised title of director. Prior to retirement in March 1975, he contributed to formulation of future policy by presenting a major position paper summarising the activities and guiding principles of all previous councils.
Wall wrote a work of local history, Forty foot gentlemen only (1962), about the Martello tower and fort built at Sandycove, Co. Dublin, in 1804, and the nearby bathing place (where he was a regular swimmer), which feature in the opening episode of Ulysses by James Joyce (qv). He published a collection of short stories, which had first appeared in the Capuchin Annual, entitled A flutter of wings (1974). His last full-length novel, Hermitage (1982), another grim view of Irish society, was originally serialised in the Journal of Irish Literature (1978–9). He wrote a novella, The garden of echoes (1988), described as a fable for children and grown-ups. A fragment of an uncompleted work, ‘The odious generation’, was published in Decantations: a tribute to Maurice Craig (1982). A member of the Irish Academy of Letters, he was the body's secretary and treasurer, before serving as its president (1976–7). He was a member of Aosdána.
Wall married (1950) Frances (‘Fanny’) Feehan (d. 1996), a violinist and music critic; they had three daughters and one son, and lived at 16 Castlepark Rd, Sandycove, Dún Laoghaire, Co. Dublin. He died 19 May 1997 in St Michael's hospital, Dún Laoghaire, and was buried in Shanganagh cemetery.